Can the world of classical music become more inclusive given its history? On this episode of Our Body Politic, guest host Celeste Headlee, a journalist and best-selling author, speaks with Professor Philip Ewell, professor of music theory at Hunter College about the history of classical music and Blackness. Then Celeste speaks with professor and Harpist Ashley Jackson about the significance of performing the works of Black female composers. Celeste is also joined by 8-time Grammy-winning musician Christian McBride on the links between jazz and classical music. We round out the show with Lara Downes, concert pianist, musical creator and host of the NPR video series Amplify, about performing for others and her hope for making an impact on the next generation.
Celeste Headlee [00:00:04] Hi, folks. We're so glad you're listening to Our Body Politic. If you haven't yet, remember to follow this podcast on your podcatcher of choice, like Apple or Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you have time, please leave us a review. It helps other listeners find us and we read them for your feedback. You can also reach out to us on Instagram and Twitter @OurBodyPolitic. We're here for you, with you and because of you. So keep letting us know what's on your mind. We'd also love for you to join in financially supporting the show if you're able. You can find out more at ourbodypolitic.com/donate. Thanks for listening.
This is Our Body Politic. I'm guest host Celeste Headlee, journalist and bestselling author, sitting in for Farai Chideya. Black musicians have been a powerful and often unrecognized force in the classical music canon. On our show, we're talking with some of today's leading artists about their work and what it'll take for BIPOC musicians to finally be heard by everyone. But first, what makes classical music classical? Is it a powerful crescendo or a complicated scale structure, or is it something else? We speak with Philip Ewell, professor of music theory at Hunter College of the City University of New York and author of On Music Theory and Making Music More Welcoming for Everyone. Welcome to the show, Professor Ewell.
Professor Philip Ewell [00:01:31] Thanks for having me, Celeste. I'm really looking forward to today's conversation.
Celeste Headlee [00:01:35] So can we start by asking what does classical mean? And I'm not trying to be snarky about this, but genres, they seem to be a little bit tricky, right? I mean, there's argument over what opera means. There's argument over what is Jazz versus what is classical. What is classical music?
Professor Philip Ewell [00:01:55] Yeah, that's a tough one, Celeste. It's of course, different things in different traditions. So in Iran, for instance, in India, they have classical music traditions and they use the word classical, I mean, at least in English translation. So in that very broad sense, I think classical music would just be what is sometimes called highbrow music, sophisticated music. And in a European sense, classical music, of course, would feature, as you know, composers like Mozart, Beethoven and Bach, etc. But classical music is a very, very broad topic. It's a very difficult thing to pin down.
Celeste Headlee [00:02:31] There's always been a racial aspect to that label of classical. It was used to sort of exclude groups of people. And I mean, I know this from my own family history that it was used to separate people who were considered to be educated from those who were not educated and people who were natural talents, tabula rasas us versus those who were steeped in history and came from the traditions of Johann Sebastian Bach and Beethoven, etc., etc.. Those were classical musicians who knew their craft versus somebody like Duke Ellington, who was talented but only knew popular music. And so to a certain extent, those who are Black and brown could be listened to in a Jazz club. But there would have been quite a scandal if they were brought to Carnegie Hall. And there was a scandal when they appeared in Carnegie Hall. Do you think there's still that sense to that word classical?
Professor Philip Ewell [00:03:31] I think yes. I think to a large extent, yes. Here I would cite my friend and colleague, Kira Thurman, in her wonderful book Singing Like Germans, where she unpacks a lot of classical music, especially the Africans who traveled to Germany to study and how they were perceived there, how they were received there. And just generally the idea that the dissonance that it causes in a white framework to see a Black pianist like Hazel Harrington, for instance, the first Black to play with the Berlin Philharmonic. There is a cognitive dissonance for the audience. Why is that? Because it's representative of whiteness, unless you say it plainly of white supremacy. But I hasten to point out often that you have to go back not far in U.S. history 80, 90 years. And the reason why white composers like Mozart and Bach were were better. It's because of their whiteness. And the white men who promoted those composers said so out just explicitly. John Powell, Percy Granger, Karl Ruggles. A long list of musicians in this country. Howard Hansen, George Eastman, Carl Seashore, all white men who would not have shied away for a second to talk about the inferiority of Blackness, the superiority of whiteness, and how and why we need to keep Bach, Mozart and Beethoven up on their hallowed hilltop. Because this is, quote unquote, the best music of the world, even though it represents, I often say not even .1% of the world's music. However, if you believe deeply in two things: white supremacy and patriarchy. If you believe those two things, you can claim that Beethoven and Brahms were the two best composers who ever wrote music on planet Earth. I don't believe that. I just think that they were really quite interesting composers actually.
