June is generally recognized as Black Music Month, but as one noted executive believed it would be more accurately proclaimed “Blacks in All Music Month.” Music basically consists of three main types: folk, popular and classical. Most African Americans take great pride in Black Music Month. While African American history and achievements are thoroughly documented and publicized in popular and folk music, the history and achievements of African Americans in the European tradition of classical music are widely neglected and unknown.
Many African Americans incorrectly believe classical music is “White music,” and they voluntarily exclude themselves from appreciation, participation and benefits in a refined and cerebral segment of society. The contributions and achievement of people of African descent in classical music, also known as academic or art music, remains in a kind of cultural closet.
Classical music is subliminally associated with the concept of superiority. A growing body of research indicates young students regularly exposed to classical music have longer attentions spans, are more disciplined, and have better cognitive reasoning skills, especially if they learn to read music.
But ever since Chevalier de Saint Georges raised his violin to play at the court of Louis XVI in 18th-century France, the African presence has been felt in the world of classical music. Beethoven performed with Afro-European George Bridgetower in 1803 before he composed his best-known violin sonata in honor of Bridgetower. Beethoven later changed the name of the sonata to Kreutzner after a dispute with Bridgetower. However, Kreutzner never played the sonata.
Many African Americans are unaware that numerous African Americans gained domestic and international acclaim in classical music prior to the Civil War in both the North and South. In 1830, free and trained literate musicians organized a Negro Philharmonic society in New Orleans.
I recall when the first Black Music Month convention/symposium was spearheaded by major African American music executives several years before President Jimmy Carter proclaimed June as Black Music Month in 1979. President Barack Obama modified his 2013 proclamation to read African American Music Appreciation Month.
Robert “Bumps” Blackwell was one of numerous distinguished guest speakers for the inaugural Black Music Month convention/symposium. Bumps was noted for producing the first record to cross over from segregated Black radio to reach No. 1 on pop or mainstream radio. Sam Cooke was the artist and the record was “You Send Me.”
Prior to Cooke, Bumps had already managed and produced Little Richard and others. He had been a music mentor to the teenage Quincy Jones and connected to Ray Charles. Quincy later studied classical composition with the renowned Natalie Boulanger in France.
To the great surprise of record industry moguls and key African American executives, Bumps spoke against the concept of Black Music Month. Bumps told me that if African Americans argued for and supported the concept of Black Music Month, “we,” as African Americans, would be bamboozled and give justification for the prevailing system of neglect by media, educational institutions, orchestra administrators and others of our achievement and contribution in classical or so-called European music. Bumps believed that African Americans should proclaim “Blacks in All Music Month.”
Bumps was maligned, rejected and he suffered significant consequences for his position. The concept of Black Music Month was a high-level strategy to boost then-declining record sales in the R&B departments of major record labels.
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