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African-American Musicians, More Than Just Jazz

Johnny Linton, a music student, performs at the Gateways Music Festival's Youth Showcase Concert
Jim Hunter
Gateways Music Festival
Johnny Linton, a music student, performs at the Gateways Music Festival's Youth Showcase Concert

Jazz or blues may be the first thing that comes to mind we think of the contributions that African Americans have made to American music genres, but that overlooks the rich heritage of African- Americans in classical music. For two decades the Gateways Music Festival has challenged that image. This year the festival celebrates its 20th Anniversary in Rochester, New York and continues to celebrate the contributions of African-Americans to classical music by featuring world class musicians and conductors of African heritage.

The Gateways Music Festival has free concerts in unexpected venues like synagogues and libraries and it offers new perspectives and experiences to all. World-class musicians, cellist Kenneth Law and violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins are members of the Gateways Festival Orchestra. They tell NPR's Celeste Headlee about the festival and how classical music is interwoven within the African-American experience.

Interview Highlights

Kenneth Law on his exposure to classical music

"There are so few African-American faces in these American orchestras. And there are any number of issues that come into play. One may be just lack of exposure to classical music. I was very fortunate to have grown up in a musical family where my mother is a pianist and a retired music school teacher, elementary music school teacher. And my sister, although she is an attorney by trade, she also plays flute and piano. So I grew up with a family chamber ensemble. I also went to a church that did Bach concertos and Brahms. And so I grew up in that classical tradition. And so for me to actually find out that African-Americans did not have that connection was something of a surprise to me. And so the challenge for me, actually, is to find ways of making that classical music more accessible to the younger generation, and also to my own colleagues as well."

Kelly Hall-Tompkins on the visibility of African-American musicians in the orchestra

Violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins
Chris Lee / Kelly Hall-Tompkins
Kelly Hall-Tompkins
Violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins

"There are some amazingly talented African American artists that are out on the scene. And they are disproportionately not getting that they sometimes rightly deserve as often as they should. And that is starting to change now. I noticed that there is a little bit of and issue of people want to program ethnic programming for the month of February....But the presenters and the organizations that are really serious about presenting the greatest artists out there are the ones for whom you will see African American artists in other months of the year as well...

I think that people are starting to get the positions that they truly merit but I think that there is sometimes a disconnect in quite honestly people being able to envision African-Americans in these positions. I frequently introduce myself as a violinist and people say, 'Oh wow, that is so terrific. Where do you sing?' And their mind automatically goes to it because we have such a wonderful tradition of African American singers but I would like for people to recognize, you know, that we have an equally large and growing tradition of African-American string players."

Kelly Hall-Tompkins on classical music as a part of the Black experience.

"I frequently tell people that it is 400 years plus of describing through musical language the human experience. And I relate to all of it. So I love the idea that there are so many voices through which we can express these incredible emotions and the incredible power of the human experience.

I've had people - very well-meaning people - say to me 'Oh you play the violin, oh isn't that wonderful. Oh, you play classical music, well maybe one of these days you'll switch over to play our music. And I just tell them, this is our music. This is so much my music. I claim it. You know it is so much part of me. I can't separate myself."

Kelly Hall-Tompkins on the next generation of African-American classical musicians

"I believe that actually there are a growing number. Similar to the little budding Tiger Woods out there who once they got introduced to the world of golf are somehow smitten with it because they've seen a role model. There are tons of African-American young students that are starting instruments and that are also becoming quite advanced and world-class players...

What may be missing is a disconnect for some people who find themselves in isolated places as the only African-American string player. If they don't have someone who can understand just their passion for classical music, which is also just rare in our society, unfortunately across all races. But what's important is to have somebody who can - I hate to use the world mentor, it's overused - but who can introduce you to the path that we take when we become serious about classical music."

Kenneth Law on the need for a Tiger Woods of African-American string players

"I really don't feel that we need to have that kind of iconic figure, actually. I think classical music and just that whole idea of classical music being an integral part of your life is enough. And just really understanding the universality of music and that classical music has no less importance or no more importance than any other style of music. You can express yourself exactly the same way in classical music that you can in other forms of music. And in fact one of the reasons why I started playing the cello was because I was able to express myself in a way that I wouldn't have been able to otherwise. And so for me we wouldn't need necessarily that figure. But we would need that education."

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