Celeste Headlee [00:05:15] You are a professor of music theory, and I thought of music theory the way that mathematicians, I assume, think about math. And it's almost as though I had this realization that it had been racialized and genderized the same way that people looked at algorithms and realized that there were humans behind that, too.
Professor Philip Ewell [00:05:38] Absolutely.
Celeste Headlee [00:05:39] Like, these aren't objective rules. They should be.
Professor Philip Ewell [00:05:42] Mmm Hmm. But I don't think that practically they they actually can be. In fact, I don't even think they practically can be for math. And I speak with a little experience here. My dad was a number theorist, a mathematician, a Ph.D. from UCLA. And I myself was this very annoying math whiz growing up. I won't get into that. But it's true that there are a lot of people who try to tie math and music together and say this just it's just subjective. It's just what came down to us. We we really are only interpreting. We're just revealing the truth. But then you're absolutely right, Celeste. People finally woke up to the fact that, well, hang on, we use the word Europe and European to describe classical music often when in fact we're talking about Germany, France and Italy, and that's it. And we're not even talking about the complete countries. We're talking about Vienna and Berlin and Paris and Venice. We're barely talking about Rome, actually. So just think about that. We're talking about 1 to 2% of the European continent, literally, and we call it European music, we call it classical music. And I actually just blatantly say bluntly, I should say I call it white music, because that's the mythology that's been attached to classical music in the United States, and we should call it that, because that's the way it was conceived. And we should also call it male because that's the way it was conceived. And then we should allow our students to mull over all of these things as they wend their way through our systems of music education.
Celeste Headlee [00:07:08] You have talked about how explicit this becomes. John Powell was at one point of the most famous composers in the United States, and he was a blatant link between white supremacy and classical music. Can you talk about that?
Professor Philip Ewell [00:07:23] Oh, absolutely, yeah. He studied piano in Vienna, by the way, turn of the century. So he went to the homeland. Know that you know, when you know the work of John Powell, who was literally one of the authors of the Racial Integrity Act in Virginia in 1924, which gave us the “one drop rule” which meant that if you had one drop of Negro blood, you were “colored”. So obviously, you, Celeste and I, were both colored people because we both have at least.
Celeste Headlee [00:07:53] One way more than it.
Professor Philip Ewell [00:07:54] I got a couple of drops in me! But he was very important. And he wrote this a piece called The Negro Rhapsody. So Rhapsody Negra. It's either French or in Italian. And he essentially profited off of Blackness because, oh, I'm going to use some Black musical genres in this symphony. Whereas behind the scenes, he was a hard core white supremacist of, you know, exactly 100 years ago. And he was really into promoting bluegrass and Appalachian music as a great American music, completely oblivious to the fact that the banjo is an African instrument. So he was extremely influential.
Celeste Headlee [00:08:36] Can you separate the music from this history? I mean, in other words, can you separate Wagner from the way it was sometimes used in Nazi circles? Can you separate John Powell from his white supremacy? Can you separate the musician from their beliefs?
Professor Philip Ewell [00:08:56] Can we separate the art from what are sometimes called monstrous men? Or, as I like to call them, men. So can we separate it? Actually, I find it extremely hard to separate.
Celeste Headlee [00:09:12] Me too.
Professor Philip Ewell [00:09:13] To actually do that. So I don't know the answer to that question. I think the best way I can answer it is through the words of my colleague Will Chang, who teaches at Dartmouth. He wrote a great piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education Why I still teach R. Kelly and Michael Jackson to my students. And I do it because I want them to realize that we can be influenced by these people and we can fall under their spell even. And we can't allow ourselves to be so invested in any one name, like, for example, in music theory. There are many people who became too invested in Heinrich Schenker as a figure, as a person, and they deified him and they put him on this inscrutable place that he never should have been there. Right. So I think that there is a worth still to engaging with with the work of these people. Sometimes the work is very beautiful, but we have to always keep in mind what they were outside because that's part of who they were too, and that's part of who their art is as well.
Celeste Headlee [00:10:12] So let me ask you one more question before we end. And Heinrich Schenker is a great way into this. Heinrich Schenker, for our listeners, was incredibly important to music theory, a kind of seminal music theorist. Almost every still musician at some point learns about Heinrich Schenker, a famous anti-Semite.
Professor Philip Ewell [00:10:34] Yeah, who himself was Jewish.
Celeste Headlee [00:10:36] Yes. And my grandfather was shut out of doors his entire life because of his color. He was insulted and lost income, Troubled Island was closed because he and Langston Hughes after six days of standing ovations. Yes. Yeah. Because of his color.
