In Conversation with William C. Banfield

In Conversation with William C. Banfield

William Banfield

An interview with the author of Musical Landscapes In Color

AMANDA MACBLANE: It seems like you’d been thinking about this project for a long time. What was the impetus that actually got you started in bringing this book to fruition?

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: Well, the lack of documentation of these artists and wanting to find out if there were other composers and if they were experiencing similar things. And then the need to find heroes and models and inspiration. The big thing for composers, or one of the things, is how to find your voice in the mix of all of the information and cultural impulses that are out there, and then the sense that when you’re doing concert music, having a map for how to bring those things into a cohesive cultural work—you know, popular music or the blues or Annie Lennox or Bartók. I mean, how do you make sense of all that? And then ethnicity as well is another issue in terms of identity. To find composers who had made these kinds of beliefs was just intriguing, and it was necessary. I think the first place I really began to search out for black composers was graduate school. I was studying with T.J. Anderson—this would have been in the 1980s, so that’s how I became exposed to the fact that there were black composers out there. Before, in all my undergraduate years nobody talked about it. So I think it all began very early on as an undergraduate in a conservatory—we never see a mention of, or the documentation of, all these composers who were around. And many of them who are in this book were in the public press in the top of the 20th century. Why didn’t I learn about these people in my education? That was always a seed for inquiry. And then when I was faced with having to make these decisions for myself and I wanted to be able to read an essay by a composer who had similar kinds of interests, so that’s when it came to mind as something I really wanted to research. And of course I came across David Baker’s The Black Composer Speaks. I think that was the real cap on it for really digging in, because at least there were 13 or so that David had done. The short answer to your question is that in graduate school, at a doctorate level, I knew I wanted to do that and I called the Press, Scarecrow Press, and I said to the acquisitions editor at the time that I was a mentee of David Baker’s (and then I started to teach at Indiana University so he was really officially then my professional academic mentor), and I wanted to begin to write this book. They were elated because they knew that by the time he had finished the book in 1978 there were at least two or three, if not four, generations of composers who had come up, and saw that there was a need to continue the documentation, and I think that’s how it all began. I started the interviews in 1992. It took 10 years to get it all together.

AMANDA MACBLANE: I’ve never read The Black Composer Speaks. You said it was published in 1978. I’m just curious, what differences did you notice speaking to the composers of these younger generations who came of age after this book was published? Did you notice any differences in their discourse compared to the composers that David Baker had spoken to?

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: Sure, sure. Well, in the first book there were composers like Ulysses Kay and Undine Smith Moore. Now these were composers that were born in 1904, 1905, and someone like Hale Smith born 1925, and the youngest then was somebody like Herbie Hancock, who is now one of our seniors. He was born in 1940. So their musical consciousness was shaped by the time of the Second World War and before. The composers that I interviewed post-1960 are, of course, on a completely new historical era, so the music and the socio-political context is very different. The thing that’s pretty much the same is that black vernacular has been such an important part of so many black composers—not all, but the majority of the composers still look to black vernacular as a place. So whether you’re talking about a composer like Jonathan Holland who was born in 1974, who obviously came up with hip-hop or someone who came up in be-bop, they are both still propelled and interested in vernacular music. That’s one thing that was consistent. The other thing that was consistent was the black experience. That is, being a black artist in America and particularly the black experience of an artist who is not doing popular music, who is doing concert and classical music—being isolated is consistent throughout whatever generation. And so that was something that was the same. But things that were different would have been the things that would have impacted their social spaces across these kinds of decade lines. In the book, I outline in the book a whole list of the similarities and differences, which are really interesting. For example, most of the composers were trained in the public schools, and after the ’80s, when they made so many budget cuts and it really cut into a great source of great teachers who were in the public schools and students then who had access to many instruments. So the rise of hip-hop culture is not just coming out of this dance culture thing; there were also all of these young people who were still creative and they didn’t have instruments in schools so they created other ways to be able create. That’s a really interesting spin and I don’t think a lot of people think about that economic cuts have a lot to do with how musicians are trained.

AMANDA MACBLANE: Certainly musicians who are dependent on public schools. And a similar book 20 years from now will be really interesting, when you get to see these composers as they hit their prime—composers and musicians without that support. I think that’s going to be a really interesting thing to watch.

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: And then the Internet stuff. What’s that going to do when you have all these creative people who just go onto the Internet and pull stuff together and then the creative place, pool. So it’s going to create another sensibility. So, you’re right, it’s amazing.

