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  • On Vernacular Emblems and Signification in David N. Baker’s The Black Experience
  • Horace J. Maxile Jr (bio)

In explanations of the eclecticism in black composers’ works after World War II, noted scholar Eileen Southern observed that those who emerged during the middle decades of the twentieth century moved beyond the overt black-nationalist tenets of earlier generations. They refused “to be tied down by racial self consciousness and drew freely upon widely divergent styles and sources in their writing.”1 Charting their own courses, composers such as Ulysses Kay, Undine Smith Moore, and Hale Smith stood on the accomplishments of their predecessors and many were successful, having works performed (and later recorded). However, many of these composers “encountered, sooner or later, the ‘black experience’—that is, the understanding of what it meant to be a creative black artist in a basically hostile white society—and each coped with it as best he or she could.”2 African American composers responded in various ways that spanned the gamut of utilizing overt symbols of vernacular musical culture in their works to avoiding references that would signify black identity. David N. Baker (b. 1931) offered a particularly potent response in the song cycle The Black Experience (1973). Western European techniques and styles such as atonality and canonic imitation constitute most of the expressive and structural properties of the songs. Whereas these emblems typify much of the melodic and harmonic content in the cycle, blues, funk, and [End Page 223] other emblems of African American musical culture sometimes permeate and signify on local and global levels. In conjunction with exploring historical and cultural perspectives, I offer readings of selected songs that focus on text/music relationships with emphasis on Baker’s structural and expressive use of African American musical emblems. My readings engage analytical and critical issues, subjects that are sometimes under-emphasized in studies on African American composers. This study also expands discourses on African American composers with discussions about an individual that was active during the civil rights movement.3

A highly respected composer and jazz pedagogue, David Baker has been on the faculty of Indiana University since 1966 and has been the chair of the jazz studies program for over thirty-five years. Many honors have been awarded to Baker because of his work in the areas of jazz composition, arranging, and education.4 According to composer and jazz guitarist William Banfield, “no one living has defined jazz education more within the academy for players than David Baker. People don’t just sing David Baker melodies, they sing David Baker exercises.”5 Baker is also a prolific composer of concert music and his catalog spans a wide scale of mediums, including works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, voice, choir, and piano. A number of his works have been programmed and recorded. Composer David Ward-Steinman notes that “at present, recordings of his concert compositions outweigh his jazz recordings, which is surprising because most people in the music world associate him primarily with jazz.”6 His is an eclectic voice that draws freely from Western and vernacular traditions, resulting in a diverse vocabulary of styles, techniques, and forms such as blues, serialism, R&B, gospel, concerti, bebop, and art songs. In an interview published in 1978, he described himself as one who had “a general lack of obsession with tradition” and as one who didn’t “adhere rigidly to any . . . genre or style” because he had “a total respect and love for all music” (emphasis Baker’s). When asked about his personal philosophies about music and the role of black artists in contemporary society, Baker responded:

I try not to let anything get between me and what I have to say. I use craft and all of those things as a means of expressing what it is I feel about life. I think the fact that I work with all available forms (irrespective of genre, origin, etc.) and the fact that many of my works have been devoted to, dedicated to, and are about black people says, I think, something about what I feel philosophically, politically, and socially about my music. . . . I try to crystalize the black experience and maintain a link...


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