Professor Philip Ewell [00:10:55] 1949.
Celeste Headlee [00:10:56] And let me ask you the question that I was too young when he passed away to ask him: why keep doing this? In this industry that doesn't want us?
Professor Philip Ewell [00:11:08] Mm hmm. Yeah, That's a really tough one, Celeste. I do often think to myself that sometimes Blackness and music theory, for example, it's kind of an oil and water situation with this. Just not… They're not compatible. Still, I'm not saying that they never can be. But despite the fact that there are quite legitimate attempts to, you know, alleviate that incompatibility, they exist people out there are doing really great things, but it's still just the dismissiveness of the anti-Blackness, the just the interminable out of hand denigration, which is still there when academic music deals with Blackness. It kind of is a very… I am pessimistic at times, I have to be honest. But the optimism happens when I think of the hundreds and, yes, thousands of younger scholars, and I see how eagerly they want to make these changes and how they're pressuring the power structures. Then I have a great deal of optimism because I can see and I can hear and I know that there are people out there who want to make these changes.
Celeste Headlee [00:12:11] Dr. Philip Ewell professor of music theory at Hunter College of the City University of New York. Thank you so much for joining me.
Professor Philip Ewell [00:12:17] Celeste Thanks for having me. This was fun.
Celeste Headlee [00:12:24] Classical music has long overlooked or ignored the work of nonwhite and female composers. But the new wave of academics and performers is hoping to bring the music of BIPOC artists to the stage and into the classrooms of universities and conservatories. One of those academics is Hunter College professor and award winning harpist Ashley Jackson, who says her doctoral research into the legendary Black female composer Margaret Bonds became a pivotal point in her development as an artist and her debut solo album, Ennanga, which we're listening to right now, highlights the diversity of American music and the artistry of Black composers. I should also mention that piece we're hearing was composed by my grandfather, William Grant Still. Ashley Jackson joins me now. Ashley, thank you so much for being on the show.
Ashley Jackson [00:13:15] Thanks so much for having me, Celeste.
Celeste Headlee [00:13:17] So let's start with you and your instrument, because you play the harp, which could not be more associated with traditional classical music, right? Yet you have used this instrument to blur the lines between genres of music, to blur those lines between contemporary music, classical music, even Negro spirituals. What drew you to doing this?
Ashley Jackson [00:13:41] Sure, Celeste. Especially during my doctoral studies at Juilliard, I started thinking a lot about what I like to call my musical DNA. Really? Just the music that I come from, the music that I listen to growing up. And as I got out of being a student and into the real world of professorships and performing, it also got me thinking about the history of the instrument. And harp is actually one of the oldest instruments in the world with roots in Africa. So for me, that's where the story begins. And when you think about that, it then it opens up a possibility for blending genres, for exploring new types of textures. If you think about where this instrument comes from, tapping into those, particularly West African roots just makes sense.
Celeste Headlee [00:14:26] And I wonder what that was experience was like for you studying the harp. Because I can't imagine that a lot of the music, you know, what's considered to be the standard repertoire for harp is not usually African music. You know, they're not basing it on the Ennanga, the African harp, right? They're basing it on what's generally written by white male European composers.
Ashley Jackson [00:14:49] Sure. And so for really all of my time as a student undergrad through my doctoral studies, I really felt like I was living in two different musical worlds. I had the music that I studied in conservatories and the music that I loved. You know, I love studying Bach, I loved studying Debussy, but I also had the music that I grew up listening to: Jazz, soul music and gospel. As I got more focused in my career I just always looked for ways to meld those two worlds together. Because music, all music, speaks to all of us and taps on all emotions that we all feel. So regardless of the genre, I think music has the ability to move. And so that's what encourages me to just keep opening up the repertoire and expanding what our definition of classical music is.
Celeste Headlee [00:15:37] How do you address this racial, white racial framework, especially with your students, those who don't understand what European classical music owes to other parts of the world?
Ashley Jackson [00:15:49] Since I've been teaching at Hunter specifically, I've been fortunate to teach a variety of courses. So I've taught chamber music, but I've also taught large intro music history classes, and particularly in those my students are predominantly non-majors. And that's actually an opportunity for me to perhaps flip the script. And so what I'll do is at the beginning of those semester, I'll ask them, what's the first word that they think of when they hear classical music? Because that just kind of lets me know where I have to start and what I have to break down. And with those responses, I challenge myself to make sure that with every lesson, every time I showed up in the classroom, I was not only presenting quote unquote, the standards, but alongside the music of Margaret Bonds, alongside the music from the civil rights movement, because we can learn just as much about music history and history from those composers as well as as the ones who've been deemed the standard.
