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In defense of jazz: Dead Germans' greatest hits and music that swings

By Chad 'Sir Wick' Hughes

We often make a fatal mistake of attempting to separate the so-called classical tradition of African-American music with our rich and profoundly influential improvisational traditions. Ellington, Strayhorn, Monk and Mingus should appear on any list of African-American composers. We should never accept the superficial and racist divisions of "high" and "low" or "classical" or "vernacular." To accept this division is to embrace the very racial barriers that we attempt to overcome. Our music is profound because we have made American music something much more than a pale reflection of European traditions.

-Anthony Davis, Composer

Chad 'Sir Wick' Hughes: Classical composer with an R&B bias

As a composer, I find myself defending at times my love for jazz, R&B, and hip-hop with some of my academic colleagues. This battle has been on-going since I first stepped on the University of Michigan's campus on August 21, 1995. What has irked me is when people hear my "classical-style" compositions, they would say remarks such as, "Oh, it's so jazzy," with a tone of belittlement. At times, I almost felt ashamed to incorporate the influences of my youth in my symphonic repertoire.

However, when I look at the music of Bright Sheng, a composer I respect highly, he incorporates Chinese-influenced melodies in his music repeatedly, with no shame. The same of Arturo Màrquez, composer of the famed "Danzon No. 2," and Zhou Long, Pulitzer Prize winning composer.

In fall of 2002, I stopped composing in the classical style. I focused on marching and jazz band arranging, composing tunes, and learning how to be a good teacher in the Detroit Public School (which I loved).

Why? I was tired of competing with dead Germans and Austrians. How frustrating is it to pour your heart out on a 20-minute opus, only to be turned down routinely by conductors? Yet, I would arrange the hottest song on the radio and it would be played immediately by any marching band in the city. Better yet, I would arrange a chart for Ben's Friends Big Band and it would be programmed on the next concert.

With years of coercing by Damian Crutcher, Armand Hall, Jamal Duncan, Kelvin Washington, and Ed Quick, I turned to the concert band. I loved it. I wrote five band pieces in 14 months and I thank them for their support and encouragement.

Then another unexpected change of events happened. I returned to academia in the fall of 2010 to finish my Master's of Music at Kansas State University. And I returned to orchestral composition. Craig Weston was an amazing teacher and was open to the incorporation of non-European styles in my music.

With all this being said, I still see a problem with trying to compete with Dead Germans' Greatest Hits. Orchestras still won't play my music. Maybe it sucks. Maybe it doesn't;. However, the issue is the same with fellow composers.

Here is my solution:

1) I am no longer in the LEAST apologetic for my love for jazz, R&B, and hip-hop. That's right. Hip-Hop. While I am reading essays of Joshua Rifkin, it is accompanied by KRS-One or CL Smooth. When I read biographies of the Second Viennese School, be sure to know that Basie is being played.

2) If I write a non-commissioned composition, I understand that it probably won't be played any time soon. I am okay with that. No one asked me to write it so they won't program it. In the words of myself, Brandon Williams, and Ibrahim Jones, "It is what it is!"

3) I attempted to write a "What is this?"; what's a "What is This"? I wanted to write a large opus that had all my musical loves: classical, jazz, R&B, and hip-hop/rap. Think about West Side Story. Is it a musical? Operetta? Who cares; it's great music.

In my youth, I didn't understand how to put it together. I did everything backward. I wrote the music first and then tried to write a script/libretto. Not too smart. I abandoned the project.

I will never forget the words of my friend and Sinfonian brother William Tonnisen: "Hey man, you should finish that opera. There was some good music in there." Jay Berckley also gave me similar encouragement.

In December of 2009, I recorded one of the arias from that unfinished "What is this" with the group Relativity/Trio Nomadian (Damon Warmack, Demetrius Nabors, and Nate Winn aka Tightus Pocketus). It was a composition titled "Daddy's Little Girl." By the time I added the orchestra to the recording, I realized I finally had the composition EXACTLY how I wanted it.

I then thought to myself, "Maybe I should finish the 'What is this?' "

As time went by, I knew I needed to write a story FIRST before composing.

I officially wrote the storyboard in October 2011. Initially, I was going to just place a short synopsis in the liner notes of my CD; however, thanks to the advice of LaKindra Parker, I eventually wrote it as a novel. However, this led me to another issue: what about the music? How would this be labeled? It couldn't just be a "What is this?"

In the end, I decided to make it a novel/CD companion set (James Aikman calls this project a musical drama). There would be great possibilities from this. I could get the singers I want ed whenever they were available (the beauty of multi-track recording -- thank you ProTools). I could also use whatever instrumentation I wanted.

Ultimately, I realize many conflicts are internal. I have resolved mine. This CD, A Tale of Two Fools: A Soundtrack of a Universal Language, will have classical, jazz, R&B and hip-hop, and I make no apologies for the amalgamation of styles.

I look at musical trailblazers like Daisy Newman, who created the African-American reading sessions with the Detroit Symphony; Anthony Davis, the father of opera politica America; and Henry Lewis -- all of whom are/were unapologetic of their vision and passion. I stand to imitate.

This article by Chad "Sir Wick" Hughes was reposted from his blog, The Maestro Speaks. It is printed in conjunction with NolaVie partner NOLA Art House Music.