Through a local effort initiated by a music teacher and her students, their roles in history are being reclaimed through the forming of the African American Composers Initiative, which organizes annual benefit concerts to highlight this lesser-told chapter of music history.
Menlo Park piano teacher Josephine "Jodi" Gandolfi has led the charge in putting on an annual concert since 2009. Shortly after last year's performance, she and her students (who also perform) resolved "to do something more," she said. Pulling in the skills of other music aficionados, the African American Composers Initiative was formally born last summer with a goal of raising the awareness of the music of African-American composers and commissioning black composers to create new pieces.
This year's concert, to be held on Sunday, Jan. 26, at 3 p.m. at Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto, will feature the premiere of two pieces in tribute to Ruby Bridges and Trayvon Martin.
The creation of the Bay Area organization was years in the making. In 2003, Gandolfi began teaching LaDoris Cordell, a former Palo Alto City Council member and retired judge, after meeting at a Stanford University women's basketball game. Cordell, in hopes of re-establishing the skills she had gained through many years of grade-school instruction, looked to Gandolfi — a former child prodigy, in her words — to reteach her the standard repertoire of Bach, Frédéric Chopin and others. After mastering the works of such greats, they serendipitously began exploration into the work of African-American composers.
"I looked at the music and thought, 'This is fantastic,'" Gandolfi said about music by William Grant Still, introduced to her by a colleague. "I didn't know this music before. I had seen the name, but I had never heard a note of his music."
Born in 1895, Still was the first black person to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the United States and the first to have an opera produced by a major company. He is known for writing more than 150 compositions, including ballets, chamber works and arrangements of spirituals.
For a woman with Gandolfi's musical background, the fact that she was not aware of any African-American composers was astonishing to her. Starting at age 6, she studied music through grade school and received her bachelor's in music from Cornell University. She went on to obtain her master's degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and doctorate from Stanford — and had not played or heard music by one black composer.
Prompted by Cordell, Gandolfi began assigning her students music by Still and other black musicians.
"This started a discovery that actually there was a wealth of music by African-American composers that had somehow not at all been on my radar screen, had not been on the radar screen of any of my teachers, any of my fellow students," Gandolfi remembered. "I thought, 'Time to look into this.'"
That was in 2008. In January 2009, after being approached by the Palo Alto Art Center to do a concert, Gandolfi resolved to present Still's music with the assistance of her students and vocalist Yolanda Rhodes.
"After that concert, I said to (Cordell), 'We're going to continue this, and how about next time, all African-American composers?'"
Cordell suggested Eastside Prep as a potential location. The two have helped lead an annual benefit concert for the school ever since.
This year's concert will feature a piece in recognition of Ruby Bridges, best known as the 6-year-old girl who integrated the school system in New Orleans in 1960. Inspired by her story, composer Valerie Capers will commemorate her achievements.
"Her experience is certainly worthy of being a full-length musical drama ... covering all aspects of this story," Capers said. "I chose to pick out four select incidences that happened. Each tableau represents one particular thing that was an important part of the story."
Capers is a featured guest at these concerts every year. Educated at the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind and The Juilliard School of Music, she describes her tribute piece as "dramatic," pairing the musical accompaniment with visuals from Bridges' life and the jeering voices of her detractors as she entered school each day.
Joshua McGhee wrote the second premiere, in tribute to Trayvon Martin. The piece, "Elegy for a Child" aims to focus not on "the tragedy of his death, but him being taken to heaven," McGhee said.
"There's an emotion that comes through with sound," the Fairfield, Calif., native said, explaining why he chose music as a medium for his tribute. "Music is more powerful than words. Everyone has their own idea of what happened. One thing we can agree on is whether a piece is beautiful or not. Hopefully they get that though this."
A departure from the often "melancholic, depressing" thoughts associated with Martin's death, McGhee's piece conveys an "uplifting emotion," he said.
McGhee has created other works for past concerts after being discovered by Gandolfi at a church performance hosted by Cordell in Palo Alto while he was a student at San Jose State University.
Other works to be performed include compositions by bassist John Robinson, who accompanies Capers each year, arrangements of William Grant Still pieces and out-of-print music by Margaret Bonds and Florence Price. Bonds is most known for her collaborations with poet Langston Hughes, while Price is recognized as the first African-American female composer to have a symphonic composition performed by a major American symphony orchestra.
Eastside Prep's school choir will also perform, directed by music teacher David Chaidez. Each year, the students prepare and perform a selection. In an age of popular music, their presence and participation in an event that introduces them to a rich music history is of the utmost concern to Cordell.
"The importance of young people hearing and performing this is that this music is about history, our history," she said. "I have found, sadly, that this generation doesn't know their history. This is one way to make sure they get it."
What: "Let Freedom Ring" — The Resounding Music of African American Composers
When: Sunday, Jan. 26, 3 p.m.
Where: Eastside College Preparatory School, 1041 Myrtle St., East Palo Alto
Tickets: $20 general admission, $5 seniors or students
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