Celeste Headlee [00:16:45] You wrote a really great piece for PBS that was called Envisioning an Anti-Racist Future in Classical Music. And you talked about an exercise you used with first year students when you begin to talk about opera. Can you tell us a little bit about that exercise and what it taught you about classical music and gen-z?
Ashley Jackson [00:17:03] Yes, And so it's very similar to my exercise with the music history students and what the goal of the opera section is to eventually help non-music majors feel comfortable talking about Porgy and Bess and Troubled Island. Those are the two operas that we discuss. Before we get there, I want first to understand their conceptions of opera. So I ask them, What do you think about when you hear the word opera? There's hesitancy about opera. It's often not in English. The tickets are very expensive. So, you know, the typical barriers that we would assume for our Gen Z students. And then after that, the following week, I break them up into groups and I have them design their own operas. But the goal being that they pitch it to a fictitious board of trustees, which is made up of, you know, four or five students of their peers. And this is for them to have some sort of buy in. And it also tells me, as their professor and as a performer, the stories that matter to them, the music that they want to hear, because I asked them lots of questions. What's the story? Who were the characters? What's the music? What's the marketing? You know, who were you trying to attract? And really interesting conversations come up, particularly around access and around the music itself. You know, they want to hear music of their time, the music that they're listening to, and they want to be able to go with their friends. So it teaches me a lot, and it varies even year to year. It's just been… I think my students constantly were teaching me, you know, how to stay relevant and speak to as many different audiences as a performer.
Celeste Headlee [00:18:39] You know, it seems like it's a big challenge because one of the things that sort of distinguishes classical music is the fact that we think of it as timeless. We think of it as music that has been so well crafted that it will stand the test of time. And yet you're trying to teach this to students who want to hear their own music. So how do you teach this music that is centuries old and that to them maybe doesn't feel relevant?
Ashley Jackson [00:19:07] Sure. The whole class… the semester itself is I'm asking my students to look at different art forms in New York City and focusing on the neighborhood of Harlem and its surroundings. And so I have them begin the semester by going up to different sub neighborhoods of Harlem, talking to the people so that they once we get into the history of the Harlem Renaissance and, you know, such historical works as Porgy and Bess and Troubled Island, they can begin to see that there might be some connections. That's the beautiful thing, is that music that's written 300 years ago still speak to us. Okay. Why is that? And it's emotional content. That's what it's all about. You know, we're constantly moving between the present and the past and looking for ways, the multiple ways in which there are connections between past and present.
Celeste Headlee [00:19:59] People may not recognize the name Troubled Island, Porgy and Bess, I think was premiered in the mid 1930s by Gershwin, of course. Troubled Island is an opera my grandfather William Grant Still wrote with Langston Hughes based on a play Langston Hughes wrote, and that was premiered in 1949 based on the story of the revolution in Haiti. This is a really good point to talk about say Porgy and Bess, because I want to talk about Tokenizing and other. How do you teach these things to people who don't belong to those communities and have them write papers about them and analyze them without crossing that line?
Ashley Jackson [00:20:41] It's tricky. And… but that's part of the learning process, right? We're going to have different opinions about things because these are non-majors and these are freshmen students in their first semesters. We're not looking very closely at the music. We focus more on reception history. So, for example, why Porgy and Bess is still part of the standard repertoire and what happened with Troubled Island after its premiere. I just go back to that first assignment where I had them go to Harlem and talk to the people there. It's about connections. There are more things that connect us than divide us. I believe that wholeheartedly. And that's where I'm coming from when I teach works like this.
Celeste Headlee [00:21:20] Ashley Jackson, harpist, Hunter College professor, thank you so much for joining us.
Ashley Jackson [00:21:25] Thanks for having me, Celeste.
Celeste Headlee [00:21:35] We turn next to yet another celebrated musician, this time from the world of Jazz. With eight Grammys under his belt, Christian McBride is a legendary bassist, composer and bandleader. He's also passionate about bringing Jazz music to the public and bringing up the next generation of Jazz musicians. He joins us to discuss what classical music can tell us about Jazz and what's possible for BIPOC representation in music now and the future. Always a pleasure to talk with you, Christian.
Christian McBride [00:22:07] Always a pleasure, Celeste. Montclair is not the same without you.
Celeste Headlee [00:22:13] I'm sure that's true. It's quieter. I mean, most people know you for Jazz, of course, but you have played in every possible genre I can think of, including lots of classical music. And of course, you attended Juilliard. Can you… can we start by kind of talking about first what Jazz and classical have in common? And then we kind of talk about what separates them?
