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Black Music, Blues Symphony

November 11, 2009

I am currently reading Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century. I recommend it. The book starts at the beginning of the end: the golden age of German Romantic composers, when art music and popular music were one and the same. Ross then chronicles the great crack-up to come.

The chapter on early American music describes the career of Will Marion Cook, who had escaped my attention until this book. Cook was born in Tennessee four years after the end of the Civil War, an era when black Americans were still feeling out the uncertain limits to achievement that were being set for them. Thanks to the more ambitious members of their community like Cook, they’d soon find out just how restrictive these limits were.

Cook, with his prodigious musical talents, attended Oberlin Conservatory (Oberlin being one of the few colleges that accepted blacks) at age 15. Frederick Douglass took notice of the young Cook, and later sponsored him so he could study at a prestigious conservatory in Berlin, where he met Johannes Brahms. Cook was a hit in Europe, even performing for King George V. Cook – much like DuBois – later remembered the time in Berlin as some of the happiest and freest in his life.

Around the turn of the 20th century, there was a “back to the soil” trend in Modernist music. Composers were searching for authenticity. In Europe, this meant that Bartok, Janacek, Ravel, and Koldaly were traipsing through the Carpathians (or wherever) with recording cylinders in search of folk melodies and their distinctly not-classical syncopations and chord structures. Stravinsky was adapting Russian peasant songs for his celebration of rhythm and paganism, Rite of Spring. The American counterparts of these composers looked sometimes to American Indian music, but most gravitated toward the blues as the most authentic American musical tradition.

Americans felt their contemporary cultural figures to be severely inferior to Germanic greats like Mahler and Strauss. Antonin Dvorak (who adopted America as his own) struggled to overcome this inferiority complex, predicting that American music would only become great once it created its own idiom. He thought Americans could do this by incorporating characteristics of black music into the Western canon, forming a distinctly American body of classical music.

With such hopes in mind, Dvorak embraced Cook, the most prodigious musical talent yet produced by black America, upon the latter’s return from Germany. Both men hoped that Cook would become the “black Beethoven.” Well, he obviously didn’t. So given all of Cook’s talent and training, why haven’t I heard of him until now?

Short answer: racism. Longer answer: my general lack of interest in comedic minstrel theater. Cook had a successful career in some sense, but he could not write the great American symphonies he wanted to. No orchestra would play them; no symphony hall would let him conduct. The idea of black men composing and conducting classical music was too incongruous for most Americans. Instead, Cook ended up producing a number of musical sketch comedies, like The Origin of Cakewalk (1898) and In Dahomey (1903). Ross says that, musically, these were excellent as far as comic theater goes. But like most musical comedies of the time, Cook’s work showcased stereotypical minstrelsy. Reduced to producing music in a genre unworthy of his talents, Cook was at least able to exact a minor revenge through his lyrics, where he made the startlingly prescient claim that one day blacks would dominate American popular culture:

For the time / Comin’ might soon, / When the best, / Like the rest / Gwine a-be singin’ coon.

In any case, Cook was not the only classically-minded black musician to lose hope of ever joining the Western canon:

The same scenario kept repeating. Middle-class parents would send their sons and daughters to Oberlin or Fisk or the National Conservatory, hoping that they could achieve the wonderful things that Dvorak had forecast for African-American music. Hitting the wall of prejudice, these young creative musicians would turn to popular styles instead – first out of frustration, then out of ambition, finally out of pride. The youngest players embraced jazz as their birthright; they gave little thought to Dvorak’s old fantasy of Negro symphonies. Cook, however, never forgot the ambitions that he had nursed as a boy, when he stood on Lookout Mountain. He still dreamed of a “black Beethoven, burned to the bone by the African sun.”

A handful of black composers would later meet some success. In 1931, William Grant Still was the first black composer to have his symphony (No. 1 “Afro-American”) performed by a major orchestra. Nonetheless, if anything, Dvorak’s plan for American music – to incorporate the black idiom into the Classical tradition – happened in reverse. Frustrated black musicians created jazz; the black musical tradition incorporated the Western idiom.

This reversal is perhaps most clear in the career of Duke Ellington, the master of symphonic jazz. Cook was a mentor of Ellington, and Cook made sure to impart unto his pupil all of the wisdom of the German Romantics. Ellington knew the Western canon as well as anyone, but he refused to become the “black Beethoven.” Ross tells of an incident where  a student asked Ellington to expound upon Bach. Ellington made a point of taking a pork chop out of his pocket to eat while answering. Ellington knew Bach, but Ellington wanted everyone to know he belonged to a different world.

After Duke was famous, the music critic Winthrop Sargeant told Ellington that he hoped “jazz composers might rise to classical eminence.” Ellington later wrote, “I was struck by Mr. Sargeant’s concluding statement, that given a chance to study, the Negro will soon turn from boogie woogie to Beethoven. Maybe so, but what a shame!”

Well, what we lost in a distinctly American body of classical music, we more than made up for in jazz. But this is clearly not an either/or situation. I mention all of the above, then, in order to give some background for the upcoming premier of Wynton Marsalis’ Blues Symphony.

I know that Marsalis’ traditionalism generates strong – and often negative – emotions in many fans of jazz. But this isn’t jazz; this is classical. Judging from the brief sketches given to us in these YouTube videos, it sounds like Marsalis is pretty traditional when it comes to classical too – he is not responding to minimalism or atonality or what have you, but he seems to be reaching all the way back to Dvorak’s and Cook’s century-old dream of introducing the black idiom to the Classical tradition. The sounds of the fife in the first movement and the church music in the second sound to me like Marsalis may have succeeded: his symphony is black, it’s classical, and it is unmistakably American.


Defense of Conservative Artists PS

I have so little formal knowledge of music, I’m really not the guy to say what’s novel, what’s stale, etc. I am in even less of a position to make that judgement about Marsalis in particular. But I would like to offer up my favorite passage yet from The Rest of Noise as a general defense of artists not on the cutting edge of whatever is currently fashionable:

In 1984, the great American avant-garde composer Morton Feldman gave a lecture at the relentlessly up-to-date Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, Germany. “The people who you think are radicals might really be conservatives,” Feldman said on that occasion. “The people who you think are conservative might really be radical!” And he began to hum the Sibelius Fifth.

It’s a particular poignant moment if you know how much bile was directed at Sibelius throughout the first half of the century by the cultural elite for his refusal to go down the rabbit hole of atonality, and what it means for someone as avant-garde as Feldman to have said this.


The only Cook piece I could find on YouTube. “Cakewalk Smasher”:


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