- Such Sweet Thunder: Views on Black American Music
In 1971, the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst embarked on what would become a three-decade long annual tribute to African American music, known as the Black Musicians Conference. Over the years, each conference featured academic panels, [End Page 983] master classes and workshops, art collections, film showings, a Distinguished Achievement Award presentation, and a culminating concert. The proceedings of these conferences have been collected and published from time to time, but never so lavishly and lovingly as this fourth and final volume. Mark Baszak's deft editing and Edward Cohen's journalistic, black-and-white photography capture the annual event's essence, as well as the indelible stamp of festival coordinators and music scholars Frederick Tillis and Clarence Horace Boyer. As a book project, Such Sweet Thunder is luscious, a tribute to a noble project. Poignantly, though, the book also chronicles the Festival's culmination and demise. Baszak, in his introduction, challenges his readers to replicate and then build on the festival's impetus, although he does so without grappling with the difficult question of why this one had to end.
The length of the conference's run is remarkable. One of the lasting outcomes of the Civil Rights and the Black Power movements' struggles for racial justice was the formation, beginning in the early seventies, of black cultural studies departments in universities across the country. But the fact that these departments often came about through grudging accommodation, more than active academic interest, means that even now they too often find themselves under-funded, housed in temporary campus locations that somehow never become converted to the imposing edifices of other disciplines, or kept to the curricular periphery, in Elective Land. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, through the combined efforts of Boyer and Tillis, and through the auspices of the Afro-American Studies Department and the university's Fine Arts Center, clearly sought to redress the back-of-the-bus status in the arts world given to African American music generally and popular musics in particular. Boyer and Tillis managed, year after year, to cobble together top name billings and a week's worth of activities, on a modest budget and through the force of their goodwill and vision.
The conferences rotated themes from year to year, and the book presents each year's work, offering a decade's worth of glimpses into self-representations of black music and culture. Ethnomusicologist Portia Maultsby, in her 1990 panel presentation on gospel, calls attention to the God-or-mammon debate surfacing around the popularity of the gospel/pop vocal group Take 6 at that time. By 1997, Pastor Marvin L. Winans, whose eponymous crossover gospel group predated Take 6, and Reverend Milton Biggham, director of the Georgia Mass Choir, square off over the crossover issue, which now dominated gospel music concerns. Biggham's dictum, that gospel artists "major in the ministry and minor in music," is answered by Winans, who sees a useful linkage between gospel's booming sales and its ecumenical purpose. He lauds Take 6 for implanting the gospel message into a new, broad, and secular audience. Biggham's and Winan's exchange vividly conveys angst over the prospect of wading into the mainstream, a dread of spoilage and appropriation juxtaposed with the desire for mainstream recognition and remuneration.
Jon Hendricks' 1992 reminiscence of his vocal jazz forebears is charming and historically important, as is 89-year-old "Doc" Cheatham's impromptu performance with post-bop pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (1994). Discussing "The Next Generation in Jazz" (1996), Te¯odro¯ss Avery, a young, rising saxophonist, says that his music has roots in the bebop tradition, but that this second album incorporates collaboration with rapper Black Thought. Rather than recoil from such sacrilege, veteran bebop pianist and educator Billy Taylor likens Avery's eclecticism to "what the elders in the 1940s were telling everyone to...