A pianist-educator building awareness of black composers. Raymond Jackson tours with `elevating' message
Washington — Pianist Raymond Jackson is known for more than his musicmaking. He is spearheading an effort to gain exposure and recognition for an invisible group of composers: the black American classicists. Dr. Jackson, a music professor at Howard University here, is conveying the message about these virtually unknown artists through lectures and recitals across the United States, the West Indies, and Europe on what he calls his musical ``mission.''
Jackson was among the first to examine the black piano repertoire, in research for his doctorate at Juilliard in 1973. His thesis remains one of the most requested documents at the Juilliard library.
He sees his role as bringing more than entertainment to his listeners.
``Surely there are many people who come to a performance to be entertained, to hear something that is beautiful or perhaps exciting or different,'' he tells a Monitor interviewer. ``But the ultimate aim in my thought is to bring a message of healing, a message of elevation.
``Black music, in general, is educational - from an historical and social standpoint, as well as from an artistic standpoint,'' he adds. ``The music reflects social characteristics, the hardships people have gone through, people who are disappointed in life and love. The composer who is particularly attuned will take the characteristics and thread them through the composition. ``Unless it is pointed out or presented through an educational channel, the average listener may miss it.
``When one listens to George Gershwin, one hears a certain pathos. When you hear `Porgy and Bess,' you hear the wailing; you hear the choir singing; you hear the blues influence. It's obvious with `Porgy and Bess' because it is a well-known work. It has been well discussed and written about. The same thing is true of a black composer who may not be as well known.''
Jackson feels he has a special duty to spread the good news of this art form.
``Being a black artist, I feel it somewhat my responsibility to present this music on my program. If I don't, who will? The more I play something, the more I get feedback from the critics and large music groups, the more the interest is piqued. It's a very tedious, slow building process....''
Performance of the music, says Jackson, is like a tide -- it lifts all boats.
``It's an education to blacks as well as to whites. I know that this has been true of my background in growing up in a New England city where there was less emphasis on black culture.
``When I'm studying the music of black composers, I'm studying the history as well,'' he says.
Jackson grew up in Providence, R.I., and took his first piano lessons at the New England Conservatory of Music while attending junior high school.
Later, he graduated from the conservatory summa cum laude and earned the George Chadwick Medal - the first student to receive both honors.
He went on to study with Ania Dorfman (the first woman to perform as a soloist with conductor Arturo Toscanini) at Juilliard, and in Paris with Jeanne-Marie Darr'e. The Marguerite Long Competition and the 10th International Piano Competition in Rio de Janeiro are just two of the prizes he has won.
Jackson says he knew as a child that music was his calling.
``I felt a certain spiritual power elicited from the keyboard through me to the listener. This I realized very early.
``It was not a struggle to practice. I would get up early in the morning and play for three or four hours after having stayed up until 12 doing homework.''
His approach to his music was on display in this city last fall in a concert sponsored by the World Bank.
The program included ``In the Bottoms Suite,'' a work by Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) that draws heavily on folk tunes, and ``The Cuckoo,'' a bluesy work, by Howard Swanson (1909-78).
The influence of European styles was heard in Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's adaptation of the spiritual ``Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.''
Taylor, the son of an English mother and African father, took the American Negro spiritual and music from Africa and the West Indies and improvised on familiar melodies to create new compositions.
Jackson pointed out that Taylor's music is in the tradition of Brahms, Dvorak, and Grieg, who wove their national folk music into their works.
In today's younger black composers of serious music Jackson sees a more universal quality and fewer derivatives from black tradition.
But Jackson stresses the importance of identifying the music and its nuances as black, until the time comes when it is widely appreciated as part of the larger universe of music.
``As much as one wants to not necessarily dwell on one's blackness or say, `Here is a black composer,' we have to identify them.
``Hopefully, after they have become identified, it will be, `Here is a composer who happens to be black,' rather than, `Here is a black composer.'
``And if you say, `Here is a black composer,' it won't be his blackness that distinguishes him, but the fact that he is a good composer who has as fine a craftsmanship as any composer throughout the world. Eventually, we will get to that point.''