The “One Drop Rule” of Jazz
By: Seth Colter Wals
As far as shameful cultural secrets go, the fact that African-American composers aren’t featured on our classical music stages as frequently as they should be is one few people bother keeping anymore. “That black composers are poorly represented in mainstream concerts is a germane topic of discussion but one beyond the scope of a single concert review” is how New York Times classical music critic Steve Smith accurately put it last week, when reviewing a Black History Month-timed showcase of oft-overlooked artists.
Outside the strictures of a concert review, though, we can ask the question more directly. And what better time than now, since a broad look at chamber music and orchestral programming in New York, for example, offers little in the way of sustained attention to works by composers like Duke Ellington (who wrote ballets and tone poems), Leroy Jenkins (who was commissioned by German composer Hans Werner Henze to write an opera), or Hale Smith, who composed while teaching inside classical music’s academy (i.e., the way most composers pay the bills), among other underappreciated worthies.
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