Christian McBride [00:22:42] There's so many things that what I would say American classical music and European classical music have in common. Someone asks Joe Zawinul, the late great Joe Zawinul, Austrian composer and pianist, keyboardist, co-founder of Weather Report, the same question because, you know, he grew up in Vienna, so his background was, you know, what we were taught about the history of classical music. But he also loved Duke Ellington. He also loved Fats Waller and Art Tatum. And he says that improvisation is composing on the spot and composing is improvisation slowed way down. And so one of the things that you know, right from the bat, when you were composing a piece, you're still improvising, you're still making something up, you're just slowing it down so you could write it down. But when you’re improvising, that process is not written down, it's just coming to you as it comes. And that's one of the first things that I can think of. But I can also draw a parallel to when Jazz started to make a turn toward more expansive harmonies. This started happening in the forties and early fifties. There were a lot of Jazz musicians like Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, the late Elmo Hope, who were really paying close attention to people like Bartok and Ravel and Stravinsky. And they were bringing those sorts of harmonies to the African-American rhythm of Jazz. So there's so many parallels between the two. That's just a couple that I can think of off the top of my head.
Celeste Headlee [00:24:31] And there's so much about the structure of music and the harmonies of music that remain the same, regardless of what genres.
Christian McBride [00:24:38] Absolutely.
Celeste Headlee [00:24:38] we’re playing with, the principles. So you grew up in Philadelphia, and I wonder how much do you think it matters where you grow up? How much does place matter?
Christian McBride [00:24:50] It matters a lot because I feel very lucky to have grown up in a city like Philadelphia, which is so rich in its history and its tradition of specifically music education. I was very privileged to play in the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, playing in the Temple University Youth Chamber Orchestra, which actually didn't have a real need for a bass. But they put me in it anyway, and just said, we just think you would be able to bring some serious bottom, too, to this orchestra. And they just had me playing cello parts most of the time. You know, back when I could do that. But yes, being in a city like Philadelphia, you had the Philadelphia Orchestra. When I was a little boy Eugene Ormandy was the musical director. And then for most of my teenage years, up until the time I moved to New York, Sir Riccardo Muti was the musical director. And so I got to grow up listening to Yo-Yo Ma play with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and then I could go hear Philadelphia's best local Jazz musicians. In that sense, I was extremely fortunate to grow up in a city like Philadelphia. Now, if you grew up somewhere like, you know, in the middle of Oklahoma or Arkansas, you're probably not going to get that level of exposure on a daily basis. So where you're from definitely plays a part.
Celeste Headlee [00:26:21] You have been exposed to a lot of different kinds of music. How do you go about, I guess how do you like learning other people's styles or other… styles from other cultures without tokenizing? Without appropriating. How do you do that?
Christian McBride [00:26:37] I think of learning different styles of music as far as literally learning different languages. When you're traveling on the road and you go to these different countries, you go to France, you go to Italy, you go to Spain, and you do your best to. At least learn a few words to kind of not just help you along your navigation when you're traveling, but to also show the people who live there that you really care about their culture. You're not trying to mock them. You're not trying to make fun of them, but you really want to show them, Hey, I'm trying, you know? And when it comes to music. There’s so… just like the language, there are so many different languages. There are so many different cultures. It's too easy to say, well, I'll learn what little I need to learn, to blend it with my culture and then come up with something, you know, quote unquote, new. But I would say when you're learning another style of music or you're learning another culture, treat them the way you would want someone to treat you. Because if you've got someone from Europe or Asia or South America coming into your neighborhood and they want to learn something about your culture, you want them to take it seriously. You want them to study. You want them to listen. You want them to pay attention. And once they've done that, then you can now start saying, well, hey, you know, what do you do with your culture? You know, now let's come together. There's got to be a period where you are serious about learning as much of that culture as much as you possibly can. When I was learning about classical music, my goal was not to say, Well, let me just learn as little of this as possible so I can blend it with my Jazz and come up with something cool. I really wanted to go as far down the rabbit hole as I could get. So I studied with Neal Courtney, who was the associate principal of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I studied with Louis Beato, who was the conductor of the Temple University Chamber Orchestra. I tried to get with people who I knew were deep in the world of classical music so I could learn about the history, the culture, and then I could step back and look at it and say, okay, this is how this has to be played. You've got to be serious about learning all of these different cultures.
Celeste Headlee [00:29:08] You know, Jazz has a lot of connections with the civil rights movement in the United States with organizing in Black America. Do you still see those connections between Jazz and those movements today?
