I was onstage with pianist Aaron Diehl, his trio, and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra when the New York Amsterdam News reached out and asked me to pen a piece celebrating classical music for June’s special Black Music Month issue. We were rehearsing the vocal solo in Mary Lou Williams’s “Zodiac Suite” and I could not turn down an opportunity to highlight the music Williams herself had worked so hard to wrangle. Classical music offered her an expanded palette with which to create!
A Harlem resident like me, Williams’s famous performances at Café Society and Minton’s Playhouse and the salon she hosted in her apartment on Hamilton Terrace motivated and inspired the likes of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. She invited the world in and made it all her stage. In her honor, I celebrate Black Music Month with you as I explore Black music that embraces the notion of this classical palette.
I spoke with composer George Lewis, artistic director of the International Contemporary Ensemble, professor of American music and chair in composition at Columbia University, and co-editor of the upcoming ”Composing While Black.”
“Classical music today is undergoing a stylistic explosion in which nobody really knows where the music is going…but you don’t have to check your culture at the door when you enter the classical realm.”
Lewis, also a sage historian, pioneered the real-time improvisation of computer programs with humans, engaging the past and tempting the future. Lewis’s classic composition “North Star Boogaloo” placed a live “classical” percussionist into pre-recorded samples of basketball legends “rapping” and poetry read by Quincy Troupe, in his take on hip-hop.
As composer Tania León has said, “Who gets to be on the stage?” is part of the story of Black classical music. Lewis and musicians like Olly Wilson who created electronically expanded the mediums through which an invitation could be extended.
“It’s time to celebrate the Black classical composer as part of Black music,” Lewis said, especially those “living and breathing: Nkeiru Okoye, Carlos Simon, Tania León, Marcos Balter, Trevor Weston, Alvin Singleton, Jeffrey Mumford, T. J. Anderson, Allison Loggins-Hull, Anthony Davis, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Andile Khumalo, Renée Baker, Anthony R. Green, Camae Ayewa, Shelley Washington, Kennedy Dixon, Yaz Lancaster, Leila Adu-Gilmore, Brittany J. Green, Alyssa Regent, Nyokabi Kariuki, Daijana Wallace, Nathalie Joachim, Corie Rose Soumah, Darian Donovan Thomas, Njabulo Phungula, Tyondai Braxton, Elliott Reed, Mikhail Johnson, and many others, blazing new and influential trails.”
I asked Tania León about this moment. She is a composer, conductor, professor emeritus of Brooklyn College, Pulitzer Prize winner; an advisor to arts organizations; and the founder of Composers Now, a nonprofit uplifting “creatives making an impact in all styles of music right now.”
She won a Kennedy Center Honor last year and honorary doctorates from Brooklyn College, New Jersey City University, and Columbia University, as well as NYU’s Dorothy Height Award this year.
“There is a piece in my catalog from the 1980s that is now a classic. That piece is now a grandmother. But this act of discovery? This story is an act of repetition: who gets the stage.”
Going back in the archives—hers are now housed at Columbia University—is to observe a natural history of classical music in New York City. Flashback to the 1970s and a young hip trio of composers—Tania León, Julius Eastman, and Talib Hakim—are staging classical music concerts with the Brooklyn Philharmonic in hospitals, public parks, and churches. Guest stars include seminal artists and torchbearers such as Eubie Blake, Tito Puente, and Betty Carter, and the group is pivotal in launching the U.S. careers of Chinese composers like Bright Sheng and Tan Dun.
It’s bittersweet to contemplate the recent renaissance of the late Eastman, the avant-garde composer, pianist, vocalist and performer, when “in 1977, he was just walking the streets of New York,” León said. In a process of making without fear, experimental music does often become, over time, the next classical expression. Perhaps for this reason, visionaries flock to León’s inexhaustive talents. Extraordinary collaborations—with the choreographers Arthur Mitchell and Geoffrey Holder, writers Rita Dove and Wole Soyinka, the composers she’s mentored over a lifetime as an educator, and—of course—institutions including Los Angeles Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic, and hundreds of others.
“What is the difference between the waltz and the mambo?” she asks, and means it. “These kinds of demarcations are being challenged, erased. These are just dances; these represent the different cultures of the world.”
She told NPR in 2022, “If you are compelled [to compose], it’s because you feel that you have something to say in the world of sound. When you study the early works of any composer, there are traces that grow into the later composition —you find the seeds there. So if you as a student want to get into this…pay attention to what you’re doing from the very beginning.”
The sumptuous, rhythmic compositions that emanate from her nimble pencil (she writes by hand) graft color and culture into virtuosic musical lines, but every player has to bring their own humanity to the table.
Alison Buchanan’s voice towered inside my television and caught me off guard.
I thought my Netflix had skipped to PBS as “Dido’s Lament” by 17th-century’s Purcell poured forth, but it was the international soprano and artistic director of UK’s Pegasus Opera singing to Queen Charlotte in “Bridgerton.”
Buchanan’s scene in the Shonda Rhimes series, was filmed at London’s historic Hackney Empire theater in a neighborhood with a large Black population and the programming—including this filming—reflects that.
“Classical music is the pathway to my soul,” said Buchanan, who now mentors young Black singers and provides opportunities through her opera company. “I grew up inside that West Indian [context of] ‘children should be seen and not heard.’ When I was at school, I never felt I had a voice, but when I started to sing, I suddenly felt able to express what I could not verbalize” in speaking.
And I can relate. After spending my early childhood years in New York City, we moved to quiet Connecticut when I was ready for grade school, and birds and locusts were the loudest players. I was constantly urged not to be so loud. Summer stock theater and chorus became my acoustic safe zone.When I went to college in Harlem, I began a slow process of unlocking my natural, fuller voice, which led me down pathways I still travel. The opening of Voice creates its own sonic boom.
We discussed the impact of Buchanan’s televised, regal poise, “a noble posture, we call it,” she said. Shoulders alive, ribcage gently lifted, eyes lit from within, cheekbones radiating, breastbone proud.
“I enjoy the feeling within me, the way the high voice vibrates inside when it’s balanced and open.”
Singing asks us to be the bell of our own horn, the body of our own cello. We know the stereotype: “Opera singer shatters glass with astronomically high note!” The laser power of a vibrating head-voice is necessary to the image of the Black singer as a trumpet for freedom. Think Marian Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, in concert with the United States of America. Think Mahalia Jackson live at the Newport Jazz Festival, singing the songs of former slaves to Duke Ellington’s horns. Think voices facing into the headwinds.