by Brian R. Nabors
Happy Sunday! My blog post this week is partly in response to last week’s! It was absolutely refreshing to read the story of trombonist Robyn Smith, a beautiful example of Black excellence working on behalf of young artists of the next generation. Some time ago, I was suggested the topic of composer lineages in classical music within the Black community. I also believe the idea of lineage exists for Black performers of classical music. There is much to be said about the many artists, composers, creatives, and mentors who came before us, paving the way and sowing the seeds that would fuel our zeal for creating a more connected world where minor attributes such as a person’s color of skin are no longer a factor as to how they are solely perceived.
What I especially loved about Robyn’s story was the connection from the mentors that inspired her to all the seeds of inspiration she continues to sow in her recent work with Castle of Our Skins, various musical ensembles, and other organizations. I find it fascinating how as we continue to press toward the mark of breaking down barriers and stereotypes in our own careers, there are so many young artists-in-training who benefit greatly by simply seeing someone who looks like them, whose stories are similar and relatable, going for it!
I was late to the game of composing, as a lot of composers are! At the age of 16, my musical studies up to that point were built upon a foundation of this visceral calling that I felt I had to dedicate my life to! What made this journey worth it all the more was discovering the history of all of these incredible Black composers, and their various stories of struggle and expression in the midst of a nation’s inbred sense of hatred and prejudice. In music history literature, you hear about the lineage of the great mavericks of western music, starting in the Middle Ages to the present day! Although it seems we have to dig a little, Black history in classical music DOES exist. The efforts and artistry of Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Scott Joplin, William Grant Still, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, George Walker, and SO many more have provided a spring board for us to catapult our artistry into the future. These people wrote from their perspective, pain, and circumstantial oppositions of the day.
When we study the level of opportunity available for Black composers specifically up until the mid-20th century versus Black composers of today, the differences seem to be quite staggering! They expressed themselves the best way they knew how, often times being denied great opportunities, performances, etc. Yet and still, their music has touched and lit in us a fire of perseverance, lighting a torch of enduring creativity that forms new hybrids of musical experiences and deepens cultural understanding between communities that otherwise may never have truly connected with one another.
Today, there is an increasing number of opportunities for composers and artists of color. It is also quite rewarding that so many organizations and institutions are implementing new strategies to combat issues such as lack of diversity within classical music. Initiatives such as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Talent Development Program and organizations such as Castle of our Skins and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra are just some of the places that have created programs to begin breaking down stereotypes of what classical musicians and composers look and sound like! With other elements such as the rise of social media and too many technological advancements to count, there should be no excuse why we can’t flourish in a new world where we are reevaluating what it means to be civil, human, and Black. However, this “new world” doesn’t come without its challenges. In the United States, the scars and pathology of the nation’s past and prejudices remain in the psyche of some music listeners. This can sometimes be a challenge to combat on top of an overwhelming disdain for new music in general, which is a whole other blog post all together! Nevertheless, we are fortunate to live in a time of new beginnings, with a generation of people of all colors and creeds who seek to create a communal web of understanding and empathy.
So, a couple of questions continue to dawn on me, “What can I do to ensure that I leave a great lineage for people with my background and my story?” “How can my work validate those visceral impulses another kid from Birmingham, AL may be suppressing?” Easy! Just share and participate. It’s easier now more than ever! Calling all artists! Teach, write, study, practice, and most of all…learn. Take risks and be of good courage! Nothing is impossible! I often tell others of how fortunate I was to have parents, mentors, and a lineage of “go-doers” who made things happen. My father tells me to this day, “Why not you!” “Go get it!” When people ask me if I ever get discouraged during my career I proudly say, “No! I’ve never once thought I couldn’t do it!” It’s up to us to implant that same seed of tenacity in each young artist we come across. Through every hardship, the age-old principle of perseverance will always reign supreme and ultimately, get us ALL to freedom.
