What is a Black American Music Department?

Editor’s Note: This piece is referenced in the letter-to-the-editor “Action Steps for the Conservatory to Create a Better Community.

Below are some thoughts I’ve had about Black music and its place within the spaces of higher learning.

Black musicians (and people) have historically been excluded from being a full part of society in the United States. This has resulted in a situation where there are two (if not more) divergent forms of classical and folk music within the North American continent. As such, it is necessary, in my humble opinion, to create space and devote resources to the study and upliftment of marginalized — specifically Black — voices within the space of conservatories. For too long, Black classical music (read: jazz), and Black American music as a whole have been denigrated as “lesser than” or “other” within the halls of conservatories across the country. Not only that, but even in the spaces where so-called jazz departments exist, these departments are still viewed as inferior or not technical.

The focus of a BAM department within the conservatory space should be to serve as a point of coalescence between Africana studies, ethnomusicology, and jazz studies, drawing on these disciplines to fully understand the history of Black music in the United States — and the greater Black diaspora. It should be a place where we train the young and eager minds of the next generation to look at music from a holistic standpoint and provide them with the tools necessary to challenge racist policies and ideas wherever they go. It should serve as the starting point of a lifetime of discovering the often-overlooked roots of Black music in the United States, and how its creators and practitioners have influenced the overall musical character of the United States and the world. I wish to imagine a world not too far gone from today where great composers like Duke Ellington, Oliver Nelson, and Mary Lou Williams are spoken of, not just within the context of a jazz history class, but within the greater canon of music from the United States, taught with the same reverence as an Aaron Copland or a Charles Ives.

Oberlin Conservatory is especially poised to fulfill this role within the space of higher education because of our unique historical relationship with Black musicians, performers, and composers in the United States. As one of the first institutions to admit Black people, Oberlin Conservatory played a role in the musical education of Black individuals who would go on to make huge strides in the music world of American music. Individuals like George Walker, Frances Walker-Slocum, William Grant Still, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and many others studied on Oberlin’s campus. When Dr. Wendell Logan, the founder of the Jazz department at Oberlin, submitted his first proposal for an African American Music Program, he presented a vision of a multifaceted program working in conjunction with the ideals of Black Studies — now Africana Studies. I feel his words are the best representation of the program I am advocating for, so I’ve quoted below a statement from his original 1977 proposal for what is now the Oberlin Jazz Studies Division.

“The proposed program in African-American Music, then, is concerned with a systematic and comprehensive exploration of music as it relates to the Black Experience, through the traditional means of performance, teaching and research. The program draws upon materials and techniques of other music areas (theory, history, performance, music education, etc.), but this knowledge is examined and interpreted as it relates to performance practices, musical styles and forms cultivated by Black Americans.”

“In summary, African American Music represents the cultural expression of a people, an expression which has manifested itself in numerous ways, including idioms such as jazz, blues, spirituals, gospel, etc. As an academic discipline, it is not simply a ‘program in jazz’ but a comprehensive program involving a broad area of inquiry.”

In the interest of clarity, I have compiled a list of attributes I believe that a Black American Music institute should possess:

a. Works as an interdisciplinary space, akin to Africana Studies, that studies the breadth of Black contributions to the development of music in the Americas

b. Works to redefine how institutions view music created by non-white composers in the United States

c. Works to incorporate the legacy of composers relegated to the designation “jazz” composer into the greater lexicon of North American music

d. This department should represent the ideas of transformative justice and anti-racism.

e. It should be committed to examining the ills caused by racism within the space of music in the Americas as well as how those policies still hold sway today.

f. It should be a space for training people to look critically at the history of Black music in the United States and giving people the tools for challenging policies and ideas that lead to racial inequity and that actively designate Black music as inferior and “other.”

g. It maintains a commitment to dispelling the myths separating jazz and the study of other forms (mainly Western European Classical Music) of music, mainly Western European classical music.

I believe that these goals are completely achievable. If we aren’t able to take a clear-eyed look at the history of racism and exclusion in this country, then we will continue to recreate the systems that have caused the inequities we see today, if not by the same name, then with a similar effect.