Some Private Thoughts on the History and Future of Race and Music in America

Nathaniel Brickens - ITF
Nathaniel Brickens, one of the world’s leading trombone teachers, leads a masterclass at the International Trombone Festival. Photo courtesy of the University of Texas.

The essay which follows is written by a Caucasian-American in his mid-80s, summarizing his thoughts on where we have been and where we are heading as he approaches the end of his life. He has been privileged by superb parental guidance, the privileges of his race, an excellent education, and hard work, to rise from the lower middle class to the upper middle class, while leading three of the nation’s most respected professional schools of music for 34 years. This tripartite essay begins with a brief history of race in the United States, continues with an autobiographical essay touching on relationships with African Americans with whom I have been privileged to come into contact, and concludes with a summary of where I think we are now and what I hope we will return to as a nation in order to secure in reality the dreams of our founders.

A Short History of Race in the United States

Science tells us that our planet has existed for more than 4 billion years, and that something approximating humanity has been here for 200,000 years—a mere .005% of the whole. The population of our planet held steady at about 100 million souls until the middle of the 18th century. Since then we’ve experienced continuous population growth until the present. We have now attained a global population of 7.4 billion people, to which we are presently adding another billion people every decade, creating ever more serious environmental and political problems in the process.

Historians tell us that human slavery goes back to the earliest recorded times, when victorious armies routinely took conquered human beings as slaves, especially when land was cheap and when difficult, repetitive, free labor was valued by the greedy. For many centuries people lived in the areas where they were born, and married partners who lived nearby. In days when no one traveled much, each continent developed people who looked and behaved much like one another, thus giving rise to the concept of race—based on variations that account for a minuscule amount of our overwhelmingly shared DNA .

Beginning in the fifteenth century adventuresome Europeans began to explore the rest of the world, propelled by religious evangelism, commercial motives, cultural arrogance, and for some a natural human desire to live and to believe as they wished. In the early seventeenth century a hardy group of largely English religious protestors came to what we now call New England. Within several decades they had driven the original inhabitants (whom we now call native Americans but who were identified in my childhood as savages) to desolate and unproductive parts of the continent. In 1619 other Englishmen brought African slaves for the first time to these shores, at first in small numbers. But by the middle of the nineteenth century the ca. 330,000 imported Africans had grown to almost four million strong. Though some were treated kindly by their owners, they nonetheless remained slaves. Many more were brutalized, women routinely raped, their spouses and children sold to other owners, denied an education, and treated as chattel. In 1776, when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he dreamed of a nation in which all men were created equal under God, though in a document where women were not mentioned and where people of color were considered but 3/5 of a human being. Three fifths of the signers of the American Constitution in 1787 themselves owned slaves, including both Washington and Jefferson. In 1790 Congress enacted the Naturalization Act, providing American citizenship for white landowners only.

During the nineteenth century America underwent a mounting divisiveness between the north and the south on the appropriateness of slavery as the nation grew toward the west. Congress passed an act in 1803 blocking any further importation of slaves to the United States. In 1820 Congress passed the Missouri Compromise, admitting Missouri as the 24th state, and granting Missouri’s status as a slave state. On August 21, 1831, America experienced the Nat Turner rebellion, producing a massacre of 200 black people and a new wave of oppressive legislation blocking the education, movement, and assembly of enslaved peoples. The Missouri Compromise remained in force for just over 30 years before it was repealed by the Compromise of 1850, which admitted California to the Union as a free state, while requiring California to send one pro-slavery senator to maintain the balance of power in the Senate. The American Colonization Society was established in 1816 by Robert Finley to encourage and support the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857, which held that the U.S. Constitution was not meant to include American citizenship for black people, whether enslaved or not. Later Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes characterized the Supreme Court’s ruling as the greatest self-inflicted wound in American history.

1860 brought the election of Abraham Lincoln as our sixteenth president, and almost immediately led to our Civil War (1861-65). Several southern states seceded from the Union, before shelling the Union’s Fort Sumpter In Charleston harbor, thus setting off a national calamity which ultimately resulted in the deaths of 600,000 Americans and the assassination of President Lincoln, three months after Congress had enacted the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution, barring slavery and involuntary servitude.

