….what my Life would look like without Black America.
From my musical identity, to the most formative and foundational experiences of my life, I can’t imagine what my Life would look like without Black America. Here’s what I mean:
My livelihood, my Career, my Gift, my Passion, my means of Self-Expression, my ability to Help/Teach/Serve others, my Ability to Inspire others, all this and more is found in one word: Music.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did I find my way onto this path, this passion and dedication of life to Music?
I can point to countless experiences along my journey, but one is absolutely the cornerstone of ALL else that followed:
The Sunday morning I experienced the Music at Mason Baptist Church, a small and humble African American congregation on the outskirts of Birmingham Alabama, at the young impressionable age of eleven years old. My Mom’s family, growing up in the Old South, mind you, had “help” from a lady named Louise, one of the kindest, gentlest souls I knew. Well, years later she invited our family to her church, and the details of the sermon from the venerable Reverend Perry that day, and the extent of the absolute feast of the after-church Sunday lunch that followed are hazy. You know what isn’t hazy? The moment the Music ministry at that church, probably no more than 4 or 5 guys, began TO PLAY! I remember the organist started up, and already my ears ticked up. First off, I had never heard anything like this to date. They weren’t reading music, they were Feeling it in every fiber of their being and body. But I will never forget as long as I live, when that Drummer started to play, and really get going, churning the entire congregation and very building into a rhythm and a fever pitch I really can’t even put into words. THAT MOMENT I experienced the Spirit of MUSIC – or in that context we might even call The Holy Spirit – on a level I never knew possible. Looking back, I point to that moment right there as one that forever changed my life and made me absolutely obsessed with the possibility of what Music was capable of, the heights of sound, the sheer and palpable, raw, creative, Spirit-in-action that Music in its highest Glory can achieve.
I can’t possibly imagine….
…The shape my musical identity would then take, if it weren’t for Black America.
I was a budding piano student of around the same age, 11 or 12 years old, studying with the formative Jim Walbert, an old family friend who lived down the street from my house in Homewood, AL. We first tried a few classical pieces, a few themes from movies/TV shows..I was still more interested in getting outside and jumping on my skateboard. One day, he breaks out a little arrangement of something called “Prelude to a Kiss” (he had his own handwritten arrangements in the hundreds) and played those first chords for me. Again, like the Mason Baptist moment, I was stopped in my tracks. How could these harmonies sound so good, so rich? What on Earth was THIS!? Well, this was my introduction to the world of Jazz, and the possibilities of this rich American musical tradition opened up before me. Specifically, this is a Black American tradition, at its core. Where would this music be without the contributions of composers like Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Miles, Bird, Dizzy and so many more…? Mr. Walbert assigned me two of my first jazz CD’s, ever – A compilation of Duke Ellington’s big band classics, and the Oscar Peterson Quartet Live at the Blue Note. I listened to these CD’s constantly and from then on, my ear and my musical sensibilities have been hooked on this thing called Jazz, which we might just call Black American Music. Under that heading I also include – Funk, Soul, Hip-Hop, RnB…so many variations and permutations of those styles and more that have informed my tastes and sensibilities over so many years, and continue to do so every damn day.
I owe such a debt to this musical tradition, it cannot be overstated. I have tried to humbly study and dissect this music for the last two decades and feel like I am still scratching the surface. I’ve tried to offer my small contribution to this music, through the lens of my own experience and original composition. I follow a continuum of a tradition that is so much larger than myself and my own story. This Music has literally payed my bills. This Music has given me the title of “Professor” at a major university, and the quote unquote status that affords. My “brand,” my career, my Art, ALL of it owes an incredible debt to Black American Music, and thus, Black America.
Which brings me to, finally…
I can’t possibly imagine….
What it’s like Being Black in America. I don’t know what it’s like to deal with the continual judgment of my worth as a human being – my abilities, my aptitudes, hopes, dreams, intentions, desires – simply based on the skin color I ended up with at birth. I don’t have any reference point for the feeling of continual fear, paranoia, trauma, that must accompany any and every interaction with the authorities, whether getting pulled over for blowing a light, or getting pulled over..for being black. I don’t know what it’s like to have to constantly wonder and worry every time a friend/child/relative goes out at night (or goes practically anywhere in modern day America) if they’ll return in one piece, or return at all. I can’t possibly imagine what it’s like to turn on the news, and again, see another black or brown life extinguished so mercilessly like that of George Floyd. Or Ahmaud Arbery. Or Mike Brown. I don’t know what it’s like to be understandably aggravated, tired, weary of all of this, for so long…and then be told to just grin and bear it, again and again, and to abide by the rules of a society that routinely dishonors and disrespects those rules when it comes to MY LIFE, MY destiny, MY very worth or ability to exist in that society. Even if I could really imagine it, I’ll still never have to really live it.
So, to conclude I just say –
Allow me to acknowledge my debt to Black America today. Allow me to confess my lack of understanding, my lack of Lived Experience. But please, don’t refuse or discount my empathy, my care, my concern, my gratitude, my wish to uplift and heal in whatever way, this thing called Black America. I believe these times call for Unity like never before, for Fellowship, for Brotherhood. I don’t support the destruction of business or property, but I support the protesting of injustice, of systemic inequality, of long-held ways and assumptions that just aren’t working in 2020 (and never really “worked”), and acknowledging that yes sometimes, there’s gonna be some necessary sacrifices in that process. I am inspired and encouraged that my generation is coming together in a whole new way to tackle the systemic problems that have been festering in this experiment called U.S.A for so long. I’m aware that this change has to come from the Ground Up. Ah, I have so many more thoughts, really.
But today I just wanted to say that no, I can’t possibly imagine what my life would look like without Black America.
Take care out there folks.
Peace and Love,
. . .
P.S. Did you know that June is designated “African American Music Appreciation Month” ?? How bout that.