The third and final program of Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2021 is Tuesday evening at 7:30, once again at St. Michael Lutheran on the 1st block of State Street. Depending on what downtown traffic has to challenge us with this time, you might consider arriving a little earlier than you'd usually plan. There is parking along State Street and in two small lots behind the church.
We are committed to the safety of our audience, our musicians and our community, so we will continue to closely monitor CDC guidelines and will adjust our safety protocols in response to any changes. Presently, we respectfully ask those audience members who have not been vaccinated to wear a mask.
The Harlem Quartet began as a
group of four promising young musicians chosen by the Sphinx
Organization in 2006 and placed into a training program to nurture
future string quartets. If you're not aware what the Sphinx
Organization does, watch this:
The Harlem Quartet, Four on a Couch
While there have been years of training and “apprenticeship” as a young quartet, complete with growing pains and personnel changes, the Harlem Quartet has always been passionate about the role of education, especially bringing their attention and inspiration to students in underserved communities around the country, because they know great musicians – the future of Classical Music, whether they become performers on the national or local stages, teachers in our communities, or music-lovers in our audiences – have to start somewhere.
Great Music always has something universal to say that transcends traditional ideas of nationality and ethnicity. And just as our performing organizations need to benefit from a greater awareness of diversity, so should our concert programs. The Harlem Quartet regularly performs the standard repertoire, but in this instance offers a program called simply “Composers of Color,” featuring two of the leading African-American composers of the 20th Century, William Grant Still and George Walker, both of whom gathered a lot of “firsts” in the course of their careers; music by jazz greats “Dizzy” Gillespie, Billy Strayhorn and Wynton Marsalis; and two African-American women making names for themselves today, Jessie Montgomery and Tomeka Reid.
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Fittingly, the program opens
with one of some 200 works by a composer often referred to as “The
Dean of African-American Composers,” William Grant Still. He grew
up in Little Rock, AK, still a toddler around the time Florence Price, whose 1st String Quartet opened the Jasper
Quartet's program last week, had gone to Boston to study at
the New England Conservatory. Still's stepfather had taken the boy to see live operettas and bought him
several RCA “Red Seal” classical records. His maternal
grandmother sang him spirituals as lullabies. Starting violin lessons
when he was 15, he also taught himself to play several instruments
when he was in college – clarinet, saxophone, oboe,
viola, cello, and double bass – while conducting the university's
band. He also started to compose and do orchestrations.
William Grant Still, 1936
Still had started off at Wilberforce, a traditionally Black college in Ohio, to fulfill his mother's dreams of his becoming a doctor; but he dropped out of college and went to the Oberlin School of Music to fulfill his dreams. There, he worked his way through school as an assistant to the janitor. When a professor asked him why he wasn't studying composition, Still admitted he couldn't afford the additional tuition, so the teacher agreed to give him lessons free-of-charge. (Later, he would study privately with the great French composer, Edgar Varese, then living in New York, as well as George Whitefield Chadwick, ironically, who also taught Florence Price.)
After serving in the Navy during World War I, Still settled in Harlem where he became involved with the Harlem Renaissance and played in a number of famous bands, from W.C. Handy's to Paul Whiteman's. Then, in 1930, he composed his Afro-American Symphony writing in his journal as he sketched the work during a three-month period of unemployment, “I seek... to portray not the higher type of colored American, but the sons of the soil, who still retain so many of the traits peculiar to their African forebears; who have not responded completely to the transforming effect of progress.”
The work was premiered the following year by the Rochester Philharmonic under composer and teacher (then director of the Eastman School of Music) Howard Hanson, one of many “firsts” for Still: the first time the complete score of a work by an African-American was performed by a major orchestra. Until 1950, it was also the most frequently performed symphony by any American composer.
He moved to Los Angeles, began working in films, and conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a program of his works at the Hollywood Bowl, the first African-American to conduct a major American orchestra in a performance of his own works.
In 1939 he was commissioned to write “Song of a City” for the New York Worlds Fair where it played continuously at the US Pavilion. However, the only time he could attend without police protection was on “Negro Day. Also in 1939, married his 2nd wife but they had to go to Tijuana for the ceremony because interracial marriage was illegal in California.
Still arranged music for films like “Pennies from Heaven” and “Lost Horizon.” When he was hired to work on the music for “StormyWeather” in 1943, starring Lena Horne & Cab Calloway – much touted as a breakthrough film in featuring African-American actors and musicians – Still resigned from the project because, his granddaughter later related, “20th Century Fox 'degraded colored people'.”
