On Monday night, May 2nd of this week, almost a Black phantom artistic production was performed on the campus of the University of Southern California, since the vast majority of the L.A. Black population, even those thousands who live in the USC area, never knew it.
It was the L.A. production of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s Black opera, “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” based on celebrated New York Times writer, Charles Blow’s autobiography. The music for the opera was composed by noted jazz composer and musician Terrence Blanchard.
Opera, you say? Black people composing opera? Of course we all know about “Porgy and Bess”, the be-all and end-all participation of African-Americans in that realm of musical theater. And that show was composed — story, music and orchestration — by three White men: The Gershwin brothers and Dubose Heyward (who had written the novel and the play the opera was based on).
Of course, excellent Black performers acted in the first Broadway production of that opera-play (including John W. Bubbles, Todd Duncan and Anne Brown), but most non-East Coast Black folk mainly remember the 1959 film version with Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge and Sammy Davis, Jr.
The thing is, we remember the acting performances, but virtually none of us even gave a thought to Black artists writing, producing and directing an opera. That form of theater just wasn’t supposed to be our thing. Okay on jazz, R&B, blues, and even Country & Western. We even came to dominate Pop music when it joined the fray. But opera? Uh-uh. No. European music all the way.
Well, au contraire! There have been, and continue to be, grand Black composers in the opera vein, and Monday night’s production of “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” was a very worthy example of the craft.
Black composers and lyricists of the past include, for example, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Florence Price, Julius Eastman, Undine Smith Moore, William Grant Still, Julia Perry, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and George Walker. Even the current U.S. ambassador of jazz and head of the country’s Jazz Museum, Wynton Marsalis, has written more than one complete opera, using, as did Terrence Blanchard, jazz compositions.
The fact is, any artistic or musical form Black folks decide to invest some time and energy into, we tend to eventually dominate. Note the Country Music Hall of Fame induction a few days ago for Ray Charles. In many of the salutations for Mr. Charles the theme resonated that it was Ray Charles who popularized country music to the world and made careers possible for legions of singers and composers following in his train.
And look at the recent Album of the Year honors for Jon Batiste this time around. That particular Grammy is equivalent to the Oscar for contemporary music, and 11 previous Black artists have won that accolade, including: Stevie Wonder, who won Album of the year three straight times (the only artist to ever do that), Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Quincy Jones, Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston, Lauryn Hill, Outkast, Ray Charles and Herbie Hancock.
In spite of whatever else happens, Black musical creators have, and will continue to, create great American and world music. We are prolific creators of the lived and to be lived experience.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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