Reconstruction (1865-77), the turbulent era following the Civil War, represented the effort to reintegrate southern states from the Confederacy and four million newly freed slaves into the United States. Under the administration of President Andrew Johnson in 1865 and 1866, new southern state legislatures passed restrictive codes to control the labor and behavior of former slaves and other African Americans. In less than a decade, reactionary forces—including the Ku Klux Klan—would reverse the changes wrought by radical reconstruction in a violent backlash that restored white supremacy in the South. Under Johnson’s Presidential Reconstruction, all land that had been confiscated by the Union army and distributed to the freed slaves by the army or the Freedmen’s Bureau was returned to its pre-war owners.

When the Central Pacific Railroad decided in 1864 to begin work on the western end of the transcontinental railroad, white workers, whom the company preferred, did not sign on in numbers anything close to what was needed. In January 1865, realizing the skills of Chinese workers, the railroad hired 50 Chinese and then 50 more. But the demand for labor increased; white workers remained reluctant to do such backbreaking, hazardous work. More Chinese immigrants began arriving in California, and two years later some 90% of the work force was Chinese. Nonetheless, wages for Chinese workers were 30–50% lower than those received by whites for the same jobs, and Chinese workers had to pay for their own food. They also endured the most challenging and dangerous work, including tunneling and the use of explosives. With all that, some faced physical abuse from their supervisors.

Institutional racism remained alive and well throughout America’s twentieth century. “The Birth of a Nation”, originally called “The Klansman”, is a 1915 American silent epic drama filmed and directed by D.W. Griffith. In response to the film’s despicable depictions of black people and its grotesque distortion of Civil War history, African Americans across the nation organized protests against “The Birth of a Nation.” In places like Boston, where thousands of white people viewed the film, black leaders tried to have it banned on the basis that it inflamed racial tensions and could incite violence. The NAACP spearheaded an unsuccessful campaign to ban the film, while President Woodrow Wilson invited congressman and senators into the White House for a private showing.

The Tulsa Race Massacre took place on May 31 and June 1, 1921, when mobs of white residents, many of them deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It has been called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history.” The attack, carried out on the ground and from private aircraft, destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district—then the most prosperous black community in the United States and known as Black Wall Street. More than 800 people were admitted to hospitals and as many as 6000 black residents were interned in large facilities, many of them for several days. The Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially recorded 36 dead.

America’s refusal in 1939 to admit the 900 passengers of the S.S. Saint Louis, condemning them to return to Europe and to eventual death in German concentration camps, was as evil as our imprisonment in 1941 of 110,000 Japanese Americans for a sin no worse than living in the land of their birth.

I cannot skip Easter of 1939 without recalling that the Daughters of the American Revolution, who owned Constitution Hall in Washington, denied Marian Anderson the possibility of performing there. With the encouragement of Eleanor Roosevelt, Miss Anderson instead sang a recital for 50,000 people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which she opened with “America”:

My country tis of thee
Sweet land of Liberty,
Of thee I sing.
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
Land where my fathers died,
From every mountain side
Let freedom ring.

We can skip France’s Dreyfus affair of 1894-95, Turkey’s slaughter of the Armenians in 1915, Hitler’s persecution of the Jews from 1933 to 1945, the dreadful racial regime known in South Africa during the period 1948 -1994 as apartheid, and the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950, simply because they did not take place in the United States. Clearly, racial discrimination is not peculiar to our country. Yet its many harms persist. Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Jackie Robinson, Angela Davis, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, Barbara Jordan, James Baldwin, Shirley Chisholm, WEB Dubois, Marian Anderson, Condoleezza Rice,  Magic Johnson, Coretta Scott King, Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, and Barack and Michelle Obama are only a few of the black leaders who have led and inspired not only people of their own race but most of the rest of America. Among the important signposts concerning race relations in the United States during more recent times are the feats of the Tuskegee Airmen, Harry Truman’s desegregation of the armed forces in 1947, The Supreme Court 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education desegregating the nation’s public schools, the Little Rock integration disturbances of 1957, James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi in 1962, the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombings of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the “Bloody Sunday” March in Birmingham, Alabama led in March 1965 by John Lewis, of which revulsion over the response of Alabama state troopers paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the election and reelection of our first black president in 2008 and 2012, and the Black Lives Matter movement of 2013-20 in response to the continued killings by police of unarmed black men and women.