During his time in LA, he met Joachim Chassman, a studio violinist and founding 2nd Violinist of the famed Hollywood String Quartet. The quartet disbanded briefly during the war, the men serving in the military, but afterward, Chassman chose instead to play in various studio orchestras and became a well-known educator in LA and San Francisco.
Which brings us to Still's “Lyric Quartette,” which is usually dated 1960, though, from what I can tell, the piece was never published in Still's lifetime, and one source said it was probably written initially between 1939 and 1945, the period Still met and worked with Chassman, to whom he'd dedicated the piece. Of course, if they maintained their friendship, perhaps Still did write it in 1960 or at least took it up again and revised it.
Curiously, there are two sets of titles & subtitles in the manuscript: the movements are described in one set as “The Sentimental One; The Quiet One (based on an Inca melody); The Jovial One” and, in the second, as “Moderately – On a plantation; Moderately slow – In the mountains of Peru; Moderately fast – In a pioneer settlement.” The implication is these are musical portraits of three friends (was Chassman one of them?), but who exactly Still never says.
To continue Still's list of firsts, his 1939 opera, Troubled Island, about the Haitian Revolution and the early days of its independence, was finally produced by the New York City Opera in 1949 – the first opera by an American to be performed by the company and the first opera by an African-American to be performed by a major company. In 1955, Still conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic, the first African-American to conduct a major orchestra in the Deep South. Three years after his death in 1978, his opera, A Bayou Legend was the first opera by an African-American composer to be performed on national television.
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again, I'm going step outside the program order to continue with
another composer who has been considered one of the leading
African-American composers of the second half of the 20th
Century. Born in Washington DC in 1928 of Jamaican-American heritage,
George Walker started
studying the piano at 5, gave his first public recital at 14,
graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and then attended
the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia where he studied piano with
Rudolf Serkin and composition with Rosario Scalero who a decade
earlier had taught Samuel Barber. Walker became the first Black
student to graduate from Curtis and then played Rachmaninoff's 3rd
Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy, the
first Black soloist to perform with the orchestra. In 1950, he became
the first Black instrumentalist to be signed by a major Artists
Manager, and toured widely, particularly in Europe in 1954. In 1955,
he entered the DMA program at the Eastman School of Music in
Rochester and became the first Black doctoral student to graduate
Perhaps the most significant “first” for George Walker came in 1996 when he became the first African-American composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music for Lilacs for soprano and orchestra, premiered by the Boston Symphony (a previous work for cello and orchestra, Dialogus, premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra, had been nominated in 1977).
the slow movement of his 1st
String Quartet, composed in 1946, had taken on a life of its own in
the concert halls in an arrangement for string orchestra and soon
became the most frequently performed work by any living American
composer for a number of years.
George Walker at 93, Pulitzer Prize Winner 1996
George Walker's 1st String Quartet was an early composition, written during his student days at Curtis in 1946 when he was primarily a pianist. One can excuse the similarity of its slow movement to the slow movement of Samuel Barber's String Quartet which went on to fame as the Adagio for Strings, written a decade earlier while he was a student at Curtis and also studying with Rosario Scalero. Walker, 24 at the time, had just learned his grandmother had died and he wrote the slow movement as a “Lament” for her, later changing the name to “Lyric for Strings.”
Walker knew his maternal grandmother well, the story how she had escaped from slavery when she and her husband had been separated after he was sold. Walker always referred to this piece as “my grandmother's piece.”
George Walker died in 2018 at the age of 96, one of the most decorated and acclaimed American composers of his generation.
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New York Times has described her as a “New Jazz Power Source,”
and cellist and composer Tomeka Reid, her
website's bio states, “has emerged as one of the most original,
versatile, and curious musicians in Chicago’s bustling jazz and
improvised music community over the last decade. Her distinctive
melodic sensibility, always rooted in a strong sense of groove, has
been featured in many distinguished ensembles over the years.”
Tomeka Reid at the German Jazz Festival, 2015
Reid grew up outside Washington D.C., pursuing classical training initially but frequently dealt with the high cost of tuition at area music schools (for instance, not being able to afford additional cello lessons until high school). In college, pursuing “classical performance,” she was introduced to jazz improvisation which eventually led to an interest in composition, essentially learning how to compose spontaneously on your instrument, then learning how to write it down on paper (or these days, the equivalent of paper).
