Under the leadership of Georgiary Bledsoe, BUMP: The Triangle, a 501c3 music education organization serving the Triangle from its base in Durham (the name stems from the Boston Urban Music Project), coordinated a remarkable happening on a warm Sunday afternoon at Duke Memorial UMC in West Durham. It began with a community engagement fair in the education building, at which groups offering services to the community met with their prospective constituents and their families. Among the relatively new organizations present was the Bull City Youth Orchestra, part of the Universal Performance and Arts Network, or UPAN for short. These groups represent a segment of the future of the arts in Durham and beyond. That they are promoting their work largely in social media should give more traditional arts folks some worthwhile food for thought.
A ticketed concert, presented in the sanctuary, amplified the themes articulated earlier at the fair, as four richly diverse presentations unfolded. First up were heartwarming offerings from the Ubuntu Music Academy, a division of BUMP based at Dr. Bass String Instruments, where kids in grades K-5 may learn songs with percussion accompaniment and where kids through grade 8 may learn to play an instrument, study the African diaspora, and begin to link in to the larger musical community. Nine young people entertained with "Blackbirds Party" and a dramatization of the text and meaning of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," the anthem that would serve as the afternoon's moving capstone.
DJ Guv'nor, another artist with a Facebook presence, served as master of ceremonies, making the introductions and stitching the program together. He also offered a fascinating and worthwhile short history of rap/hip-hop, music that even traditionalists owe it to themselves to explore. (Incidentally, we were in a church, and this was all rated "G" – which in this instance means "good.")
One of the Bull City's most important cultural organizations wrapped up the first half. This group is 100 Men in Black, whose work has enriched Durham and environs since 2003. Director Marion E. West encouraged and obtained some amazingly rich choral sound from the singers, positioned in the front balcony of the church. Their offerings, mostly accompanied by piano, ranged from "King Jesus is a-Listening when you Pray" to "Hallelujah, Salvation, and Glory," "Total Praise," and Richard Smallwood's "This Morning when I Rose." Several solo singers were heard to advantage, and the resounding performances reflected total musical and spiritual commitment. (This was clearly a chamber ensemble from the larger group but the 28 or so singers did just fine in filling the sanctuary with choral radiance.)
Because this concert was officially BUMP's 2nd annual Black Music Month Celebration (also billed as Black Music Appreciation Month*), Maestro Curry selected works by some of the most important composers of color in America – Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, and J. Rosamond Johnson, not to mention the conductor's own composition, based on the speeches and writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. Members of the DSO sat in close proximity to each other at the front of the sanctuary, playing with keen and incisive enthusiasm. We've heard all this music on other occasions, but I think the scores may never have made such favorable impressions. Joplin's "The Entertainer," as arranged by Gunther Schuller, was truly elegant, and Calvin Custer's orchestrations of four of the Duke's biggest hits – "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me," "Sophisticated Lady," and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" – spoke directly to the heart. Curry of course knows this music inside-out, but we hadn't known that he'd conducted the ensemble that is known now as Ellington's band some six years ago or that his parents, in Pittsburgh, had known the Duke's principal arranger, Billy Strayhorn (who was born in Ohio but grew up in Hillsborough). This made the performances all the more amazing.
And then there came Curry's own "Eulogy for a Dream," his best known and most frequently performed work. He himself recited MLK's words as DSO assistant conductor Shelley Livingston directed the orchestra. She continues to improve as a conductor, and he is perhaps incomparable in the narration, despite what would be almost certain protestations from him about this statement. That he feels the words and the music in profound and profoundly moving ways was manifest throughout. This was certainly among the finest renditions of this music we have yet experienced – from the words to the amazing work of the DSO's great players, it was, in a word, tops.
Before the grand finale, the Maestro offered a secular prayer, inspired by the occasion of this splendid afternoon. With his consent, we offer his words below.
A Prayer: Please Lord, if I am to be allowed only one prayer to be answered and granted concerning music...which has been the center of my life...then please let not the African-American musical heritage of the past continue to be completely ignored and discounted by young African-Americans, who being so enthralled by contemporary sounds are blithely tossing into the dustbin of neglected history the following:
The Best of Disco
The classical music heroes, including:
William Grant Still
The greatest jazz artists, including:
Nat "King" Cole
And my favorite jazz pianist (who I want to be when I grow up): Oscar Peterson
Can I get an Amen on that?!
It was a fine set-up for "Lift Ev'ry Voice," sung by heart by many in attendance and from hymnals by the rest of the crowd, with kids from Ubuntu, the DJ himself, members of 100 Men, and choristers from the church, joining in from the loft.
The reception and live auction served as the icing on the cake.
*And not to be confused with Black History Month, which is the shortest month (…), February….