My Experiences & Relationships

I was born in Rochester, NY in the summer of 1935. I lived in Rochester until 1945, when my father joined the bass section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and afterwards in Boston till I graduated from Milton Academy in 1953 and Harvard in 1957. During all that time I cannot remember ever having met or spoken with a person of color. It was only as a graduate student at Princeton in 1963 that I met a black janitor, working during the evening, cleaning faculty offices. At the time I was working late myself in order to complete my doctoral dissertation. Because we both needed a break, I decided to invite my new friend for a cup of coffee. I found him to be a very nice fellow of real intelligence, and we got into the habit of regular cups of coffee to discuss the tragic administration of John F Kennedy. A couple of years later, in another Princeton building where I was supposed to offer academic advice to undergraduates, I was assigned a young black freshman who told me that he was intentionally doing less than his academic best because his mother, whom he loved very much, was working in Newark on the most menial jobs in order to help put him through Princeton. It was only with considerable effort that I was able to persuade him that his mother cared about nothing more in the world than his success at Princeton. He promised me that he would do his best to succeed, and with sizable effort on his part, he did so. In my 10 years at Princeton, I lived in a neighborhood that was separated by a wall from the Black residents of that handsome community. Though I had always admired Woodrow Wilson as a president not only of Princeton but of the United States, I was recently stirred by the fact that Princeton’s current president, Christopher Eisgruber, has moved to take Wilson’s name away from the school of public and international affairs which had long borne his name—the result of information uncovered about Wilson’s racist past.

In the fall of 1968 I moved to a more senior faculty position at MIT, where shortly I had the privilege of meeting a wonderful black violist named Marcus Thompson, whom I succeeded in helping to recruit to the MIT faculty, where he now holds the rank of Institute Professor—a special honor reserved for the most distinguished of MIT faculty. By the time I became the director of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester in the fall of 1972, I knew I had the opportunity as an academic administrator to be on the lookout for especially talented minority candidates. Thus I was able to recruit Paul Burgett, a black Eastman Ph.D., to the position of Dean of Students, from which he was ultimately recruited by the president of the University of Rochester as Vice President for Student Affairs and special advisor to the president. I recruited Judith Walk and Phyllis Wade Logan as deans of students as well, along with violist George Taylor and tenor Seth McCoy, both gifted artists and teachers. Later, at the University of Texas at Austin, I was able to recruit Nathaniel Brickens, now the nation’s most sought after trombone teacher; musicologist Charles Carson, a fine scholar; and jazz trumpeter Ron Westray, now a member of Wynton Marsallis’s jazz ensemble in New York City. It should be noted in this connection that jazz was not taught at any American music school until 1968, after Lyndon Johnson had passed civil rights legislation. Relevant here is the fact that the appointment of the first black member of UT’s Jazz faculty was made only in 2001, for the University of Texas is in fact a Southern university. We have come a long way from the days when Barbara Smith Conrad, then a senior in our School of Music, was taken off the role of Dido in Purcell’s famous opera “Dido and Aeneas,” at the order of the chairman of the University’s Board of Regents.

During my Eastman years I had the privilege of commissioning a wonderful work of music by Joseph Schwantner, a Pulitzer Prize winning composer, a work for narrator and orchestra on texts by Martin Luther King. The work was inspired when my dear wife and I were listening to the 1979 World Series, played by the Baltimore Orioles and the Pittsburgh Pirates. I was especially impressed that the Pirates’ magnificent first baseman, Willie Stargell, had won the series for Pittsburgh by hitting a home run in each of the last three games. I was impressed, too, when Stargell was told on television that he had won the World Series, to which he responded by asking his questioner whether he had ever played baseball by himself. I was impressed by Stargell’s ability to succeed under pressure, by the mellifluous quality of his voice, and by his willingness to share the spotlight with others. I was deeply touched when he accepted my invitation to appear as soloist on an East Coast tour of the Eastman Philharmonia, in which he performed as soloist in Joseph Schwantner’s new work.

