Black American Music: Past and Present, 2d ed.
The 8 1/2 x 11[inches] size of the text, along with the Africana artwork on the cover, commands attention. Over 125 illustrations and 98 musical examples are interspersed throughout the narrative. Wide margins accommodate selected illustrations and examples. The overall design of the text has been done with care and contributes to its general attractiveness.
Throughout the narrative, music is placed in a socio-cultural context, which includes the author's perspective on how cultural imperialism, particularly in the United States, has exacted a toll on persons of African descent and negatively impacted the culture of the larger society. A minor problem which occurs early on--referring to Africa as a country--detracts from the power of the narrative.
Although Roach recognizes that African American music is a syncretic creation primarily involving African and European roots, she stresses both the importance of the African heritage and how this heritage was the sine qua non of the music. The author's perspective, then, offers a distinct contribution to our understanding about the essence of Africana music. A clear connection is made between the rich heritages enslaved Africans brought to the United States and the evolution of the spirituals from the calls, hollers, shouts, cries, and moans which emanated from the folk heritage to communicate what W. E. B. Du Bois called "the sorrow songs." Roach lays a controversy regarding the origin of the spirituals to rest when she acknowledges the contributions of the larger society and their songs, hymns, and miscellaneous music to the African American spirituals. But she quickly stresses how the impact of Africanisms on this music led to new creations and eventually to the music now known as the spirituals.
The spirituals, in turn, became the wellsprings of the concert music of African American composers such as Margaret Bonds, Undine Moore, Nathaniel Dett, Clarence Cameron White, and many others. In keeping with her stated goals for writing the text, the author focuses on and stresses the importance of African American composers and their music in each of the three major periods in which she organizes the text.
Part One begins in 1619 and extends to the 1870s. "The Awakening," or Part Two, includes the developments of the 1880s to the 1950s, while the last period covers the 1950s to the 1990s. As a caveat, the Coda or Part Four of the text departs from the periodicity schema and focuses on the Pan-African axis which the author entitles "Restoration and Reviviscence." Periodicity is a logical organizational device, for African American music developed chronologically. As musical events unfold, one can clearly see cause-and-effect relationships between subsequent developments.
African American music's debt to minstrelsy is acknowledged in Chapter VII. Much of this nation's vaudeville and popular entertainment developments are inextricably bound to this tradition. Despite minstrelsy's role in the historic negative stereotyping of African Americans through the media of popular culture, it has been a major contributor to the legacy of other music genres. The African heritage, the folk tradition, and minstrelsy led directly into jazz and what the author calls its allied forms, such as blues, rhythm and blues, gospel, and rock. Three very concise chapters are devoted to jazz and its allied forms. Essential background information is offered to introduce jazz to readers who may lack a general knowledge of the artform. Definitions, history, evolution, and a listing of selected composers and compositions which were influenced by jazz all coalesce to relate jazz to what Roach calls art music.
Selected composers of jazz and its allied forms are identified and discussed according to their particular musical contributions within the era in which they were active. This enables readers to understand the music's evolution from a long line of creative individuals who continued to build forms on the shoulders of their predecessors. Scores of jazz musicians are mentioned, but very little information is provided about them. Readers will need to do independent reading to fill in the lacunae. While it is important to shed light on the African American men and women who have written or arranged jazz, it is equally important to stress the importance of jazz improvisationalists. Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Mary Lou Williams, Sarah Vaughn, Gene Ammons, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald are known as jazz super stars primarily because of their stylistic improvisations and creativity more so than because of their written compositions. The author acknowledges the role of the aural/oral tradition in the development and perpetuation of jazz but places more stress on the contributions of those who have composed the music. Several jazz compositions were written on paper only after becoming extant through "head ar- rangements" or aural/oral creative methodologies. The Count Basie band in particular had several pieces in its book which were originally the result of head arrangements.
Roach provides a valuable service to scholars and readers who lack a specialized background in music when she explicates the contributions of African Americans to what she calls art music:
Simultaneous with developments in American jazz, composers wrote brilliantly in the area of art music. Originally designed for the society's elite, art music, or classical music, created a hierarchy and a stratification between high and low economic classes of society. Because the majority of African Americans were of the lowest economic strata, art music traditionally excluded them. Yet their talents and efforts directed many to be successful in this classical art form. (109)
Although some scholars, musicians, and critics argue that the blues, spirituals, gospel, and jazz comprise the true or authentic African American art music, because these forms and genres constitute the African-centered music of the African American masses, others argue that music in the European aristocratic tradition is somehow more artful than jazz or blues, or gospel.
The music Roach classifies as art music to a larger extent is European-centered. Because it is elitist and European-centered, it is not necessarily more artistic than jazz. The author's treatment of this information is well organized, lucidly explained, and synthesized so that it can be easily incorporated into a general music class, a humanities class, an African American or American music class, an African American studies or American studies reading list, or for special reading in music history or literature classes. Far more often than not, content pertaining to African American music and musicians is omitted from the broad music/music education curricula.
Part Three of the text, entitled "Freedom Now," focuses on the 1950s through the 1990s. In her essay on "Contemporary Jazz and its Agnates," the author synthesizes and simplifies some complex developments so that social influences and their impact on the musicians who created the music of the 1950s through the present may be readily assimilated. This is no small accomplishment. She achieves her goal of writing for a general audience by focusing on fundamentals such as definitions, the elements of music, and how these elements are manipulated to create the music.
The author's keen insight into "Contemporary Forms, Trends, and Composers of New Music" provides readers with a broad analysis. Her insider's knowledge of the music and backgrounds of African American composers and how their music and the music of contemporary jazz musicians often fuse to form thirdstream music is of importance to general readers so that they can see relationships which are sometimes ignored in similar texts.
The concluding section of the book, Part Four, contains information which is not readily available in many other single sources. In keeping with the current trend to link the creative and intellectual work of people of African descent under the aegis of Pan-African or Africana studies, the author identifies Africana composers from the Caribbean, South America, Europe, and Africa. Biographical material, coupled with information about some selected compositions of those composers, enables readers to conceptualize the global relationship among the musics of Africana people.
The publisher might consider making available to readers taperecorded renditions of the musical examples interspersed throughout the text. Doing so would be very helpful to teachers and professors who contemplate adopting the text for a music course. Roach's rich insider's back-ground as a graduate of Fisk University and a professor in a historically African American university shines throughout the text as a beacon light. Black American Music is a distinct and needed contribution to the literature.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1994|
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