Christian McBride [00:29:24] Oh, absolutely. I think that that has never waned. If you go back to Duke Ellington composing Black, Brown and Beige in the early 1940s, you take that right on up through Sonny Rollins and Max Roach and Gil Scott-Heron to Anthony Davis, to Mary Lou Williams, to Wynton Marsalis, to Billy Childs. And if I may say so, I've made little contribution to that. You know, So I think in terms of American classical music, which is known as Jazz, it has never really gotten away from the concept of making a sonic portrait and a sonic antidote to the social issues that we face.
Celeste Headlee [00:30:10] Christian McBride. Award winning Jazz musician, composer, educator. Lots of things. Eight time Grammy winner..
Christian McBride [00:30:16] And Celeste Headlee, fan.
Celeste Headlee [00:30:20] Celeste Headlee friend. Thank you so much.
Christian McBride [00:30:22] That's right.
Celeste Headlee [00:30:48] This is Our Body Politic. I'm Celeste Headlee, sitting in for Farai Chideya. Lara Downes is one of the nation's most celebrated and talented concert pianists and advocates of the classical arts in the 21st century. Her albums routinely graced the top of the Billboard charts, and her music often graces the ears of lucky audience members in attendance at Carnegie Hall in New York or the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. When she was younger, there was a moment when archeology called out to her. But Laura dreamed of becoming a concert pianist, and today, in some ways, she now does both. Her music excavates and lifts up the lost or ignored compositions of classical Black composers like Florence Price, Margaret Bonds and Scott Joplin. And her NPR video series Amplify makes space for Black artists creating today. Joining me to talk about her love of music, her exploration of Black compositional history, and the changes needed to create an equitable classical music industry is renowned classical pianist Lara Downes. Lara, welcome to Our Body Politic.
Lara Downes [00:31:56] Thank you. It is amazing to be here.
Celeste Headlee [00:31:58] So watching you play is an experience in the same way that hearing you play is especially something like Belief in Spring. Franz Schubert You have a sense of movement that flows in the same way as, say, the flow of water.
One of our producers mentioned that water is an element that can enter any space and it can create incredible change. And I wonder if that quality could apply to you as a Black woman. You're very adaptability in the classical music space might give you this power to create change.
Lara Downes [00:32:59] Well, I hope so. And what a beautiful thing to hear. That's a wonderful thought and sort of a metaphor. I mean, it's learned so early. And I guess that I learned that at around the same time that I was learning the piano, because those were the first two things I learned. I was three years old by the time I was at the keyboard. And I can't describe to you, I think, exactly what parts of me knew initially that it was a space I had to infiltrate. But, you know, it's on so many levels. I always bring up this picture that's kind of embedded in my memory of practicing the piano or having my piano lessons in studios where the walls were covered with these portraits of dead, white bearded Germanic men. So that relationship with those faces was there from the beginning. And clearly I was not included in that company. So my love of the music and my touch on the keyboard and my ears, my creativity was bringing me into that space. But there was a message from the beginning. You're going to have to find your way. And yes, fluidity and yes, flexibility and yes, adaptability. And, you know, just be how and what you can be in this space.
Celeste Headlee [00:34:15] I mean, you've talked about this, that the music you were playing did not contain your story, and yet it had the power to move you so deeply that it has not only become your life's work, but it has kept you for decades since That seems to be two pieces that are kind of hard to hold in my head at the same time.
Lara Downes [00:34:39] Well, it didn't contain one part of my story. We all have many stories. I mean, for me, the music contained very important parts of my story. For example, loss, which was a big part of my story from, you know, sadly, an early age. I think I connected with the deep humanity in the music. I didn't care that Beethoven was a genius. I didn't care about the history, you know, the history of his world and his time. What I cared about was what I sensed in that music of him as a man and his sadness, his grief, his rage, his ability to channel those things into something so beautiful. That's where I connected. That's where I can continue to connect. And, you know, through all of my explorations of music that do reflect other parts of my identity, the music of Schumann, and, you know, all of the composers whose music has lasted and moves us as deeply as it does because of that, because of the core human essence in it.
Celeste Headlee [00:35:41] The genius in some ways of some of these composers is in their ability to create on a level that transcends centuries, right? That can then move you, you know, write that can speak to you regardless of what language you speak, regardless of what age you are. And this is something that you have been trying to use to reach young people in a way that it shows them that they, too, can have that sort of basic place in classical music. It speaks to people on a very, very human level. Can you tell me a little bit about how you do that?