I knew I had chosen the right man for the assignment when, on the second night of our tour in Philadelphia, a member of the Philadelphia press got past my security guards to ask Willie whether he was not embarrassed to appear as soloist in a field where he had so obviously limited a background. He said he had been thinking about the question and wanted to make it clear that while there were aspects of playing baseball which were very much like the role of a concert artist, there were also aspects of the two activities that are quite different from one another. He noted that in both roles he wore absolutely ridiculous costumes. But he went on to say that at a baseball game, if one struck out or hit into too many double plays too often, the fans recognized that. They would begin by booing, and if failure lasted too long, they began to throw rocks and batteries. He recalled that the previous night in the Kennedy Center, the audience had applauded when he walked on stage, without having any idea whether he would perform his role with distinction or not. At the conclusion of his performance, the audience all applauded with vigor, without any further knowledge of whether he had performed well or not. His recording of “New Morning” is available on a wonderful website in my honor set up by the Eastman School here. I also had the privilege of commissioning two additional musical works of music by black composers: George Walker’s “Eastman Overture” and Jonathan Bailey’s “American Voices,” for female narrator and trombone choir, recognizing five important black women of the 20th century: Marian Anderson, Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm, Coretta Scott King, and Barbara Jordan, ably recorded at the University of Texas by Nathaniel Brickens and his prize-winning trombone choir. It was also my honor to serve a term as a member of the visiting committee of the School of Music at Howard University and to act for five years as the chair of the advisory committee for Samuel Floyd’s Center for Black Music Research in Chicago. All of the African American musicians whom I have gotten to know personally have been human beings of great intelligence, judgment, poise, integrity, and graciousness.


Race & Music from Here on Forward

Jazz, a new kind of music that evolved from ragtime around the turn of the twentieth century, was invented by African Americans. It was not taught in American music schools until 1968, three years after Lyndon Johnson had put through civil rights legislation. The first three schools in which jazz was introduced were Indiana University, the Eastman School of Music (University of Rochester), and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. One of America’s musical all-stars, the late Gunther Schuller, was in those days president of NEC. Along with the jazz program he introduced the idea of a musical hybrid which he called “third stream”, the result of the musical marriage between the classical canon and jazz. In 1999 I had the privilege of having lunch with Gunther, and I asked him what he thought as we approached the new century about the idea of third stream. “Oh,” said he, “during the last 30 years thousands of young musicians have come to America from all over the world—from Eastern Europe, from Asia, from Latin America, from Africa, and from the Caribbean, creating dozens of musical rivers that flow into the most remarkable musical ocean.”

In 2018, in memory of my late wife, I published a book entitled “Woof”–the story of the seventeen tenured dogs who graced our lives during 42 years of marriage. Eleven of those dogs were golden retrievers—beautiful animals who were bred to be handsome, loving, and kind. But the fact was that, like the royal families of Europe, they had been so intensely interbred that they could not survive for more than a decade before succumbing to cancer. We were also blessed, however, by six wonderful dogs of mixed breed, animals who are often called mutts. These dogs were equally treasured in our family. They were equally kind and intelligent, for most sentient beings normally respond with love when it is offered to them, and without the inbreeding of golden retrievers these fellows normally lived between fifteen and twenty years. For this reason Carol and I called them American dogs!

When Barack Obama was elected our 44th president in 2008, Carol and I rejoiced with many others in the hope that our country was finally overcoming racial prejudice. We came to admire Barack and Michelle Obama as a gift from God for the future of the United States. But with the election in 2016 of Donald Trump as President Obama’s successor, our nation was thrown into a paroxysm of racial conflict. We were taken back to the days of Senator Benjamin Tillman, Gerald L.K. Smith, Father Charles Coughlin, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace. And to the tragically unnecessary deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Daniel Prude—all at the hands of the police, giving renewed urgency to the Black Lives Matter movement, whose overwhelmingly peaceful protest marches across the country have too often been met with force, placing the long-term health of our entire nation at risk.

I am proud to be an American, for the United States has provided me and my children with the blessings of a rich and rewarding life. But I fear for the future of our collective grandchildren in a country still haunted by the persistence of systemic racism and inequality, the growing supply of handguns, the existential threat of climate change, the epidemic of global food insecurity, the current pandemic, and the ongoing proliferation of nuclear weapons. None of these problems can be successfully dealt with without the collaboration of most if not all of the nations of an ever smaller world. All of us, especially those like myself who have been most privileged, need to do more. It is these considerations that make Schiller’s sentiment in the finale of the Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony all the more compelling. There the poet and the composer unite in the dream that all men (and women) will come together as members of the same family, in love and peace. In attaining that goal we will have to learn to cherish the differences that too often separate us in 2021. I fear we cannot survive without working together towards fulfilling in reality the goals that Thomas Jefferson articulated in our Declaration of Independence—with “all men” finally meaning “all persons, regardless of race, gender identity, or religion.”

Let me conclude by saluting Eastman’s current dean, Jamal Rossi, for the superb initiative he has taken in the establishment of the Eastman Action Commission for Racial Justice. Jamal, whom I greatly admire, is moving in exactly the right direction with strong musical leadership for these tumultuous times.

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