A Century of Affirming African American Musical Identity

(NANM board members in 1941, Foster Memorial Hall, Pittsburgh. Pictured are Blanche K. Thompson, Josephine Inness, Henry L. Grant, Mary Cardwell Dawson, Clarence Hayden Wilson, and Florence B. Price. Photo credit: Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles "Teenie" Harris Archive)

For 100 years, the National Association of Negro Musicians, whose ranks include numerous choral conductors and composers, has played a vital role in preserving and building on African American music traditions.

The year 2019 marked the 100th anniversary of the country’s oldest organization dedicated to the preservation, encouragement, and advocacy of all genres of the music of African Americans. The National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM) was founded in 1919 by Henry Lee Grant, a music teacher from Washington DC, and Nora Holt, a composer and music columnist for the Chicago Defender. NANM was chartered in Chicago, where it held its first convention that same year. As editor Doris Evans McGinty noted in her 2004 documentary history of the organization, “The major issues that drove NANM at its inception … were the promotion of African-American performers and composers of classical music, the encouragement of fellowship among them, the preservation of the Negro spiritual, and the development of young African-American musicians.” Forty-two musicians attended the inaugural convention.

Today NANM claims a membership of approximately 800 and has plans to continue to grow. It has established five regional branches around the country, subdivided into 36 local branches. NANM’s annual conventions, including the centennial gathering last July in Chicago, feature workshops, seminars, lectures, masterclasses, performances, and, perhaps most important, opportunities to forge connections with colleagues. Throughout its history, the organization has actively supported emerging artists with scholarships and venues for performance. It holds an annual scholarship competition that alternates between vocalists and instrumentalists. Its first scholarship winner, in 1919, was the great contralto Marian Anderson. In addition to Anderson, some of its best-known members have been composers R. Nathaniel Dett and Florence B. Price and baritone William Warfield.

We asked six present-day choral musicians affiliated with NANM how the organization has carried out its mission through a century of change in American music and culture.

Clockwise, from top left: Brandon Waddles, Composer; former Conductor, Westminster Jubilee Singers, Westminster Choir College, Princeton, NJ; former Southeastern Region Board Member, NANM; Anne-Marie Hudley Simmons, Choir director, pianist, and marimbist; President, NANM; Roland Carter, Professor Emeritus, University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, former President and life member, NANM; David Morrow, Director, Morehouse College Glee Club, Atlanta; former President, NANM; Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, Founder and Artistic Director, Nathaniel Dett Chorale, Toronto; Zanaida Robles, Composer, conductor, singer; Board Member, NANM.

What sets NANM apart from other organizations? What benefits does it offer its members that they can’t find anywhere else?

David Morrow: What it does do for African Americans is give us a connection to our heritage, in terms of music born out of slavery, spirituals, and other music like that. The whole idea of the organization is to foster African American composers and performers of all kinds of music, but they’ve been particularly successful with African Americans in classical music … So it’s a good way for African Americans to galvanize their musical heritage.

Zanaida Robles: It provides a unique affinity group experience that you just can't get anywhere else. It affirms African American musical identity on multiple levels and challenges us to acknowledge our diversity in the context of our unity as Negro musicians. For example, for African American musicians who participate with NANM at the national level, there’s a warm, welcoming feeling; you don’t have to worry about explaining how to sing a spiritual. It is more than likely that you will have a musical experience that is more authentically innate and happens more naturally, and that allows us to reach deeper into our musical experience. And we’re able to have a more emotionally satisfying experience because we don’t have to constantly navigate differences with race and ethnicity.

Brainerd Blyden-Taylor: At the time NANM was formulated, NANM was doing the work that a lot of other organizations were doing for the white community. It was all of that for persons of color. It provided opportunity, support, and nurture for Black musicians of all stripes.


How did you first learn about NANM, and what led you to get involved?

Roland Carter: I was approached by Theodore Charles Stone, who was president of NANM in 1966-67, when I was a choirmaster at Hampton University, where I just graduated. We had tremendous performers and artists…who were all a part of NANM, participating: Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Dorothy Maynard, people I was able to meet at that time. To go to a conference and be around them was so invigorating and encouraging for us, because they were our idols. The organization opened up a world of performances and workshops. It contributed to who I am and what I’ve been able to achieve.

Robles: I first became acquainted with the organization when I was a sophomore in college. So I’ve been involved with them for 19 years. NANM has a robust way of getting involved with African American youth in the local schools. And so they reached out to my school, the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. They were looking for people to participate in their scholarship program. I was recruited to be a participant by the time I got to college.