AMANDA MACBLANE: What really struck me about the book was the incredible diversity of work that these composers are creating. You talk to dozens of composers, and it really makes it hard to define “Black American Concert Music.” It’s just as eclectic as the concert music field in general. The discourse is really interesting because I felt that so many of these composers had such a personal, deep, and almost spiritual connection to this music, which is reflected obviously in the chapter “Spirituality, Jazz, and Popular Song.” But at the time that the Civil Rights movement was really in full force and there were a few more opportunities for African Americans in general, the mainstream in academic music rejected any romantic notion and was something that was so exclusionary—not only to African American composers but to so many composers in general—and I was just wondering how this situation has that affected the ability of black American composers to get into the inner circle of academic music and scholarship.

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: You mean, that period of the ’60s?


WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: Well, there are several things that come out of that. I think that they were split with their allegiances to community or the academy. When the black arts movement and the Civil Rights movement and the black power movement broke out, composers had to deal with how they were going to set up their allegiances. If they went to the academy, it meant that they were mainstream and on the team of the oppressors. That’s basically some of the rhetoric of the period. You see that through a lot of the composers who lived through this. Somebody like Olly Wilson, who is now firmly rooted in the academy, firmly rooted in the upper-establishment as a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters. When he began to write academic music in the late-’60s and early-’70s, many in the community thought that he was turning his back on his voice because he was doing electronic music. This was at a time when electronic music and the avant-garde were really in the academy, and it turned a lot of people away. As you say, it turned a lot of college students away at the time. So it was interesting—if I’m hitting your question right—for black composers because they had to make a similar kind of adjustment too: if their music was going to incorporate some of the socio-political and radical revolutionary rhetoric of the black power and black arts movement, which was all about the brotherhood and what have you, and that was an interesting time. That’s one thing I remember and one case specifically with Olly Wilson and people like Hale Smith, who were established earlier and in a mainstream. These composers were attempting to be heard in mainstream academia, and that was at a time when you were to be a race man or a race woman—when you were to represent the best of your race when you were in the mainstream. And then all of a sudden the dynamics changed and they said, no, the mainstream is problematic, so pull away from that. Well, composers have Ph.Ds and they’re writing classical music and looking at Bach and Shostakovich. So now, what are you going to do with that? And I think a similar shift like that is happening in my generation, where we came in at a time where we were sitting on the shoulders of those guys and ladies and then the hip-hop movement comes in and the aesthetic value or qualifier is “Keepin’ it real.” It’s a very similar kind of attack against a schooled, refined thought about what black consciousness is about. And then you get this incredible surge of creative energy in hip-hop that says, this is where the beat is now. So what is a composer who is born in the midst of that do? You can’t just close your eyes and ears to all that great energy and all that creative, inventive phrasing. It affects all the composers who are called the post-Civil Rights kids—not baby-boomers—they’re a little between baby boomers and hip-hoppers, post-Civil Rights folks. They’ve had to deal with this new creative energy and they respond to it. So instead of doing spirituals—we may look at Kirk Franklin and that kind of new-age Gospel music as the religious music. It shapes your composing, and I think the difference between composers of color in general and our white colleagues is that I think our white colleagues have an advantage here to not be concerned. I think black folks, folks of color, are always concerned about what the common folks are doing and they have to respond. I think that’s a class division as well, not just a race division. If I have lots of money and I’m not concerned about the common person, I don’t have to be, and so I can write in an ivory tower and not even be concerned about what’s happening in the streets. And I think that these days it’s more difficult for most of us—whether you’re purple, polka dot, blue or green—it’s harder for us to ignore the impulses in popular culture because it’s so much more pervasive today than it was in the late-’50s.

AMANDA MACBLANE: Well, I live in a neighborhood that is predominantly African American and what’s interesting to me is I’m not sure they’re not being exposed to a lot of the music of black American composers.

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: That’s right.

AMANDA MACBLANE: I mean, most of the people in my neighborhood don’t even listen to jazz and I’m just wondering, is there a black audience for this music, for your music and for the music of the people you interviewed?

