There was another sound in the air last Thursday besides the sound of pattered rain. Students walking past the Northridge Center located, in the University Student Union that afternoon could also hear the sound of the CSUN Wind Symphony being conducted by Lawrence Stoffel. The Black History Month event “Honoring Our Legacy of Success” was held in celebration of black composers, as well as American concert band music.
The event, which began at 4 p.m., focused on three key black composers: Ulysses Kay, William Grant Still and Scott Joplin. The symphony also played a piece from composer Dwayne S. Milburn. The audience grew by as much as 30 people towards the end of the recital. Audience members included Associate Vice President Dr. William Watkins and Dr. Tom Spencer-Walters, chair of the Pan-African Studies Department.
The wind symphony started out with Millburn’s “Spirit of the Liberation.” Stoffel said Millburn represents the next generation of composers. “Spirit of the Liberation” was written for the United States Europe Band tour of Italy. This tour was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Italy’s liberation after War World II. The composition has an upbeat tempo to it and is patriotic.
Milburn, a native of Baltimore, Md., is a 1986 graduate of UCLA. While at UCLA, Milburn studied music education and composition. After he graduated, Milburn became the director of Cadet Music for the United States Military Academy at West Point. He earned a master’s degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1992.
The United States Army Band, the United States Military Academy Band, the Cleveland Orchestra, the University of North Texas Wind Ensemble, and the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Wind Ensemble, as well as other musical groups, have performed Milburn’s compositions.
Ulysses Kay, who was born in Tucson, Ariz., is the nephew of jazz cornetist and bandleader Joe “King” Oliver. Kay studied at the University of Arizona, the Eastman School and Yale. One of his most famous compositions was “Essay on Death,” a tribute to President John F. Kennedy.
Some of Kay’s other compositions include “Southern Harmony,” “The Symphony,” cantata “Song of Jeremiah,” and five operas – “The Boor,” “The Juggler of Our Lady,” “The Capitoline Venus,” “Jubilee,” and “Fredrick Douglass.”
Kay received six honorary doctorates and was a professor at City University of New York and at UCLA. Besides his doctorate degrees, Kay also received a Fulbright Scholarship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rosenwald Fellowship and the Prix de Rome.
Kay used a formal classical perspective instead of a folk tradition in his approach to writing music. Stoffel said “he probably achieved the greatest amount of international attention for his composition skill than any others.”
Veronica Martinez, an oboist for the symphony, said Kay’s compositions are based on what he has learned as a musician during his career.
“I think that as long as we don’t think of music as it belongs to a particular country, a particular person, a particular place, music is universal,” Martinez said.
Still was born in Woodville, Miss. in 1895. He was known famously as the “Dean of American Negro Composers” and was the first African American composer to compose a major orchestral work that was performed by an American orchestra. In the United States, he was the first African American to lead a major symphony.
In the Deep South, Still supervised a major symphony orchestra. He directed a major American network radio orchestra and televised an opera on a national American network. A U.S. company also produced one of Still’s operas. He integrated slave songs and spirituals into his classical music compositions, Stoffel said.
Joplin was born in Texarkana, Texas in 1867. His father was a former slave. Known as “The King of Ragtime Writers,” Joplin sold more than one million copies of his “Maple Leaf Rag,” which sold for one cent. His music became popular in saloons.
Other compositions from Joplin include “The Entertainer,” “The Easy Winners,” “Solace,” “Sunflower Slow Drag,” Treemonisha,” and “The Strenuous Life,” which was a tribute to President Theodore Roosevelt. Joplin, who died in New York City in 1917, received a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 in music.
Joplin is a favorite of Stoffel and Spencer-Walters. Stoffel said Joplin is his hero.
“Scott Joplin is someone I admire so greatly because he is what we all aspire to be as musicians,” Stoffel said.
Spencer-Walters said he was awed when he first heard Joplin’s “Treemonisha” in New York.
“The experience was so remarkable that a black man could put together such a complicated classical piece that incorporated so many aspects of black musical genres,” Spencer-Walters said.
The Wind Symphony rehearsed for three weeks for Thursday’s event. Spencer-Walters described the student musicians as a group of talented and disciplined musicians.
Spencer-Walters said he would like to see more diversity in events held for Black History Month. Spencer-Walters said people tend to focus on events that are politically and historically centered.
“We fail to realize that certain areas that we don’t traditionally associate with blacks are neglected. I think we need to bring out (these areas) more forcefully in black history celebrations like this,” Spencer-Walters said.
Wyatt J. Garret, a trombonist, said the black composers are a little different than other composers.
“I just love them all. They’re all just great in their own individual way,” Garrett said.
Spencer-Walters said music is an organic part of black culture that is synonymous to black people all over the world.
“When people create, they’re not just creating music. They’re telling stories about their lives, their societies, their cultures, their people. This music starts to tell messages of how we live, what we want and what’s very valuable to us,” Spencer-Walters said.