Tag Archives: 20th century

5 African-American Classical Composers: William Grant Still, Florence B. Price, Harry T. Burleigh, William Levi Dawson, and Mary Lou Williams.

mary lou williams

African American pianist, composer and arranger, and vocalist Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981). She  demonstrated remarkable musical talent in modern genres as diverse as classical, free jazz, hard bop, swing, big band, and gospel.

By John P. Walsh

Following the tradition set down by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, the White House officially announced that June 2017 was to be African American Music Month. The proclamation in part reads: “During June, we pay tribute to the contributions African Americans have made and continue to make to American music. The indelible legacy of these musicians who have witnessed our Nation’s greatest achievements, as well as its greatest injustices give all Americans a richer, deeper understanding of American culture. Their creativity has shaped every genre of music, including rock and roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel, hip hop, and rap.” A very nice tribute although I would hasten to attach onto its last sentence – “and all other American musical genres.” This could then include the significant contributions by African American artists to classical music such as William Grant Still (1895-1978), Florence B. Price (1887-1953), Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949), William Levi Dawson (1899 – 1990), and Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981). 

William Grant Still (1895-1978).

william-grant-still-9495333-1-402.jpg

William Grant Still (1895-1978) is the “dean” of African-American classical music composers.

Born in Mississippi, William Grant Still grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and attended Wilberforce University and Oberlin Conservatory of Music, both in Ohio.

In addition to composing over 150 works— including five symphonies and eight operas— William Grant Still is an African American composer with several musical “firsts” to his name.

He is the first African American composer to conduct a major American symphony orchestra—the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936.

He is the first to have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra—his Symphony No. 1 in A-flat, “Afro-American” (1930) by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in 1931.

William Grant Still is the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company—his Troubled Island (1939) by The New York Opera Company in 1949.

Finally, William Grant Still is the first to have an opera performed on national television—his A Bayou Legend (1941) in 1981.

In Memoriam of the Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy (1944) by William Grant Still performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Szell (9.22 minutes). 

Florence B. Price (1887-1953).

Florence B. Price.

Florence B. Price (1887-1953) is the first African-American female composer to have a major symphonic composition performed by a leading American symphony orchestra. This occurred on June 15, 1933 in Chicago in conjunction with the city’s A Century of Progress International Exposition (Chicago was founded in 1833).

Visitors can still see the Auditorium Theatre on Michigan Avenue where the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor completed in 1932 in a world premiere performance. That historic concert also included musical works by Harry T. Burleigh, tenor Roland Hayes (1887-1977), and mixed-race English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) who was known as the “African Mahler.”

Florence B. Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas into a mixed-race family (her father was a prominent dentist and African American) and later studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and taught piano, organ and voice at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia as well as privately.

In 1927 she moved to Chicago where in a musical career as a composer that produced over 300 works, her métier blossomed. Price’s music often incorporated rhythms expressed in Africa-based musical traditions and African-American folk tunes and spirituals arranged in elaborate orchestrations derived from the European Romantic composers.

In addition to Symphony No. 1 in E minor (1932)some of Florence B. Price’s best known works include her Fantasie Negre (1929), Mississippi River suite (1934), and Symphony No. 3 in C Minor (1940). In 1940 Florence B. Price was the first female African American composer  inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).

A word on Florence B. Price’s well-known Mississippi River suite (1934): Price composed it in 1934 with a dedication to one of her prominent teachers at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago where Price continued her musical studies after she arrived to the city in 1927.

The suite uses the contrivance of a boat navigating the Mississippi River and along its path experiencing its diverse expressions of human life and history as told in musical sections.

The FIRST part depicts dawn on the river.

The SECOND part portrays its American Indian heritage by using an array of percussion.

The THIRD part expresses the African American experience along the river utilizing well-known negro spirituals— such as, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen; Stand Still Jordan; Go Down, Moses; and Deep River.

The FINAL part has the suite conclude with a melodic cacophony of contemporary tunes during the 1930’s including River Song, Lalotte, and Steamboat Bill.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes (1902-1967).

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes, who was born in Joplin, Missouri, said he wrote the poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, after he was crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois in 1919 and inspiration struck. Even after he helped lead the Harlem Renaissance in New York City as a poet, novelist, and playwright in the 1920’s, Hughes, who grew up in the American Midwest (Kansas, Illinois and Ohio), said he always knew the Heartland best.

William Levi Dawson (1899 – 1990).

William L. Dawson American composer

William L. Dawson (1899-1990), born in Alabama, was a composer and arranger, trombonist, and music educator. Dawson continually was learning so to use the rich heritage of African American music and later African music as the basis for many types of music that he composed and arranged.

After graduating with highest honors from Tuskegee Institute he studied music and composition in Kansas City and Chicago. For many years he performed as first trombonist with the Chicago Civic Orchestra.

