The KCO Presents: Black Excellence on Stage

Program

Overture Medly from Clorindy, or the Origin of the Cakewalk  (1898) . . . . . . . . . . . . . Will Marion Cook

Southland Sketches (1916) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  Harry Thacker Burleigh

Sinnerman (1962)    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  Nina Simone

 

Musicians

Kate Tyree, violin

Emily Ravenscraft, violin

Ellie Ruth, viola

Abriel Newberry, cello

About the Composers

 

Will Marion Cook (1869 – 1944)

Will Marion Cook was known for his work, both as composer and conductor, in the early 20th century. He broke multiple firsts, writing and producing the first all-black staged and produced Broadway show, the first integrated Broadway show, and helped pave the way for early Jazz, composing and conducting in early New York jazz clubs such as the Clef Club & being a close mentor of Jazz greats such as Eubie Blake and Duke Ellington (who affectionately called him “Pops”). 

Cook was born into a middle-class Black family in Washington D.C. His father was one of the first class of Black students at Howard University’s Law School & would later serve as it’s Dean. Cook started studying music at a young age – excelling as a violinist. When his father died at just 10 years old, he was sent to live with his grandfather in Chattanooga, TN. He attributes this stint in the post-war South as an important influence on his composition styling later in life. Because of the growing tensions, his grandfather believed that it would be better for him to return to live with his mother in Washington D.C.

He began his formal post-secondary education at just 13 years old at Oberlin College in Ohio, continuing his studies at the Hochsule für Musik in Berlin, where he studied with Professor Joesph Joachim.   In 1889, he attended the National Conservatory of Music and studied with Antonín Dvořák. By 1893, he became the director of a chamber orchestra, composing his first work. He was tracking, with great enthusiasm, to join the ranks of America’s finest concert violinist. But unfortunately, the state of race relations in America and rampant segregation, he found that no matter how hard he worked, the barriers to his success felt insurmountable. There is a parable that when he performed a 1895 concert at Carnegie Hall, a New York Times critic called him “the World’s Best Negro Violinist”. Upon reading these words, Cook stormed into the office of the critic, smashing his violin while exclaiming he was “not the world’s greatest Negro violinist, but the greatest violinist in the world!”. It was said he never played the violin after that, instead going head-first into the world of musical theater composition. 

Unlike the world of classical music, it was with musical theater that Cook finally found success. Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk, written in 1898, was originally written as a one-act comedy musical, but when the only venue on Broadway they could book was a rooftop venue at the Casino Theatre – the libretto was, written by famous poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, was cut as Cook feared the dialogue wouldn’t be audible over the street noise.

On opening night, the mostly white audience’s verdict was that of unmitigated success, with a standing ovation that lasted over 6 minutes. This clear success was a major win for Cook and afterward he declared that “Negroes are at last on Broadway, and here to stay!”. And he wasn’t wrong. 

Cook went on to write and produce multiple Broadway shows; including In Dahomey, The Southerners, & Swing Along, as well as a tour with the Southern Syncopated Orchestra throughout the US, Europe, & England (performing for King George V). 

 

In 1944, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died just 29 days after, on July 19th, 1944.

 

A Note on the programming of Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk

The programming of this piece went through considerable deliberation. This piece was written in the style of popular music at the time, Minstrelsy, and as such, contains lyrics & song titles that we now view with considerable distaste, and rightly so. In fact, Paul Laurence Dunbar recalls his contribution to this performance with regret and embarrassment for perpetuating the language and vernacular of Minstrelsy. In respect to our audience and Dunbar himself, we will not share the lyrics nor song titles of this work, and ask that you step back to enjoy the music for the notes  Cook wrote, a brilliant convergence of ragtime syncopation in a dramatic musical theater structure. 