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: Well, you hit on one of the central dilemmas and the best answer is that these composers have decided that they are the audience as well as the creative person. They are the black people and the black community being represented there. By being there, they open the door for people to say, “Hey! Our people have been involved in creating American concert music since the beginning.” Dvorak made that statement and there were numbers of Americans at the top of the century that were sitting together, both black and white. And so, as you know, the whole American canon was developed very early on because of these interactions. And so, most of the composers feel like they’re artists and they were trained to write concert music. That is the place where concert music is being done, so they’re there to reap the benefits and share in that. And they’ll invite others in. Now, in terms of the younger generation, one of the main deterrents to the success, for any young person, is the lack of inspirational models of excellence—image and identity. So black artists of this caliber are a real shot in the arm. An example of their music is so powerful, so we are all hopeful that we will continue to work in a way that will allow a lot of young kids to see that there are other models. And it’s not just their fault; it’s the media’s fault. The media just completely hits everybody on the head and says, “That’s the role of me and this is what you want to be. This is it over here and you will pay for this. This is how much it costs.” And it drives the whole system. So these other artists, like classical composers, are basically invisible to that community. There was a time when black composers, if they weren’t getting played in the concert halls, were getting played in their churches. The black churches were the place where Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson and all those folks would go. So kids got a chance to see Paul Robeson sing the spirituals and some aria from an opera and speak Russian and the kids would say, “Wow! I want to be just like him.” Now, if the media only allows images of Ja Rule or Britney Spears, kids have less and less examples of excellence to look for. So I think the black composers can be a major component in transforming culture in that way. When I went to high school, I asked my high school teacher, “How can you be a doctor in music?” And he said, “Well, I’m a historian and I research music.” And I said, “Wow! Really?” And because of that I had that model in my mind. Young kids don’t have that as much, so you’re right. But I think this generation—my generation and composers who are younger—I think a lot of us are trying to figure out ways to tap into the impulses. So when I go into schools, when I go to do talks, I’ll play my piano concerto and say, “Can’t you hear the hip-hop kind of floating?” And the kids will go, “Oh, yeah! That’s kind of groovin’!” And then they say, “Wow! You mean I can do this too?” And so I think that’s the way. I think the older guys, the ones that are in their 60s, they’re kind of beyond that. They don’t really care about that, but I think a lot of us are feeling like we have to go into the schools and teach kids ways to be creative.

AMANDA MACBLANE: Definitely. Certainly what I notice in my neighborhood is that it’s not that people wouldn’t be open to it, but that there is so little quality exposure to it.

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: And where would they hear it today? Where would you even hear jazz even? I mean, in New York, you guys are blessed.

AMANDA MACBLANE: You can’t hear jazz unless you have a lot of money.

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: That’s right! I mean, Clear Channel and all these people that buy up the stuff, they only let you hear smooth jazz or only certain kinds of commercial music. I mean, you don’t get to hear anything else.


WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: When I play, high school students and college students are amazed at how much music there is out there. They would not be able to hear it unless they bought CDs, because there’s no radio, no T.V. It’s hitting all of us in concert music.

AMANDA MACBLANE: Definitely. I think that getting young people involved is not a color issue at all. I think it’s a general issue. Young people are not interested. Period.

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: They’re just not interested.

AMANDA MACBLANE: Well, not interested only because I think, you’re right, the economic cuts in education have really had a big impact. I also grew up in the public school system, it’s where I got all of my music training, and now I read articles that they’re cutting out music and art and foreign languages from all the New York City schools and I’m sure it’s a similar story across the country. I think you’ve hit on something. It is about a personal connection. When you talk about things that really have connected you to music and have helped you connect other people to music, it has been a personal encounter. I don’t think people will go out and seek CDs on their own. But if someone’s there playing and explaining and talking, I think that’s really what the key is. It’s a lot of footwork and it’s not easy, but I think it’s the best way at this point.

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: If you talk to a group of kids, you’ve got a hundred kids out there and some kids are squirming—I mean, you’ve seen these young people’s concerts—some of them are looking off, some of them have their heads down pretending like they’re just not interested. Of that hundred, any number of ideas, whether they’re able to understand why they’re responding to that personality or what the person’s playing or the sound of the music, they don’t really know how to explain what repulses them, what absolutely mystifies them, what excites them, what scares them, they know it’s something. In critical theory, I teach that the first reading is a general reading, the second reading is more interpretive, and then your third reading is really a critical reading, putting it against all you know. If they had a second exposure, then they’ll begin to say, you know, “I like Britney Spears…” or “I really like the rhythms in this hip-hop piece…” “…but it sounds a lot like that cello line in Stravinsky.” Just play The Rite of Spring and kids are groovin’ in a minute. They hear it. So if there was just a little more time… I think a lot of the symphonies are doing a great job with their educational series. I don’t know how well they do with really understanding how they can break open the kids so that they can move them. I mean, they’re at least making the attempt to do the young people’s concerts and most of them now have an educational director and educational concerts and all that, and that’s really cool, but do they really understand the question you just asked and how to address that? I don’t think so.