It is Dawson’s work as music director with the 100-voice Tuskegee Institute Choir that led to many distinguished and celebrated national and international choral performances in the mid-twentieth century.

As a composer William Dawson is most famous for his Negro Folk Symphony which he wrote in 1934 but revised in 1952 after studying indigenous African music throughout West Africa. Dawson visited several countries in West Africa that year to study indigenous African music. The experience inspired him to revise his Negro Folk Symphony  which was recorded in 1961 by Leopold Stokowski for Decca Records.

The three movements of the symphony are entitled: “The Bond of Africa,” “Hope in the Night” and “O, le’ me shine, shine like a Morning Star!”

William Dawson conducts the Tuskegee Institute Choir in 1955 in his arrangement of the negro spiritual Listen to the Lambs written by R. Nathaniel Dett first performed in 1913.

In 1952, Dawson visited several countries in West Africa to study indigenous African music. The experience inspired him to revise his Negro Folk Symphony which was first written in 1934. The new work was recorded in 1961 by Leopold Stokowski for Decca Records.

Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949).

burleigh

Harry Burleigh (1866–1949), born in Erie, Pennsylvania, was an eminent African-American baritone, and influential classical composer and arranger.

As a student at New York City’s National Conservatory of Music of America, Burleigh became associated with Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) who heard the baritone sing spirituals and encouraged him to create arrangements for these melodies.

With the Czech composer’s active interest, Burleigh developed into one of America’s most important composers and arrangers of spirituals. He created arrangements for more than 100 songs including “Deep River,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” which are classics today. Burleigh’s “In Christ there is no East or West” remains a church hymnal standard. Burleigh set poems by Walt Whitman to music also.

When Burleigh was accepted in 1894 as baritone soloist at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan—a post where he stayed for over 50 years—it was by a vote of the congregation which had never allowed African-Americans to worship there before. The congregation voted to a tie—that was broken in Harry Burleigh’s favor by congregant by J. P. Morgan.

While Burleigh’s advocacy of negro melodies through writing, speaking engagements and new arrangements was always indefatigable, he found time to coach many well-known singers, including Enrico Caruso, Roland Hayes, Marion Anderson, and Paul Robeson.

Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981).

Mary Lou Williams,

A self-taught pianist, by the time she was 20 years old Mary Lou Williams was a professional musician and touring bandleader.

In her formative years she looked for inspiration to Chicago bandleader and composer “Lovie” Austin (1887–1972). Quite soon Williams’ own records as a pianist and arranger began to sell briskly.

In a 50-year-plus career she wrote and arranged music for bandleaders such as Duke Ellington (1899-1974) and Benny Goodman (1909-1986) and served the beloved mentor to slightly younger African-American musical artists who became household names in the world of jazz: Thelonious Monk (1917-1982), Charlie Parker (1920-1955), Miles Davis (1926-1991), Tadd Dameron (1917-1965), Bud Powell (1924-1966), and Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993), to name a few.

Though Mary Lou Williams’ musical accomplsihments are not well-known in popular culture, almost 40 years after her death, her recordings are a treasure to listen to and she is much honored for her inspiring work by her admirers—many of whom are artists and great institutions.

Mary Lou Williams’ album, Zodiac Suite, released in 1945 and remastered here from the original acetates, is a 12-part interpretation of the astrological zodiac composed and performed on the piano by Mary Lou Williams who is accompanied by two of her hand-picked session musicians—all innovators from the clubs of New York—namely, Canadian jazz double-bassist Al Lucas (1912-1983) and American jazz and rhythm & blues drummer Jack “The Bear” Parker.

Each movement is a set of classically-inspired jazz tone poems for the signs of the horoscope: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces.

On Trump’s North Korea Crisis (2017) and Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis (1962).

Similar to JFK in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Trump in 2017 must use the military and moral strength of the U.S. to seek and find a conclusion so that North Korea changes course on their nuclear weapons peacefully.

By John P. Walsh, dated August 9, 2017

In addition to Twitter, the media tells us that U.S. President Donald J. Trump loves to watch a lot of TV. Has he seen the film: Virtual JFK (2008)?

“Does it matter,” the film’s narrator states, “who is president on issues of war and peace? Can a president make a decisive difference in matters of war and peace? Can a president decisively lead his country into war or keep his country out of war? Or are the forces that drive nations into conflict far more impersonal (and) out of the control of any human being, even a president?”

Nine nations stockpile around 16,300 nuclear weapons. The U.S. possesses less than half of them.

In 2014 nine nations around the world—including North Korea—have around 16,300 nuclear weapons. Estimates are that North Korea’s arsenal today may be about 20 warheads or higher. In descending order of warhead amounts, the other nuclear states are Russia (8,000 warheads), the U.S.A. (7,300), France (300), China (250), the UK (225), India and Pakistan (about 100 each) and Israel (80).