It is to be noted that Cook spent his career crafting the new voice of Black art in Musical Comedies, and diligently worked alongside his contemporaries to co-opt and eventually subvert this highly racist musical practice. In fact, the very title alludes to a piece of Black Resistance from the days of slavery, in which the slaves openly mocked the formality of their master’s style of dance by imitating and parodying what they witnessed, a fact that was completely missed by the masters themselves. The dance itself became known as the “Cakewalk” because whoever gave the best impression would win a cake – sometimes baked by their master’s family, as they believed that their slaves were striving to embrace white Euro-centric culture, oblivious to the sentiment of the Black folks who were performing it. Unfortunately, during Minstrelsy, this dance was turned on its head and became a caricature to mock black culture. They obviously still hadn’t figured out what was going on. And in yet another turn, when Black entertainers started to run Minstrel troupes, it was subverted yet again to point back to mocking white culture. 

In the end, I don’t think it was by accident that Cook based this play off of this dance, a subtle symbol of resistance for enslaved Blacks. Along with this & the benchmark this production set, we felt this piece served as a fitting way to celebrate the legacy of William Marion Cook, uplifting his compositions and his passion for uplifting Black voices while giving consideration to the hostile climate of society in turn of the century America.

 

Harry Thatcher Burleigh (1866 – 1949)

Harry T. Burleigh was an accomplished composer, arranger, and Baritone soloist. His work to preserve and spread the performance of spirituals is known as his lasting legacy. It is said that he introduced Antonin Dvorak to the sounds of the African American melodies of spirituals, leading to the birth of many of the melodies found in his New World Symphony, and also inspiring his thought that the sound of the America’s was ultimately found in the tunes of these slave songs. Not only did he write and arrange – but his voice led the congregation of St. George Episcopal Church in New York City. His rendition of Jean-Baptiste Faure’s “The Palms” became a Palm Sunday tradition during his 52 year tenure there.

Burleigh was born in Erie, PA on December 2nd, 1866. His grandfather, Hamilton Waters, born a slave in Sommerset County, MD, bought the freedom of himself and his mother for the price of $55 and moved to Upstate New York to start his life as a freedman. It was Hamilton that taught Burleigh the spirituals he would spend his life working on. Through the church, Burleigh began singing at a young age and accomplished the moniker as the best singer in Erie – soloing in churches and even synagogues in the area. 

At 26, he was accepted to the National Convervatory of Music on scholarship. It was here that he formed his relationship with Mr. Dvorak. To support himself during his studies, Burliegh served as a handyman on campus. It is said he would sing in the halls as he worked, catching the ear of the Czech composer. Burliegh studied under the composer as well and eventually became a copyist for Dvorak during his time at the Conservatory. It was at the urging of Antonin that Burleigh went on to focus his life’s work on the preservation of the spiritual tradition. 

He began publishing in 1911 and in 1916 he published Jubilee Songs of the United States which quickly found its place in the standard repertoire among the times greatest singers as well as groups such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Though, the art of singing Spirituals was common among the Black community, Burleigh’s arrangements helped bring these melodies to the world of western-dominated art song. By the end of his career he had written and published over 200 such compositions, many of which are still widely played and referenced today. His work to proliferate this art form of Black music was significant as it proved that Black music was far more than what world of Minstrelsy offered. 

Not simply a musician and composer, Burleigh served as the first black board member of the ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors, & Publishers). He was also influential in the careers of musicians like Samuel Colridge-Taylor, helping arrange a concert tour of Hiwatha. 

Burleigh died in 1949 in relative obscurity. But through the works of modern musicians, scholars, & activists, his legacy and work is becoming more and more well-known, garnering the attention and recognition it has always deserved. 

 

Nina Simone (1933 – 2003)

Nina Simone was a well-known musician & civil rights activist, active during the 1960s up until her death in 2003. As a musician, she used the stage to speak out against the injustices of the rampant racism of America and to also communicate her experience in the society  she lived in. Simone, who lived her life as passionately as her performances, had a complicated life – her drive to be authentic and out-spoken was not always accepted by the broader world. And a 1980s diagnosis with Bipolar became an explanation for her angry and violent outbursts. But no one can deny the impact she left on the world. She became a household name  – a legacy she poured her life into. 