Anne-Marie Hudley Simmons: I’m from Chicago, and when I was a student, I ran into Dr. [Theodore] Charles Stone, and that’s how I heard about the National Association of Negro Musicians. And when I came to New York to work on my masters and my doctorate, I ran into some people in Queens, and they invited me into their club, called the B-Sharps of Queens [the Long Island branch of NANM]. They invited me to their meetings, and I became a member. The lifeblood of the National Association of Negro Musicians is in its branches, and if you don’t have a healthy branch, you don’t have a healthy organization.


How do you explain the importance of the branches in the context of the larger organization?

Brandon Waddles: My work is mainly with the Detroit musicians branch. I'm a native of Detroit. These local branches make the dream work throughout the year. They are crucial forms of recruitment, especially because a lot of younger collegiate branches form under the wings of these larger branches. And they help to fundraise to bring these students to the national convention. They are part of the scholarship efforts—all of the scholarship competitions first happen at the local branch level. They are so important for creating visibility for the organization at large.


In its earlier days, one of NANM’s focuses was the concern that popular culture at the time was corrupting the spiritual tradition. How has that focus changed—and not changed—over the years?

Carter: The preservation of the spiritual, in my estimation, was not a topic or a subject until probably after the 40s or 50s. Earlier the intent was to raise the level of appreciation for the spiritual, but not necessarily to preserve, because we weren’t afraid of losing it at that point. People were singing the spiritual up until we get into the ‘60s and ‘70s and the Black Power movement. Then the spiritual became a concern for people—it was not seen as a treasure but as a reminder of slavery. So it was not really appreciated during that period.

It was then that we became concerned about the spirituals—preserving that music and the arrangements of composers and trying to celebrate African American music in connection with other movements in music.

Blyden-Taylor: Now we've got a younger crop of musicians like Marques Garrett and Brandon Waddles who are helping to refresh the spiritual and keep it alive. And that's important. First of all, I think it's important for young men and women of African heritage who need to be empowered by the roots and the message of this and not see it as something that just drags us back into the dark ages or drags us back into that period of slavery, which has sometimes been a sentiment of the younger generation—like, “Why do we still have to keep singing this?” Well, you know, there's a reason why you do that.

Waddles: Today we're utilizing everything that we've grown up with. And so I utilize gospel, I utilize jazz. Because as Black music evolves, everything must evolve with it. I believe that there are some very inherent qualities of the spiritual that must be maintained. I cannot fully identify with what it means to be a slave. However, I can create my own parallels to the text.


One of NANM’s goals was to “foster a broader understanding of the contributions of persons of African descent in all fields of music.” That was understandable in 1919, given the level of racism in that era. Why does it remain important today?

Robles: Because there continue to be inequities in the field of music, and in classical music in general. And there continue to be stereotypes and assumptions made about Black music that affect the experiences of our aspiring youth in music across genres. And to be a youth of African descent trying to play music in the United States means that our youth have to get authentic training. You still have to supplement your education as an African American musician because you’re still not getting it all [in a mainstream setting]. You’re still viewed a certain kind of way, because of the way you look in this country. It’s crucial to my understanding of my own work as a Negro musician to have that supplementary support and exposure to the history of our music in this country. What NANM does is as vital now as it's ever been, because we have a responsibility to uplift and educate those in our community.

Waddles: I don't believe there is another organization like NANM that really seeks to instill all forms of music of Black descent, and so I think that we must be the leaders in terms of educating our people and those outside of our race on how to do so. And it's not just the music, it's the history behind the music. It's the social context behind the music. So much of our music is almost fight- and struggle-driven, and so you can't you can't just come to it and sing it and play it. You've got to know something about it. Like Charlie Mingus said in that album [Mingus Ah Um], "Better Git it in Your Soul." It's got to be there.

Blyden-Taylor: It remains important today, and it's one of the reasons I founded the Nathaniel Dett Chorale in Canada. We’ve made it our business to specialize and program Afrocentric choral music. Members of NANM and even past presidents of NANM have been very helpful and very supportive of this idea, given that Nathaniel Dett was, I think, one of the founding members and a past president. There has still been a lack of widespread familiarity with that music and his legacy, certainly in Canada and I think in the United States too. [NANM’s work] allows us to showcase composers, musicians, and the music that has come out of the African heritage tradition.