According to the National Security Archive, the last tactical nuclear weapons left Cuba in December 1962. For a rogue state such as North Korea to possess nuclear weapons is dangerous and unpredictable to the region and world.

Like JFK in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the U.S. must use its military and moral strength to seek and find a conclusion so that North Korea changes course on their nuclear weapons peacefully. Exactly what that change should look like is an important debate not explored here, but the U.S. must not or never start or provoke a nuclear war to achieve it.

Kennedy prepared for nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but always carefully stayed away from pulling the trigger. There can be no close analogy between Cuba, 90 miles off American shores, in 1962 and North Korea, over 6,000 miles away, in 2017.

The Cold War by the early 1960’s had become a well-worn competitive geopolitical game that hadn’t completely played itself out. The Russians built a wall in Berlin in 1961; Kennedy quarantined Cuba in 1962. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, the missiles were clearly Russian nukes. In 2017 what sources can Trump hold accountable for the North Korean weapons deployment in addition to the rogue regime? China? Russia? Iran? If Pyongyang is as remote and obscure today as the Kremlin was in Kennedy’s time, today’s political and military equations appear to be more tangled and complicated.

Any calculations for war must include those who may or will get killed – and how many. Is American “hyper” power any good if its allies are casualties on a massive scale? No nuclear exchange must result with a hermit kingdom dictator who is not a friend of the U.S. or its allies in the region – especially if war may incalculably spread.

If the U.S. has allies in the true meaning of the word then an attack on them by North Korea (or China or Russia) is equal to an attack on the homeland – otherwise what’s the point of the U.S. having allies at all? The U.S. must protect its allies in the region to the highest degree so to defend and preserve its esteemed alliances. In this ongoing dangerous politico-military standoff there are ramifications with severe strong risk for the U.S. as a global superpower and markedly in East Asia. North Korea must somehow stand down for there to be success from the perspective of the U.S and its allies.

Similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis that endured for 13 straight days—the Korean crisis has gone on arguably for over 60 years — patience and cool-headed leadership joined to a calibration of carrot and stick (preferring the carrot) should serve as worthwhile qualities so to craft a necessarily peaceful and successful outcome.

“Because of the ingenuity of science and man’s own inability to control his relations one with another,” said JFK in 1961 in Virtual JFK, “we happen to live in the most dangerous time in the history of the human race.” The film states that experienced military advisers believed that whenever Americans committed military force – they won the conflict.

Kennedy avoided war –and was almost impeached for it.

But as frequent and strong pressure by many advisers is put on Kennedy to commit the U.S. to a war, the president time and again chose to avoid both conventional and nuclear war. 

It may not be well remembered today but after the failure of the Bay of Pigs in 1961, there was talk of John Kennedy’s impeachment for incompetence. Many in his own Democratic party wouldn’t support him because they had convinced themselves he wasn’t a serious political leader.

In 2017 the defeat of 33-year-old Kim Jong-un’s nuclear threat short of war will not be simply a victory for the status quo but a step forward in terms of American leadership in that part of the world.

Carrot and stick (preferring the carrot)

An actual war –even if nonnuclear and limited which is improbable -– cannot be in any civilized people’s self-interest. Certainly if Kim started a nuclear war, which is very remote but possible, war would come. As Trump stated plainly, on August 8, 2017, the U.S. response would be with “fire and fury.”

In October 1962 Kennedy’s speech to the nation on the Cuban Missile Crisis included his own “fiery” rhetoric:

“Third: It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

JFK concluded with the overall purpose of his actions: “Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right – not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.”

In 2017 we may look for a resolution to the North Korea crisis where history repeats itself.

All through the Cold War Kennedy looked into the face of strategic MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) without blinking and then chose to evoke the better angels of our nature. At the United Nations in his first year as president (September 25, 1961) Kennedy exhorted the world’s representatives: “Together we shall save our planet – or together we shall perish in its flames. Save it we can.  Save it we must. Then shall we earn the eternal thanks of mankind and, as peacemakers, the eternal blessing of God.”

President Trump would do well to aspire to the same.

NOTES:

Nine nuclear nations – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/nine-nations-have-nuclear-weapons-here-is-how-many-each-country-has-a6827916.html

about 20 warheads – http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/791436/north-korea-nuclear-weapons-kim-jong-un-how-many

Last Cuba warheads removed – http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB449/

Iran and North Korea – http://thediplomat.com/2016/04/the-iran-north-korea-connection/

fire and fury – https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/09/world/asia/north-korea-trump-threat-fire-and-fury.html?_r=0

United Nations speech – https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/JFK-Speeches/United-Nations_19610925.aspx