Simone, born Eunice Waymon, entered the world on February 21st, 1933 in the poverty of Tyron, North Carolina. She was the daughter of a minister and a Reverend and as such dipped her toes in the world of music at hardly 3 years old, playing at the church her mother presided over. It was during these early years that the passion for music took hold of young Simone. She recalls her experiences playing music for Jubilee Celebrations in the south, discovering the sense of freedom and power she could command from the piano bench. Her love of the piano led her down the path of regimented western classical training after a local piano teacher heard a recital she gave when she was only 12. Nina fell in love with the music of European greats such as Bach and Beethoven through her teacher, Muriel Mazzanovich. It was through the urgings of her teacher and the fervor of her own dedication that Simone dove headfirst into the track towards being a world-renowned classical pianist. Through an education fund set up by Mazzanovich, Simone was able to study at Julliard, eventually applying to the Curtis Institute. But at 20, she was rejected from the exclusive school. Though she desperately wanted to reapply, as her family had relocated to Philadelphia just for the opportunity – an age restriction was in place at the school prevented her from doing so. Nina strongly believed the issue of her race was the reason the school rejected her audition. The institute strongly stands it wasn’t – as they had only accepted 3 of the 72 applicants that year. As no one on the jury who sat on her audition is still alive, this is a contested fact. Regardless, Simone felt the bitter sting of this rejection.

It was through this rejection and her subsequent need to support herself that Nina Simone was born. Taking a gig playing at Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City, NJ. She adopted the pseudonym, Nina Simone, to hide the fact that she was playing what her family deemed as “the devil’s music”. It was here that the world started to fall in love with who Nina Simone was. Between her artistic piano lines and her newly discovered, distinctive voice, Simone quickly garnered the attention of record labels. She began to record in 1954, signing to a subsidiary of Cincinnati-based King Records. Her first record, Little Girl Blue, released in 1959 to considerable commercial success. Unfortunately, Simone, who had not given up on her aspirations of being a concert pianist, sold the rights to Bethlaham Records for merely $3,000 – unknowingly signing away millions in royalties, a practice  common in the realm of then-called “race records”. 

Her dissatisfaction regarding Bethlaham’s handling of her album ultimately led her to sign under Colpix, a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures. It was under this label that she released her second album in the same year, The Amazing Nina Simone. It was during this time that she started to debut her performances in New York City. It was the rawness of her performances that ultimately garnered attention from the Jazz community and she was invited to play the infamous Newport Jazz Festival in 1960.

With the release of her song “Mississippi Goddamn” in 1964, Nina discovered the power of her place in the world of music. Written in response to the infamous murder of Emmett Till, the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, and the overtly racist politicians in these southern states – this tune was the first of what would become her many protest songs. It was a radical move at the time, as many artists in the industry shied away from taking radical stances on the race relations of America for fear of alienating their white audiences. A reality she experienced when the song was banned in many states across the South and many critics of the time lashed out at her honesty. But the backlash was only a mild setback in what would continue to be a fruitful career. 

Because of charges of tax evasion, stemming from her protest refusal to fund the Vietnam War, Simone left the US in the late 1970s, living in the Barbados, Liberia, England, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. During these years she continued to record and tour, releasing albums all the way up until her death. She eventually settled in Carry-le-Rout in Southern France where she lived until 2003 when she died peacefully in her sleep after a years-long battle with breast cancer.

It was the synthesis of Simone’s soulful performances, command of the piano, and her unapologetic commentary on what it was to be Black in America that Nina’s legacy was truly born. Over the course of her life, Simone released 33 albums and countless singles. She received a deluge of accolades both during her life and after – including an honorary degree from the very school who had once denied her admittance, the Curtis Institue. Though she never found her way into the world of the Classical elite, she is considered one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. 