The organization still uses the word “Negro” in its name, despite the fact that “Black” and “African American” are the widely accepted terms today. Has there been any impetus to change that word?

Robles: I think one of the key tenets of the National Association of Negro Musicians is the understanding of the historical context of the word “Negro,” and the vital role the name of our organization has, with regard to our heritage, and how we came about. The organization every year undergoes a lot of scrutiny and endures some amount of criticism over the name. And every year the membership comes back with a vigorous response that there is really a need to keep that [word] as a part of our name, and to reclaim that as a part of our identity, as a people, and as musicians, connecting back to those musicians who are a part of our cultural heritage who identified themselves as “Negro.” So it’s a point of pride. In honoring that word, we honor those who came before us.


NANM’s mission is to support all genres of music, but vocal music and vocal musicians seem to be especially prominent. If so, why is that the case?

Morrow: Vocal music has always been the forefront, and that comes as a result of our first scholarship. Choral music has been extremely important in the African American community in so many ways. From the church choirs all over the country, to the choirs at historically black colleges and universities. And the choirs sing some of everything, from European classical music to music by African American composers, to world music, to gospel music. And there are many community choirs. So to that end, yes, choirs are important.

Carter: I think the focus of NANM was more vocal and choral because that was easier to do. We didn't have the instruments to pull together. Because many of the presidents were also college people and there weren’t big orchestras in their colleges, the easier part was the singing and the vocal piece.

Many of the presidents were indeed choral composers: R. Nathaniel Dett, Clarence Cameron White. In my time, there was Kenneth Billups, and in more recent years, you’ve got the last four presidents: me, Uzee Brown, David Morrow, and Byron Smith. So there’s nearly a quarter century of choral experience.

Waddles: It will always be a matter of who and what the majority represents. If you have a majority that is steeped in vocal forms, then that’s what you’re going to see. But I hope in the future NANM can create more of a space [for instrumentalists].

[Musical genres] of African descent are the building blocks of all American music. I think about what musical genres were prevalent [in 1919], and I think about what’s prevalent now, and I think an organization like NANM is imperative … because our musical acumen has expanded. So we must continue to be an organization that supports whatever musical form African Americans can create, emulate, arrange, and compose.


How has NANM contributed to your life as a musician?

Morrow: It’s been wonderful! I’ve had the chance to meet and talk with some of the greatest African American musicians in the world. In the last convention, I talked with the up-and-coming choral conductor Marques Garrett; he did a wonderful workshop and lecture on R. Nathaniel Dett. So I get to talk to him about his research. Then I get to talk to Roland Carter, who’s known worldwide for his choral music, including his setting of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I got to meet William Warfield, one of best-known African Americans of the 20th century. And then I meet the young, up-and-coming performers whom I’m going to hear about in the next five years. So [NANM] has helped me stay grounded as a musician and hear about things that are current.

Waddles: I would tell anybody that I would not be here today without [NANM National Program Coordinator] Nina Scott, a longtime director of choral music at Renaissance High School in Detroit. She's more than a music teacher to me; she’s a mother figure. The late Dr. Brazeal Dennard brought me to NANM, but there were others in the organization that kept me there. They got me to Morehouse, where I started to compose. David Morrow and Uzee Brown were the first to help me get my music published, which led me to Westminster, which furthered my professional career, and even onward to Florida State University with Dr. André Thomas. Those people not only helped me professionally, but they helped me understand the importance of being a Black man in music and the moral and ethical codes that surround all of that. So I owe my all to NANM.


As NANM enters its second century, what needs are most important for it to address?

Carter: We still need to promote the work of young artists, although they are getting much more work these days. And we need to establish a quarterly publication. That’s what I attempted to do in my administration: a publication that shares information about artists and things that were going on. That’s what I enjoyed learning about when I was a young person.

Robles: What’s most urgent right now is the issue of what I’d like to call authentic diversity: understanding that we as a Negro people are more diverse than we realize. And we need to talk about inclusivity, with regard to religion, gender, and sexual orientation, and explore [the questions], who are we alienating, and whose voice isn’t present in our organization?

Hudley Simmons: My interest in moving NANM forward is that we have integrity. If we consider ourselves people who support the arts and support young people and emerging artists, then we have to be competitive—even on this level. We have to be the backbone of our young people. We have to make certain that all of our branches are strong, and we all have the same vision: that we reach out to every single child we can touch.

Eugene Holley Jr. contributes to DownBeat, Publishers Weekly, New Music Box, and Chamber Music magazines.