After college, she moved to Chicago in 2000 and became more involved in teaching and in the city's vibrant “jazz scene,” then ventually pursued a DMA in Jazz Studies which she completed in 2017. Though we might not initially associate the cello with jazz, Tomeka Reid was named a “Chicago Jazz Hero” in 2017, and in 2019 became the “Darius Milhaud Distinguished Visiting Professor” at Mills College.
Her “Prospective Dwellers” was composed in 2016 for the Spektral Quartet which they premiered at the Ear Taxi Festival. The piece was “inspired by Tomeka's interviews of residents in the Dorchester Projects on Chicago's South Side, who told of a neighborhood that was losing its sense of tight-knit community over time. The music it by turns groovy, nostalgic, and energized.”
Jessie Montgomery says, “Music is my connection to the world. It guides me to understand my place in relation to others and challenges me to make clear the things I do not understand. I imagine that music is a meeting place at which all people can converse about their unique differences and common stories.”
Her parents – her father, a musician; her mother, a theater artist and story teller – used to take her to performances, rallies, and parties where friends and fellow artists and activists celebrated different events and movements going on in their neighborhood of Lower East Side, Manhattan.
beginning violin lessons at the 3rd
Street Music School Settlement and going on to a performance degree
at Juilliard, she's been involved with the Sphinx Organization since
1999 and become the Composer-in-Residence for the Sphinx Virtuosi,
the organization's flagship touring ensemble. She's received numerous
commissions, including “Banner” for the 200th
Anniversary of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and she's been chosen
by the New York Philharmonic as part of their “Project 19,”
celebrating the centennial of the 19th
Amendment's ratification. There's also a cello concerto commissioned
jointly by Carnegie Hall, the New World Symphony & Sphinx, plus a
new work for the National Symphony.
Strum salutes “American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement,” the title referring to the guitar-like plucking of the strings that plays many roles: “floating hum, earthy groove, rapturous thrum.”
Originally composed for string quintet in 2006, it was arranged for string quartet in 2008 and again in 2012 for string orchestra. “The piece has a kind of narrative that begins with a sense of nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration," she said. “I’ve always been interested in trying to find the intersection between different types of music. I imagine that music is a meeting place at which all people can converse about their unique differences and common stories.”
Here is the Jasper Quartet in a performance opening a virtual concert from February 2021 (from 2:13 to 9:43).
Personally, I can't help hearing the reflection, years later, of those early neighborhood parties and celebrations her parents had taken her to as a child, a vibrant take on life and community growing from a kernel of recollection.
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Some Jazz giants to conclude. After all, in 1928, Ravel, a big fan of Gershwin and whose violin sonata contains a “Blues” movement, wrote, “You Americans take jazz too lightly. In my opinion, it is bound to lead to the national music of the United States.”
Billy Strayhorn, his dream to become a classical composer was “foiled
by the harsh reality of a Black man trying to make it in the
classical world, which at that time was almost completely white.”
At this time, William Grant Still's Afro-American
had only recently been premiered but perhaps too late to serve as a
role-model for the young Strayhorn growing up in Pittsburgh. He'd spent
time with his grandmother in North Carolina, playing hymns on her piano and listening
to classical records on her Victrola. As a teenager, he'd already
written several songs, even a musical, so when the reality began to
sink in, he met Duke Ellington when a tour brought him to Pittsburgh.
Five years later, on a subsequent tour, Strayhorn played Ellington
some of his arrangements of Duke's own tunes, and soon Ellington made
arrangements for him to join the band in New York in early-1939.
Ellington & Strayhorn
Ellington's directions to find his house in upper Manhattan, scribbled down on a piece of paper, began “Take the 'A' Train.”
It soon became the signature tune of the Ellington Orchestra and for the next 25 years, Strayhorn worked with Ellington as his arranger and collaborator. It was not always an easy relationship for Strayhorn who often was not credited for much of his creative work, but Ellington called him “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.”
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It seems “high-falutin'” to call him John Birks Gillespie when everybody knows him as “Dizzy.” As one writer said, “the whole essence of a Gillespie solo was cliff-hanging suspense.”
A trumpet-player and improviser, he added layers of harmonic and rhythmic complexity to jazz that had previously been unheard. He grew up, the son of a local bandleader in South Carolina (and always had instruments around him), starting to play the piano at 4 and taught himself the trumpet by the time he was 14. When he heard Roy Eldridge on the radio, he dreamed of becoming a jazz musician.
He wrote it in 1940 or 1941 when he was playing trumpet in the Benny Carter band and its original title was “Interlude.” Gillespie admitted it wasn't inspired by a visit to the North African country, even though the music did sound quite exotic.