 

About our Guest Performer 

Kiana & the Sun Kings

Mixing elements of R&B and soul with their jazz roots, Kiana & the Sun Kings make music that is modern yet timeless, energetic yet contemplative. It is their ultimate goal to make music that dabbles equally in complexity and simplicity, crafting sounds for the jazz player and casual listener alike. In just three short years since their formation, the band gained traction from their beloved home base, Louisville KY, and spread that love to surrounding midwestern cities and beyond. With the recent release of their debut single “Metamorphosis,” this fiery septet will continue to push the sonic envelope. Keep an ear out for the release of their first EP entitled “Chrysalis” in early 2021.

The Sun Kings were founded by vocalist Kiana Del as she was searching for a hot group to play her senior recital at Bellarmine University. However, once Del realized the chemistry radiating from the group, she decided to take them on the road. Although the founding members come from Bellarmine University, the Sun Kings have picked up some very talented friends from around Louisville, and they can be found entertaining in local eateries, cocktail lounges, music festivals, jazz clubs, and other places in Louisville’s thriving music scene.

The Sun Kings have had the pleasure of playing with Louisville local legends such as Sonny Stephens, Todd Hildreth, David Clark, Tyrone Wheeler, Craig Wagner, and more. They have opened up for talented acts such as Karan Chavis, internationally known jazz drummer, John Riley, guitarist Corey Christiansen, and Carly Johnson.

Their influences include John Coltrane, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Thelonious Monk, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and even modern players such as Esperanza Spalding, Kamasi Washington, Jon Batiste, and Robert Glasper.

Kiana & the Sun Kings align best with jazz fusion. They also love soul, R&B, and the blues.

Current members are as follows:
Kiana Del – vocals
Matt McKay – flute
Trevin Little – saxophone
Harris Boyer – guitar
DéQuan Tunstull – piano
Phillip Bullock – electric bass
Fiona Palensky – drums

About the Kentucky Chamber Orchestra

Founded in 2017 by Ben Crouch as the Kentuckiana Philharmonic Orchestra, the Kentucky Chamber Orchestra works to maintain and promote the importance and relevance of classical music, to provide opportunities for education regarding the history and significance of the fine arts, and to promote the shared appreciation and enjoyment of music throughout the Greater Louisville area and beyond.

We pride ourselves on the professional environment we create for our musicians. Performing music at a high level requires focus, dedication, and artistry. We are lucky to have a group of musicians who practice these aspects of musical performance in every rehearsal and every performance. Furthermore, we consider ourselves extremely blessed to be a part of a community with such a dedication to the arts. Louisville is a community with a strong shared appreciation for the fine arts. This shared appreciation is echoed in the many arts-focused institutions our city has allowed to flourish. The music community here in Louisville is composed of many high-quality ensembles, including (but not limited to) the Louisville Orchestra, the Louisville Civic Orchestra, the Louisville Philharmonia, the Louisville Youth Orchestra, and many more.

In addition to the population of gifted artists that allows us to push for a high level of musicianship, we pride ourselves on our diversity. We are a diverse group of musicians in every area. The Kentucky Chamber Orchestra does not discriminate based on age, race, gender, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, or any other basis prohibited by our nondiscrimination policy. The age range of our musicians is very wide, ranging from high school students to current and retired music educators. All talented instrumentalists who have a passion for music are welcome in the Kentucky Chamber Orchestra. Through performance of challenging repertoire, the orchestra offers an opportunity for fine musicians to come together as one and collaborate. The KCO is composed primarily of local musicians; as an organization that emphasizes the talent of the Louisville community, we feel it is important to feature the musicians of our city. The KCO serves as both an artistic outlet for our members as well as a place for the people of Louisville to enjoy the fine arts.

Special Thanks to

Zanzabar, Kiana Del & the brilliant members of the Sun Kings, our talented musicians, our dedicated board members, and our wonderful supporters like you!

Want to Be a Part of the KCO future?

Consider donating to the Kentucky Chamber Orchestra. Whether big or small, every dollar given to our organization has the power to create programming like this!

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