Lara Downes [00:36:17] It's a process of stripping away artificial constructs that we've put in the way that get in the way of people just hearing and feeling this music. I mean, I think that for the longest time now, the education piece of classical music has been so focused on great man, great genius, you know, marble bust on shelf, all of these things that are old and dusty and immediately can just turn you away, deflect you from the essence of the music. So it's really stripping that away. It's listen for the love, listen for the pain, and then finding the points of connection, which again, of course, we all have, because one human life is not that different from another. We experience the same things in our lives, man. And I think I have a real desire to find those points of connection because you can build on them. You know, the more I think about it. Finding this mission, this job to do, I think, is probably what's kept me at it. For so long and you know so strongly because you saw it performing and you love having an audience in the room with you that is a knowledgeable audience that is there because they want to be and they can afford the ticket price and they can have an informed, educated conversation with you about the music you've played. But I remember the first times that I stepped outside of that space, and I'm a baby pianist at this point, and I'm doing little concerts wherever they'll have me. And there was a super tangential thing that was called an outreach. I did not understand what we were doing. Why am I going into this school? Why am I going to this school gym and playing this broken piano for these kids who are restless? But then the moment that I found the seed of a connection with those kids and I found the words I could speak in the way I could present the music that would turn on the lights for them, that would draw them in. I was like, Oh, this is actually why I'm here in the first place. This is why I was in the fancy room. So I can be in this room because to create this connection, to create this new landscape of understanding and awareness to me was was exhilarating and beautiful.
Celeste Headlee [00:38:35] I mean, I got to say, towards the end of my grandfather's life, when he had been sort of cruelly rejected by the classical music world. He ended up going to schools and teaching his young school audience because he said to these kids, they don't care what color I am. They just love what I'm bringing to them. You have been doing a lot of work in Detroit. Tell me about an experience you've had with the young people in Detroit that has stuck with you.
Lara Downes [00:39:03] Mm hmm. One of the best of all these years. So this is now two years ago, I guess just when orchestras were coming back and I was in Detroit playing with the orchestra, the Florence Price Concerto, which is a piece I play a lot. I don't think that they had done it before on a mainstage concert, so it's kind of a big deal. And it was just wonderful to be back and be back with orchestras. And in that beautiful hall in Detroit, we were coming out of the pandemic, so they were able to bring kids back into the hall, the first school concerts they had done since 2020. And so they bussed in all these kids and it's Detroit, and they were mostly all Black and brown kids. And we had decided that I would play the concerto and we divided up into its three sections, and I introduced each one and it was just really wonderful, I mean, I think the kids were excited to be there. Let's be, you know, somewhere, anywhere. And I was able to tell stories about Florence Price and her life and her place in this history. I could tell, you know, I was pulling them in quickly. But when we got to the last section, the last section of that piece is a Juba dance. And I explained to them, here's this woman 100 years ago with absolutely no entry into this space that she wants so badly to belong in. And, you know, she's sending her scores to the Boston Symphony and Chicago and everywhere because she wants to be heard on these great stages. And she is beautifully trained. She's gone to the New England Conservatory. She can write however she wants. She could write your perfect post Romantic, Dvorak-informed Symphony. But what does she do? She chooses to write a Juba dance. And so what she's saying is, I want to turn to this space and I want to bring my ancestors with me. I want to bring my story with me, my true self with me. And by saying that she's saying, you're telling me I don't belong here, I do. This story is important. And I said this to the kids and I said, We all belong here. All of our stories are important. And there was this big round of applause and it was just a beautiful end to the concert. And then I went back to my dressing room, and that's when it hit me that for those kids to enter into this iconic American arts space for the first time and not to hear Peter and the Wolf and I love Peter and the wolf, but not to hear something that does not on its face represent them, but instead to be welcomed in as part of a living history. This changes now their future as it relates to the arts, to our American culture, to our American history, to where they think they have entry. And I just sat there for a minute and absorbed the magnitude of that.
Celeste Headlee - Let's talk about Florence Price a little more. This is a name that is being heard more and more, thank goodness. But that's largely owing to academics who have been so insistent that people say it more. And artists like you and Althea Waits and other pianists and musicians who have insisted that this music needs to be heard. Tell us about Florence Price and why we have not heard her music. And if people haven't heard her music. Start with the Juba, because if you want to talk about bringing Black joy in a concert hall, you know, that is a great piece. Yeah, but tell us about her.