In this season of Thanksgiving, we thank all the many composers, artists, musicians, and thinkers who tilled the ground before us, making room for many seeds of success, community, and fellowship to grow and flourish! Now, let’s make sure the next generation has a fantastic crop to harvest!
It is Sunday Funday! COOS is gearing up for Tuesday, November 27th ... #GivingCOOSday! Stay tuned for more! Until then, today's blog is all about Robyn Smith: trombonist, community-builder, and all-around lovely woman! Hailing from Atlanta, Ms. Smith is an alumna of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's Talent Development Program. Her career at New England conservatory has thus far included local performances, being active in the New England Conservatory Black Student Union (NEC BSU), and being part of a European Tour (which included a performance in het Concertgebouw in Amsterdam). If you are in the Boston area, please attend her upcoming recital on DECEMBER 3rd at 8PM, Brown Hall, at New England Conservatory!
BIBA: How did you become a trombonist and who were some of the people that helped and/or inspired you directly (teachers, mentors) or indirectly (other trombonists, musicians, artists) along the way?
RS: Growing up, my two older brothers played in our church, bands, and orchestras. I knew I wanted to play an instrument because of simply watching them committing so much time to music. When I was old enough to join the band in elementary school I started on trumpet and quickly switched to trombone. When I arrived at middle school, one of my most inspiring and influential teachers that impacted my musical career, Robert Jeffrey, told all the girls joining the band that he would get Beyonce to come to our school if we had a band full of female trombone players. It didn’t take much for me to decide to continue playing the trombone, but I can say this idea was definitely a push. Robert Jeffrey was humbly committed to the success of his students. He challenged me and made me believe that I could go as far as I wanted on my instrument with hard work and discipline. After leaving middle school, I joined the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Talent Development Program, where I first studied privately under Colin Williams (NY Philharmonic) and Nathan Zgonc (Atlanta Symphony). They were equally inspirational and encouraged me to continue my journey towards being not only a classical trombonist but a better musician. The ASO’s Talent Development Program guided me on a journey that has exposed me to [some of the] greatest opportunities and teachers a young musician could ever have.
BIBA: What have been some of your favorite gigs or musical experiences, and when did they happen?
RS: My favorite gigs are the gigs that force me out of my box, challenging my musicianship and adaptability. My freshman year, I got a call to play in a 70s funk band! We played all the top charts that your auntie played in her Lincoln when you were younger. I had a blast because first it was a party but secondly, I had the opportunity to witness the music bring so much happiness and joy to everyone.
This past September, I played in the pit orchestra at the American Repertory Theatre for the performances of “The Black Clown.” This Langston Hughes inspired work was the most transformative musical experience I have ever been a part of. Having such a deep connection to the art you are performing is incredibly fulfilling,
BIBA: Please explain your work related to the NEC Black Student Union.
RS: This is my second year serving as the NEC BSU president. Our main focus has been finding ways to reconnect the POC community at NEC, but also find ways to educate and include the Boston and NEC community through concerts, panel discussions and other creative events. Our main highlights of the year include the Celebration of NEC Alumna Coretta Scott King, Roxbury Youth Orchestra partnership/side-by-side concert, and other concerts/events that highlight Black music/art.
BIBA: What was the experience like working with COOS on Black Kaleidoscope?
RS: Wow, this project was very interesting because for the first time in a while, I was called to produce art without my trombone. Channeling my musical passion into my voice and body movements was quite an internal journey. I had to think about what we were trying to say in this work and what it meant to me. Without my trombone, I was able to address the concept and idea personally. Sometimes my trombone can act as a barrier in which I am not able to connect fully. The experience was opportune. I am discovering my place as a female Black classical musician in this industry, but also realizing that my place will change. We expressed the transformation of the body and mind, realizing the brokenness and pain but reaching beyond this and discovering self love, worth and freedom. All of which, I believe most women of color experience.
BIBA: What are some of your upcoming projects?
