You have been director of the Chattanooga Choral Society for the Preservation of African American Songs for some 23 years now. Tell us about the origins of this group?
The organization really got started in the 1960s. During college breaks, especially Christmas, a group of us would gather at the home of Edmonia Simmons and just sing together. We put on maybe one concert a year. In 1984, a former student and protégé of Simmons got a grant to study the programming of African American spirituals. He found that performance had declined, especially in the Southeast and among the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. That research defined the mission of the group. It was formally established in 1984. I became director in 1989.
You attended Hampton University, an historically black college in Virginia, and later became director of the choirs there. When did you start finding and collecting music of African American composers?
While at Hampton, I studied with Charles Flax, who was one of the favorite students of composer Robert Nathaniel Dett. Dett founded the music department at Hampton in 1912 and was the first African American composer to take the themes from spirituals and use them as the basis of new compositions. Flax often asked me to take a spiritual that he found and arrange it for a church choir because some of the published ones were not accessible for a volunteer choir. That’s how I became an arranger.
Dett was the subject of my doctoral dissertation, so that’s when I started collecting works by Dett and other African American composers. I probably have a couple thousand works, many that were out of circulation.
I went back to Hampton after graduate school and for some 24 years was choir director there. When I returned to my hometown of Chattanooga I was asked to head up the Chattanooga Choral Society for the Preservation of African American Songs. The organization is now connected with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where I have an endowed chair in American music and also lead the male chorus. So the university collaborates in our work of promoting and encouraging the programming and performance of African American music and composers.
How does the Choral Society go about encouraging the performance of African-American songs?
The Choral Society has a regular season of performances where we do a blended program of African American music, including art music, out-of-print pieces, old standards, some Gospel, and always some spirituals. We want to promote the tremendously wide expression that comes from African American music.
We just programmed Scott Joplin’s 1911 opera Treemonisha, a story of sharecroppers in Arkansas, where Joplin was raised. It is the first opera on the real life of African Americans in the country and is performed infrequently. Treemonisha was first staged in a concert performance in Atlanta in 1972 by the Afro-American Music Workshop of Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony under Robert Shaw. Shaw said one of the best choirs you can have is a mixed choir of white and black singers. That was his ideal of a great choral sound.
We also do collaborations with non-black choirs. We recently did the sacred services of Duke Ellington with a large choir of the United Methodist church in Chattanooga. It was fabulous. We believe this music is the greatest vehicle for bringing people together.
I also go around the country giving workshops and clinics. A lot of work is with church choirs. In the black community, in the early part of 20th century, the best music was done in church choirs. Church music has changed. We have gotten away from the choral tradition of church music. But there are still some pockets and those interested in promoting black music. I recently did a reading session at the Tennessee ACDA of “spirituals for the liturgical year.” This was encouraging people to use the spirituals as congregational hymns, not just a performance or anthem or presentation by the choir.
I also have a publishing company, MAR-VEL, specializing in music and traditions of African American composers. We have reedited a number of pieces that were out of print or out of the public domain.
Where do you tend to find these hidden gems of African American choral music?
Many black composers were based at colleges so they could get their works performed. So we found an abundance of literature in the choral libraries of HBCUs and other music schools.
What are some pieces that you would like to see performed more often?
Of course, I am a great fan of Dett. He had some 40 independent choral pieces. I can think of two in particular: The Ordering of Moses, a 45-minute oratorio, and Chariot Jubilee, a small cantata. Also Frederick Hall's cantata, Deliverance, is a wonderful piece.
John Wesley Work has a piece called Isaac Watts Contemplates the Cross, published in 1962. There are probably a hundred works of his that people do not know.
I would recommend two books to people interested in learning more about African American choral music:
Choral Music by African American Composers by Evelyn White includes the works of some 35 African American choral composers up through the 1980s.
Black Song: The Forge and the Flame by John Lovell Jr. is the most comprehensive text of African American spirituals.
How has Chorus America been helpful to you?
This is my first year to attend the Chorus America conference. My initial impression of Chorus America was that it was concerned just with professional choruses, but I was wrong about that. I came in 2012 along my assistant conductor so that we could get familiar with the resources that Chorus America has to offer.
I’m not sure to what degree Chorus America is known in the African American choral community. Chorus America is on my list now, and I will be certain that a couple of other folks come with me to the next conference.
MAR-VEL Publishing Company, choral music of African-American traditions and composers.
In Bright Mansions Above: The Choral Music of Roland M. Carter by University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Chamber Singers, J. Kevin Ford, director is available online.