AMANDA MACBLANE: I don’t think so. But it’s still a new phenomenon, so give them time to develop. There was one other question that I’ve had on my mind for a long time, and I thought that you’d be an interesting person to talk to about this. My first position that I had at the Center involved listening to a lot of recordings and writing up descriptions of them. And what I thought was really interesting is that—I was listening to recordings by every American composer possible—and in my pile was music by Anthony Braxton, George Russell, Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith, and for some reason these recordings were funneled into the category of jazz, free jazz—in my head and in the general psyche of the public. But the way these composers talk about their music is so similar to how hardcore academic composers approach it.

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: Well, there you go.

AMANDA MACBLANE: I never really understood why. I got the feeling that they were funneled into this category primarily because of a superficial viewpoint.

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: Very superficial. Here was this avant-garde group of musicians who like the Expressionists, the Impressionists, were driven by similar kinds of impulses—breaking down the walls of harmony and looking for other means of creative expression, rhythms, sounds of a bell against the sound of a wood… And that was an impulse that could drive compositional thought. And so there was very similar experimenting that was done in the academy that was being done in the street. There was a real intellectual movement among black avant-gardists. People like Coleman, who all the people in New York, that whole crew, were going to see. So they were all driven by the same kind of avant-garde tendencies. Now, why did they just put them over to the jazz side? Could be some racial issues, some record marketing issues, but certainly if you listen to those composers, the avant-garde groups in Chicago and that whole movement with Braxton, all that stuff, you’re right, they’re a part of similar kinds of discussions. I think that one of the things that was going on was that those intellectuals were in their community. The only main difference was their base of operation. Their base of operation was their own made academies, schools, and what have you, where they were teaching kids music. The only difference I think is their cultural reference. Where the academic avant-gardes—Babbitt and all those guys—were looking at a European avant-garde, the black avant-gardists were looking at Africa. And they were looking at communal issues for music. They were avant-gardists, but they were saying this music is the depth of our being and the struggle. They were looking at different models, but their aesthetic values and their philosophical values, as they relate to music creation, were very much the same, like you said. You know the Center for Black Music Research did a book of Black American Composers and it’s got Anthony Braxton and all those folks talking about the things that they were interested in. Or at least the essayist talked about that. And you’re right. That’s a good observation that I don’t think people talk about.

AMANDA MACBLANE: And it seems to me that this music deserves equal if not more attention, just because it hasn’t gotten attention from the mainstream academy.

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: Isn’t that something? They’ll go and talk about the avant-garde. You can take a 20th century music class at any of these institutions… I was at the University of Michigan, and I told my teacher then, you know, “we’ve got all this other avant-garde music going.” They never listen to that! And it was the same. If you put it on and didn’t say it was a black person—this is music from the ’60s, mid-’60s—you couldn’t tell. All those orchestrations by Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, all those guys!

AMANDA MACBLANE: Yeah and I’m just wondering how we get over these preconceptions. Do you think people are poised to do that at this point?

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: I think they are. I think people have grown. I think people have to take enough time, but the moment they hear it, they get it. I think if you went to the most closed-minded music professor or student in the academy and you played them that stuff, they’d be wowed. They may not like all the cultural or social politics of the time, but they would appreciate it as really intriguing music. It’s innovative; it’s intellectually sound. The craft is there.

AMANDA MACBLANE: And it’s certainly been influential.

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: If you played somebody Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, 1960, just played that for any avant-garde composer, they would be intrigued. And then told them it’s two different quartets playing simultaneously. That’s just as cool as anything that’s been done.



AMANDA MACBLANE: So what’s next for you?

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: In terms of the black composers and their documentation, I’ll give you my dream. My dream is to take this book to California NewsReel, PBS—the next level should be interviews with those composers. Four died since I wrote the book, including somebody young like Tony Williams. Do you know the story of that?


WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: Tony Williams, I dedicated the book to him. He was the first one to die and then 3 others in the meantime. I finished the article for Tony Williams. He ragged on Wynton, as a lot of them did, but he really hit Wynton hard and kind of mean. He called me back and said, “You know what? Bill, I was kind of tough on Wynton. I want to take that out.” And then he wanted to work on a couple of other things, so I made those changes and then he said, “Well, I’m going to take this manuscript into the hospital. I just gotta go in for something tomorrow and I’ll make the corrections while I’m there and I’ll send them back to you.” Well, Tony Williams never came out of the hospital. He went in for gall bladder and there were complications and he died. And here’s one of the most influential drummers of all time. I mean, he was a 17 year-old prodigy with Miles Davis. Born 1940 and he just died. So I probably have in that book, that’s the last living interview with Tony Williams. But the point is, I really want to go to the next level with this, the next level being to document them in film. Make a documentary film following the history, going way back, because we have footage of the earlier composers and some of the music and some of the issues to do a piece on this work. And I don’t think it would be boring. I think it would be just as exciting as Ken Burns because it has all these elements. You’ve got people who produce hip-hop artists as well as people who write ballet.

AMANDA MACBLANE: And it’s going to go through decades of amazing history.

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: Yeah! I think it would be great. So I’m figuring that out. Now the next thing I want to do is a smaller number of more personal conversations with Prince, Quincy Jones…I had like 5. I already asked the Press about it. So more intimate, more contemporary, and just a smaller number… And the next thing with this book [Musical Landscapes in Color] is that they’re going to need to do a softbound cover. Because this book’s got Bobby McFerrin in it and Patrice Rushen and Herbie Hancock, and those are popular figures. So the general public would be really excited. There’s a lot of people who would just love it, but the common person who walks into a bookstore is not going to pay $70 for a book. It needs to be $22.99 and so a softback version is what I’ve been trying to get the Press to look into. And then I want to do more with contemporary artists. I want to interview Britney Spears personally and ask her specifically about artistic responsibility and representation. We don’t have enough discussion from artists talking about their art. It’s all fashion and fame.

AMANDA MACBLANE: And their relationships…

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: Yeah! That’s all we hear. Just tell me about how you feel about music conception and the role that you play and how you inspire young people. Talk about that. So I really want to move the focus toward the role of the artist in contemporary society. Whether they’re doing concert music or whether they are rap artists or R&B or Rock’n’Roll. I mean, Kurt Cobain had a lot to say.

AMANDA MACBLANE: And he never really got a chance to during his life.

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: And look what they made of his diaries. She [Courtney Love] got $40 million I think it was, and I mean, people were buying it.

AMANDA MACBLANE: Of course. I think there’s a hunger for it. Particularly with pop-oriented music, you’re not going to get much discussion of it at all.

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: We’re not getting any discussion about it. You’re right. And these are important artists who impact our lives daily. I have a radio show called Music and Power, which we’re doing the pilot for and my first big guest is Russell Simmons. Russell Simmons is going around a lot with his billion-dollar empire doing all kinds of stuff, positive stuff! So here is a great American story. And I want to hear more from Prince. He’s older now. I work with his music director and his music director lives right across the street from Prince, and so I haven’t gone over there yet. I sent him a note a few weeks ago…but I really want to get Prince. That’s what I want to do in terms of music scholarship. As for my own artistry, I’m trying to turn back and do more work as a guitarist. My first jazz record is coming out this year. It’s like a smooth jazz, contemporary jazz record. Most of my friends—Wynton Marsalis and all of those guys, we were in school together in the ’80s—they all became jazz stars and my teacher at the time, T.J. Anderson, said, “We don’t need anymore Wynton Marsalises, we need more composers. You are talented, stay in school, and do the composing route.” And I put my aspirations to be a rock star aside and all that and stayed in and had some wonderful exposure and experiences as a concert music composer. So it allowed me to bring all of my experiences to my symphonies and operas and that’s been really rich, but now I want to spend a little time also getting out there a little more as a guitarist in jazz and playing out my voice as a jazz artist.

AMANDA MACBLANE: Definitely, it’s a part of you musically. You can’t suppress it for too long.

WILLIAM C. BANFIELD: No. I know. So that’s what I’m looking forward to. I’m the director of American Cultural Studies at the University of St. Thomas and it allows me to bring a cultural perspective to music. I share the jazz music/popular music area and I also do the cultural studies side. So my whole academic thing is to look at music in the way that we looked at it in Landscapes. From whatever vantage point the artist has, to be able to talk about the importance and the role of artistry in contemporary life and to show that that’s an important impulse that we need to listen to.

AMANDA MACBLANE: Well, you’ve certainly got a lot on your plate!


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