RS: Right now I am preparing for my senior recital at NEC. I will also be on tour with the Rodney Marsalis Philadelphia Big Brass this December. As I finish my degree at NEC, I hope to continue to take orchestra auditions and continue on to graduate school.
Ms. Baker can be followed on Twitter and Instagram @Noprob_rob
by Anthony R. Green
HAPPY SUNDAY, BIBA READERS!
Last week BIBA was on hiatus due to traveling and working with students at the Conservatory Lab Charter School for an exciting collaboration between their students and Castle of our Skins for the Celebrity Series Dorchester String Fest! COOS is excited to present this project December 1st, and the the two commissioned new works will be performed again December 5th! Details coming soon!
Today, however, is a very special day. It is Veterans Day. And this particular Veterans Day coincides with the first Veterans Day ever, which was called Armistice Day. The first celebration occurred exactly 100 years ago today, the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour, when the Armistice with Germany went into effect (according to Wikipedia) at the end of World War I. Armistice Day was renamed to Veterans day in 1954. With that said, I would like to take this BIBA to honor two Black composers who were Veterans: Chevalier de Saint-Georges and Ed Bland.
It is no secret that Chevalier de Saint-Georges was an excellent fighter and leader; Chevalier – his title of honor gained in recognition of his supreme fencing skills – is in his name. What many perhaps do not know about him is that he fought in the French Revolutionary War, more specifically in the first all-Black military regiment in Europe. In 1792, a Haitian free man of color named Julien Raimond organized this regiment, and appointed Chevalier as the colonel. This new Légion St.-Georges was a volunteer group, and Chevalier’s name alone was the main attractor of volunteers, who came from all over France. His military career was fraught with difficulties, however. He was accused for squandering money, even though he did not do so; his men were accused of being traitors, but they were merely Black; and his group did not receive adequate funding, horses, and supplies, which always put them in difficult situations. Eventually he was jailed for over 13 months for unknown charges, which ended up being beneficial as many citizens were being executed during his imprisonment. However, when he was released, he wanted to regain his position as colonel, but was fought by one of the two new colonels of the legion. St.-Georges lost the fight, and was ordered to stay away from the legion, not ever receiving a medal or recognition for his previous service. However, his service is documented, and his music and arts career is one of sophistication, pride, and depth. Thankfully interest in Saint-Georges is deepening, and hopefully one day he will appear in music history classes alongside Mozart and Haydn, both of whom encountered St.-Georges in their lives, and were impacted by this extraordinary man.
Composer Ed Bland was born in 1926 on the south side of Chicago, and passed away in 2013. His father was a postal worker and a self-taught literary critic, who was friends with such luminaries as Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Langston Hughes. Ed Bland’s father, Edward senior, was also a veteran who unfortunately died in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. Following in his father’s footsteps, Ed Bland served in World War II, which allowed him to study music at post-secondary institutions with support from the G.I. Bill. Ed Bland had an offer to play in a band next to Charlie Parker (before he became Charlie Parker), but his mother did not give him permission to go on the road with a band, preferring he entered college. Then the Pearl Harbor attack occurred, and Ed knew he would be drafted. Around that time, he met many Navy band musicians who all urged him to join the Navy band because he was so talented as a saxophone and clarinet player. Therefore, when Ed was drafted, he joined the Navy band. His service mostly took place at Treasure Island, one of the major stations in the San Francisco area.
However, from a young age, Edward senior exposed young Ed Bland to writer discussions with Richard Wright and others, and told Ed to read books by Bertram Russel and others. Consequently, Ed developed an analytical and philosophical mind. He made powerful, controversial statements in his music, in his film “The Cry of Jazz” (available to watch on YouTube), and in his writings, many of which can be found on his website. After his service, he made sure to study philosophy along with music because he was acutely aware that he needed the mental tools to defend his musical decisions. He was a fighter through his music and artistic practice, and a musician in his naval service.
Let’s not forget to honor those veterans in our lives on this Armistice/Veterans Day!
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