Lara Downes [00:42:30] I mean, fascinating woman born in Little Rock, migrated north to Chicago, part of the migration and really made herself a presence there. You know, it was such a time. Chicago in the thirties, there was a whole world of art and music to be part of. As a Black woman, as a Black artist. And she did everything that one could do in that space. And she wanted more. She sort of claimed her place in the history books because she won this composition competition in Chicago called the Wanamaker Competition. And her prize, along with a cash prize. Her Symphony in E minor was played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And that was the first time that music by a Black woman had been played by one of our major orchestras. And, you know, that sounds like the happy ending to a story. But it wasn't. She wasn't able to achieve what she wanted to in her lifetime. And then after she died in 1953. Well, tastes were changing, right? The classical music world was moving quickly away from this sort of populist, friendly melody. Thank you. Yeah. Moving into serialism and what, frankly, was an academic and very white style, which was very controlled by white men. And there wasn't any space for this fusion of American sounds that had been popular in the thirties and had been promoted ever since Dvorak came to America in the late 1800s and said, Hey, people, this is…
Celeste Headlee [00:43:57] Black music is American music. Yes.
Lara Downes [00:43:59] Yes. Yeah. And that's that was really the ending of that chapter, very sadly for very many people, including your grandfather. So when she died, a large part of the reason that her music was forgotten, it was that her music was lost. Many of her manuscripts were left behind in a house in St Anne's, Illinois, tiny little village in Illinois, in a house, a house that had been her summer home. And it wasn't until 2009 that a young couple bought the house to renovate it and discovered these boxes of manuscripts in an attic. And when I say an attic, I mean an attic without a roof, you know, open to the elements just full of water damage and rodents and everything else. And they.
Celeste Headlee [00:44:36] Couldn't have thrown it away..
Lara Downes [00:44:37] They could, I guarantee you, they had a dumpster and they did not put those boxes in the dumpster. And that, to me, is the greatest miracle of all. I had the…
Celeste Headlee [00:44:45] I think about it all the time.
Lara Downes [00:44:46] Right. Yeah. Different couple, different day that music is gone. So those boxes were taken down to the University of Arkansas. Now, somehow, you know, some of her music had been published in her lifetime. And so I had come across one piece of hers way back, I mean, in the early 2000s in an anthology. And I just talk about this… this was an anthology I found in a library of piano music by Black women composers. It's like 12 pieces of music in the book. Not a big book, but I just fell in love with this fantasy by Florence Price and started playing it right away. And these were early days for me of exploring American music and what I knew about it and what I didn't know about it. So that was I mean, that was my gateway drug was that one piece by Florence Price.
Celeste Headlee [00:45:34] Is that the Fantasie Negre?
Lara Downes [00:45:35] Yeah, the first one. Yes.
And I mean, I remember so well the first time I played that for an audience and heard truly the gasps of recognition, of delight, of just, you know, this is something new, but it's not new. This is something I recognize.
Celeste Headlee [00:46:06] Your latest album, Love At Last, is full of optimism. And I mean, if you're ever in a bad mood that is the right album to put on.
Lara Downes - Oh, thank you.
Celeste Headlee - Is it a reflection of sort of your inner monologue? Do you feel more optimism about the work that you've been doing? I mean, because this has been your, as you say, determined goal to diversify this industry, to diversify this music throughout your career. Do you feel more hope?
Lara Downes [00:47:08] I have to say that I do to finally see the fruits of your labors and also to know, I think at this point it makes me happy and hopeful to know that most of what I'm doing will really bear fruit until long after I'm gone. And that's okay. That's really okay. There's so much to do. And the ways that I see whatever little, you know, whatever little contribution I'm making, the way that I see the effects of that just makes me determined again, that word… to do more. Whether that's a conversation as I have more and more often now with young musicians of color that I realize, oh, they've been watching like all these years. They've been watching. And you know what I'm doing, my presence here is giving them courage and is giving them a feeling that I never had at their age of being part of something, of seeing someone ahead of them, of having someone they can, they can reach out to as a mentor. Gate opener, whatever. All the things that we can be. That in itself, that's a good reason to get up in the morning.
Celeste Headlee [00:48:12] Laura Downes celebrated pianist host of NPR's Amplify. Thank you so much. It's always a joy.
Lara Downes [00:48:17] Oh, I love talking to you. Thank you so much, Celeste.
Celeste Headlee [00:48:21] Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts. You can also find us on social @OurBodyPolitic. Our Body Politic is produced by Diaspora Farms and Rococo Punch.
I'm today's host Celeste Headlee. Farai Chideya, Nina Spensley and Shanta Covington are executive producers. Emily J. Daly is our senior producer. Bridget McAllister is our booking producer. Monica Morales Garcia is our fact-checker and producer. Natyna Bean and Emily Ho are our associate producers. This episode was produced by Monica Morales Garcia, Andre Asuaje and Morgan Givens. It was engineered by Mike Garth.
This program is produced with support from the Luce Foundation, Open Society Foundation, Ford Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, The Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the BMe Community, Katie McGrath & JJ Abrams Family Foundation, The Pop Culture Collaborative, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.