Reader Response: Racist Nonsense II

Shortly after publishing the last Reader Response to this article, I received an email from Jerome Harris, a 50-something professional jazz musician: black American, native Brooklynite, working-class background/Ivy League grad/middle-class income, omnivorous listener.  He wrote in to comment about some passages in that article as well as the ideas from the original piece.

And although I’ve talked to countless people over the years from a variety of ethnic backgrounds about this various, Jerome does a wonderful job of putting quite a bit to think about in a few paragraphs.

There are definitely socio-economic and socio-cultural issues at play here, complex ones that don’t often receive the thought they deserve.  Folks who deal with audience outreach should become aware that there are long-standing traditions of appreciation of Euro-American classical music among many minority cultures and sub-cultures, including African-derived ones.  I state this in this way because there are distinctions between, for example, southern rural-background folks, Caribbean immigrant-background folks, working-class, middle-class, suburban, urban, etc., not to mention age-based groupings; these folks can be appealed to, but it takes some savvy to craft effectively targeted outreach efforts.

Historically, I think about the turn-of-the-20th-century, the parlor piano tradition was as much a part of black middle-class life as it was in white middle classes; the classical music that certainly was a large influence on the work of Scott Joplin, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, et al.; the choral groups at black colleges such as Fisk (and various Caribbean schools that I know less about), whose arrangements and sound blended African- and European-derived influences; etc.  Even my parents, with their eastern North Carolina farmer roots, had a few albums of Mario Lanza and Maria Callas amidst the Dinah Washington and Nat King Cole platters.

I grant that currently these traditions have (in terms of visibility, commercial viability and possibly cultural vitality) “minority” status when compared to the popular music juggernaut, but is that different than the situation in white America?  I suspect that there are ways to connect to black folks’ love for classical music along these paths and, in analogous ways, to similar historical connections among various Hispanic- and European-American groups.

There are various attitudinal barriers–carried by members of both majority and minority groups, and working-class/middle-class/owning class folks–that must be dealt with.  I remember the feelings of alienation that accompanied me to the first orchestra and chamber music concerts I attended as a college student in the late ’60s; examining those here would take more time than I now have.  I think that those concerns might be trumped in importance by the paucity of ways for Americans–especially young ones, and including members of all ethnic, cultural and economic groups–to get to hear enough “non-mainstream commercial” music to have a chance to develop interest in it.

Sometimes I fear that the rewards of open-minded listening (without seeking some pre-learned or pre-judged somatic, cultural, or intellectual response) while often great, are riches that few folks find an opportunity to discover.  Our task, should we choose to accept it…

At the end of Jerome’s note he had a few simple and smart suggestions about how orchestra boards can go about doing a better job bridging the class and ethnicity divide:

Maybe the relevant orchestra personnel should be subscribing to periodicals like Black Enterprise (and the equivalents for other ethnic groups), Diversity Inc., and looking into various ethnicity-based professional and networking organizations to help inform themselves about possible board members.

If you’re a board member or executive manager out there reading this I hope you take the time to review it a few times, and allow it to sink in.  If you’re not a board member or executive manager but you know people who are, then send them this article so they can start to make a bigger impact in their communities than they currently are.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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