The Glorious Diversity of African-American Music

Friday, November 04, 2016 - 09:47 AM

A display from The National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, DC. (Fred Plotkin)

WASHINGTON, DC—The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened on Sept. 24 in a ceremony led by President Obama, is a splendid new jewel in the crown of Smithsonian museums. It makes very clear, through outstanding exhibitions that eloquently speak for themselves, that black life, history and culture matter. Among the artists who performed at the opening ceremony were Patti Labelle and Stevie Wonder.

It occurred to me, as I walked through the galleries, that one of the many remarkable things here is that unlike most museums, this one built its collection from scratch.

As you can imagine, I was particularly interested in the section about African-Americans and music. The large wing dedicated to that topic is, in a word, stupendous, and I was fortunate to be given a detailed visit by its curator, Dwandalyn Reece. I then stayed another two hours to take everything in. The name of the exhibition is "Musical Crossroads."

One of the note cards in the exhibition suggested that, as a generalization, it can be stated that European music was based on melody combined with harmony, while African music is focused on beat or rhythm. While this is a large assertion, it dawned on me that African-American music, at its frequent best, combines melody, harmony and rhythm. To which I would add spontaneity, intuition and the desire to explore unexpected musical paths that seem absolutely right once you are on them. All of this is evident in Ella Fitzgerald’s performance of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady:”

Before going to the museum, I made an informal listing of musical categories in which African-Americans have excelled: bebop, blues, classical, disco, folk, funk, gospel, hip-hop, jazz, opera, rap, rock and roll, soul, spirituals. Other styles I was reminded of in the exhibition included Afro-Caribbean, country, doo-wop and go-go (a style in Washington, D.C.).

No doubt there are others. Reece noted that “the borders and boundaries that were constructed resulted in definitions which may or may not be accurate.” She added that “African-Americans have to fight against being stereotyped and pigeonholed musically even now.”

Discovering the panoply of styles prompted me to wonder whether we should even want to make such definitions. As Herbie Hancock said, “The beauty of life is to be outside the box, so that the box doesn’t exist ... to limit a human being to one mode of expression is really a crime.” Or as Duke Ellington put it more simply, “there are two types of music: good music and the other kind.”

We should never forget that the music made by African-Americans was often suppressed or rejected by some elements of American society. While this exhibition is about superb achievement, a small sign from decades ago in one display case caught my eye. It was published by a group called Citizens’ Council of Greater New Orleans with the admonition to “Help save the youth of America — don’t buy negro records.” The text says:

            “If you don’t want to serve negroes in your place of business, then do 
            not have negro records on your juke box or listen to negro records on
            the radio ... The screaming, idiotic words, and savage music of these
            records are undermining the morals of our white youth in America.”

The contents of this exhibition make a strong refutation of this kind of prejudice. The many display cases contain a vast array of documents and artifacts (including historic musical instruments, costumes, recordings and documents of all types). These, along with excellent explanatory cards and abundant audio and video, teach rather than advocate — the correct assumption is that the artistry and achievement speak for themselves.

Nor does this exhibition suggest that all the great music of African-Americans is behind them. The late musicologist Eileen Southern, author of The Music of Black Americans, wrote, “The enduring feature of black music is neither protest nor self-expression; it is communication, and one cannot imagine a time when black musicians will have nothing to say, either to others or to God.”

In among the displays on many genres is a small but meaningful collection relating to opera and classical music. Some of the attire Marian Anderson wore in 1939 in her famous concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is there. I especially admired a small diary from 1952 written in Anderson’s careful penmanship.

We see Denyce Graves’ costume from Carmen. There is music from composer William Grant Still (1895-1978), who wrote what is described as African-American concert music. And a document relating to Joseph H. Douglass, a virtuoso violinist who was the grandson of Frederick Douglass. There is video of singers, including Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle and Simon Estes. Most of these performances are opera and art songs, but Norman is singing a spiritual.

Norman once said, "I sing the songs of Schubert and Brahms and the Wagner operas and I love them. But I wasn’t born Austrian. I wasn’t born German. My roots are from Africa and I have no reason for not wanting to celebrate that.”

Amen to that.


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Comments [1]

John J. Christiano from Franklin, NJ

The contributions to music run very deep. African rhythms born in slavery gave way to the era of Scott Joplin, then to Louis Armstrong and King Oliver. Then to Duke Ellington and Count Basie. The very concept of "big bands" of the 40s actually originated in the African American jazz halls in New Orleans, Chicago and St. Louis. You do not have to far through the American song book to see the influence of the African American composer and musician.

I would venture to say that African Americans did for American music what the Italian Renaissance did for classical music.

Nov. 09 2016 08:00 AM

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