UST professor’s new book explores creative world of African American composers

As a young graduate student in the late 1980s, award-winning African American composer Dr. William Banfield became interested in "soul" — not only the Motown version, but what Banfield calls as the "inseparable disciplines" of music and theology, especially as they define black aesthetic history.

His interest led to master’s and doctoral theses, a trip to Senegal, then to his own compositions and research into the lives, music and perspectives of black composers.

Banfield’s newly published book, Musical Landscapes in C0lor: Conversations With Black American Composers (Scarecrow Press Inc., March 2003), is his own contribution to that aesthetic history and the result of his exploration of the creative world of African American composers. He traces the lives and careers of 40 talented individuals and, in their own words, provides perspectives on a world that has been slow to recognize their contributions to classical music.

Banfield, a jazz musician and scholar who holds the University of St. Thomas’ Endowed Chair in Humanities and Fine Arts and also directs its American Cultural Studies program, provides a forward that encapsulates African American composers’ history of cultural exclusion, raises issues of racial politics, and identifies the economic and cultural conditions that continue to omit the works of black composers from the classical music canon.

Each subsequent chapter of Musical Landscapes in Color is devoted to individual composers, who discuss their musical training, compositional techniques and style and explain how their personal philosophies are reflected in their music. Their photographs and sample compositions in their own words personalize these pages.

A section titled "The Arrived and the Acknowledged, Part I (1922-1936)" includes chapters on eight composers, including David Nathaniel Baker, founder of Indiana University’s jazz studies program and author of The Black Composer Speaks (Scarecrow, 1978), the first comprehensive book documenting the works and perspectives of black American composers; George Russell, who is known as the man who taught Miles Davis how to compose music and whose first recorded work was commissioned by Dizzy Gillespie; and George Walker, whose 1996 Pulitzer Prize in composition for his work, "Lilacs," was the first given to a black American.

A second section of "arrived and acknowledged" composers includes four born between 1937 and 1945: Adolphus Hailstork, a scholar at Old Dominion University and acclaimed cultural laureate of the state of Virginia; Wendell Logan, chairman of the Department of Jazz Studies at Oberlin Conservatory; Dorothy Rudd Moore, the New York City-based co-founder of the Society of Black Composers; and Olly Wilson, a prominent composer, arts educator and scholar in Berkeley, Calif.

The book’s third and most substantial section, "Perspectives on Spirituality, Jazz and Contemporary Popular Languages," has a notable list of contributors:

  • Dwight Andrews, principal music collaborator with award-winning playwright August Wilson
  • Ysaye Barnwell, of the internationally renowned group Sweet Honey in the Rock
  • Jazz pianist and composer Billy Childs
  • George Duke, whose 30-year discography includes film scores for "Karate Kid II," "Leap of Faith" and other films
  • The late Jester Hairston, who until his death in 1997 was the most sought-after and best-known arranger and composer of African American choral spirituals and was known as the man who taught the Mormon Tabernacle Choir how to "sing black"
  • Jazz innovator Herbie Hancock, who is well known for his scores for "A Soldier’s Story," "Action Jackson," "Harlem Nights" and other films
  • Stephen Newby, contemporary gospel musician and resident composer of the Antioch Bible Church of Seattle
  • Michael Powell, known as the composer and producer who put singer Anita Baker "on the map" and who has composed for Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, the Wynans and many more
  • Jazz emissary Billy Taylor, who has spent more than 40 years as a spokesperson for the arts and recorded with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones, Billie Holiday and Charley Parker
  • Tony Williams, Grammy Award-winning drummer and composer who performed regularly with Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane
  • Michael Woods, director of jazz studies at Hamilton College, which he has established as one of the premier concert stops in upstate
    New York.

A section on "The Composer as Conductor and Composer" includes the testimonies of six composer-conductors, including 10-time Grammy winner Bobby McFerrin, creative chair for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra from 1995 to 2001, and Patrice Rushen, who has served as musical director for the Emmy Awards, NAACP Image Awards, People’s Choice Awards and BET Awards as well as of singer Janet Jackson’s world tour.

A final section, "Generation X and Beyond (1950-1965) profiles and includes commentary by 12 contemporary composers, including an interview by Brian C. Brown, a St. Paul writer who also works at the University of St. Thomas, of the author. Banfield, a Detroit native, served as a W.E.B. Dubois Scholar at Harvard in 2001 and as a Princeton University visiting atelier artist last year. He is founder of the Undine Smith Moore Collection of Original Scores and Manuscripts of Indiana University’s Archives of African American Music and Culture. He also hosts a weekly radio feature, "Essays of Note," for WCAL-FM (89.3), a Northfield classical music station. He joined the St. Thomas faculty in fall 1997.

Banfield expects general readers as well as musical scholars to find the book valuable and interesting: "Part of the reasoning behind the book was to illustrate the relevance of composers in modern life, not just in the academy," Banfield said.


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