“I never cared what people called it as long as they played it,” Gillespie wrote in his 1979 memoir, To Be, or Not to Bop. “Some genius decided to call it ‘A Night in Tunisia,’ which sounded quite appropriate, and people have been calling it ‘Night in Tunisia’ ever since.”
Whether this is
true or just a great story, Art Blakey once introduced his cover of
Gillespie's tune by saying “I feel rather close to this tune
because I was right there when he composed it in Texas on the bottom
of a garbage can.” (The audience laughed.) “Seriously – the
Texas Department of Sanitation can take a low bow.”
Dizzy Gillespie in the 1940s
Wynton Marsalis said of Dizzy Gillespie, “his playing showcases the importance of intelligence. His rhythmic sophistication was unequaled. He was a master of harmony—and fascinated with studying it. He took in all the music of his youth—from Roy Eldridge to Duke Ellington—and developed a unique style built on complex rhythm and harmony balanced by wit. Gillespie was so quick-minded, he could create an endless flow of ideas at unusually fast tempo. Nobody had ever even considered playing a trumpet that way, let alone had actually tried. All the musicians respected him because, in addition to outplaying everyone, he knew so much and was so generous with that knowledge.”
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“New Orleans is considered the birthplace of jazz. From West African cross-rhythms, the work songs of slaves, field hollers and spirituals, came ragtime and the blues. This mixed with European-American quadrilles, waltzes, sentimental ballads, brass bands, cigar-box guitars, clarinets, cornets and trombones – and that's how jazz was born.”
When Wynton Marsalis was 6 years old, his father, Ellis, a famed jazz pianist and teacher in his own right, was sitting at a table in their New Orleans home, talking to three great trumpet players, Al Hirt, Miles Davis and Clark Terry, when he said he might as well get Wynton a trumpet. And so Al Hirt gave him one.
he didn't start practicing on that trumpet seriously until he was 12,
Wynton Marsalis soon became one of the bright lights of the classical
music world as a brilliant trumpet soloist. But jazz became
increasingly more important to him and he “retired” from the
classical concert hall and pursued what we might call a second career
not only as a jazz performer but also an educator, advocate, curator
and composer. As Director of “Jazz at Lincoln Center,” he was
commissioned in conjunction with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln
Center to create a jazz work for that most classical of ensembles,
the string quartet, and the resulting work, “At the
Octoroon Balls,” was premiered in 1999. It consists of seven
movements, and the Harlem Quartet will play four of them. I'll
include their performance of the last of these four a little further on.
Ellis Marsalis & his son, Wynton
One critic described the music as more Ives than Louis Armstrong, but it mixes a great many “Americanisms” from Louis Moreau Gottschalk to Ives on the classical side with all kinds of jazz and folk elements one could hear in and around N'awlins, “fiddle reels, hoe downs, jug stomps, marching bands; the Deep South, New Orleans, the Piedmont East Coast, Sunday morning at church.”
The balls in question were a social convention in Old New Orleans, when Creole gentlemen could choose their “octoroon” mistresses. If you're a little vague on the terminology and wondering what an “octoroon” is (or how it is used), here's some context:
“By 1860, approximately ten percent of enslaved people in the American South had at least one white ancestor, often as a result of forced sexual assault on female slaves by white slave owners. In southern Louisiana, there was also a large population of Creole African-Americans, descended from European colonialists in various areas of the African continent. Consequently, free and enslaved people of color could and did look wildly different from one another. Legal classifications like 'mulatto,' 'quadroon' (one-quarter black) and 'octoroon' (one-eighth) were used to describe people with lighter skin tones, and these labels were often based on appearance rather than lineage.”
Wynton Marsalis's "At the Octoroon Balls" is inspired by the composer's early life in New Orleans. "A ball is a ritual and a dance," Marsalis explains. "Everybody was in their finest clothing. At the Octoroon Balls there was an interesting cross-section of life. People from different stratums of society came together in pursuit of pleasure and fulfillment. The music brought people together."
If you had no idea what this music represented, you'd probably be thinking “What the hell...?” And that's it, precisely: this is a train-ride, quite literally, going straight to Hell (well, maybe not quite straight to Hell, but it'll get there eventually).
Take the 'A' Train, indeed!
Of his earliest influences, particularly in the jazz and classical traditions, Marsalis wrote, "My father helped me understand the joy of seriousness."
- Dick Strawser