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Raymond T. Jackson

Career Reflections--Harmony in Black and While

  
Music has been an enriching part of my life since childhood. I was named after my father arid grew up in Providence, RI where my parents established and operated a successful business as beauticians. Every two weeks customers came for appointments at Beulah Boyd’s Beauty Parlor (the shop that bore my mother’s maiden name). Both parents had extraordinary abilities with their hands--things seemed to transform under their very touch. Hair grew long and thick after a few scalp massages from my mother’s powerful fingers; and a wonderful home cooked meal was highlighted with hot rolls baked from finger--kneaded, home made dough. My father was an excellent beautician and hair stylist, as well; and his mechanical skills and talents for painting and carpentry could transform whatever he touched.

Maybe it was the power that they felt in their hands that, at an early age, I felt at the piano, and later, at the organ. As my parents listened to my earliest attempts to depress the keys, from the outset they recognized what seemed to them to be an especially musical touch. At age four piano lessons were given by a piano teacher who was also one of my parent’s customers. Since the beauty parlor was located in the front of our home, my playing in the adjacent living room was immediately audible to the incoming stream of customers. A half hour of daily practice soon expanded to more than an hour as I became increasingly fascinated with the music that was at my finger tips. With each passing year I played our old, sturdy Elbridge upright piano with more and more fervor and enthusiasm, all the while envisioning myself as a concert pianist on some concert stage. Upstairs on the top floor of our three--story tenement house I frequently visited my aunt who had a player piano. As I pumped the pedals it was always a delight to watch the keys dance to the revolving piano rolls. Through the years my Aunt Margaret (my mother’s sister, who also worked in my parents’ beauty parlor) has been a constant source of love and support.

My father occasionally played, and when he did, it was a rare treat to witness his fingers nimbly scan the keys as he played such light classics as “Nola,” “Melody in F” and “Humoresque.” He also had a library of piano music which I continually raided, devouring popular classics that, even now, remain in my memory. It was from this wealth of music that I developed an ability to sight read while learning to recognize and appreciate a variety of composers and styles. My musical ear was excellent, and I soon realized that I had perfect pitch. To this day this asset has facilitated an ability to analyze and reproduce practically everything that is heard.

Growing up in the church encouraged my learning to play hymns, anthems and oratorios. Before long I was playing for Sunday School, prayer meetings and other church activities. Thanks to the insight of my parents they provided me organ lessons which later financed my college education, and more. Having begun the study of the organ at age 11, five years later I became the organist and choir director of my church. Organ playing increased my dexterity at the keyboard and taught me the importance of a good legato that had to be produced by the fingers alone. I also loved the sounds of voices and part-singing. Transferring to the piano what was being heard from the choir and the organ encouraged a replication of those expressive qualities by which the instrument would be made to “sing” with rich, sustained tones. As my ear became more discerning, I became more aware of chordal balances and began to search for those special, hidden alto, tenor and bass lines that, when delineated, bring out added dimensions to piano playing. Listening to organ and orchestral sounds also made me more aware of the variety of tonal colors that could be elicited from the piano.

Within the musical community one often heard the ongoing debate among my young peers and teachers as to what was more important--playing musically, or playing well technically. Some believed that strong musicality should outweigh a more dominant technique. I was one to support this opinion, especially since musicality appeared to be my strongest asset and technical problems were still being worked out. Today a modified view assesses a strong technique as essential to realizing all that is musical, thereby unlocking the door to every aspect of pianism.

Not all teachers teach everything, or should even be expected to teach everything well. The axiom, “The whole is equal to the sum of its parts,” is certainly applicable to musical development. The sum parts of a pianist require training from more than one teacher. The talented, serious musical aspirant must always seek to understand the Art of music along with its Science. The art probes and embraces the esthetics--the inner world of music, while the science unleashes and engages the knowledge and mechanics that make it work. Playing the piano well requires both art and science. From an early age I understood the art of music; but it was not until after many years that I began to understand the application of its science. One’s natural ability is not always sufficient, or even good enough, to realize both.

Remaining too long in one learning arena may well limit progress. Excellence doesn’t just happen--it must be sought and bought, sometimes at a great price. However, for the real talent no price should be too high. I will always be grateful to parents who, for four years, saw to it that I, as a teenager and student in junior high and high school, boarded the Greyhound bus every Saturday for a piano lesson at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

What was it like growing up in Providence with a love and desire for music? I experienced quality music programs in public schools from elementary through high school; and when there were too many pianists vying to play in the Nathan Bishop Junior High orchestra, the conductor taught me to play the bass violin. Later, in order to also play in the band, I was taught the glockenspiel, as well. I was in everything musical--orchestra, band, accompanying instrumental and vocal soloists and glee clubs, playing the organ in the pit for musicales, and competing for All-State ribbons and medals. What comradelier we students enjoyed! There were so many of us, and we were all good, black and white alike. Color did not matter...it was hardly even thought of...music and musical excellence were all that counted. In fact there were so many who excelled in music at Hope High School that the music director formed an after school music theory class. What a terrific preparation this was for college. Many students went on to conservatories and eventually emerged with significant professional musical careers.

As young musicians our activities were not necessarily confined to school music. We also participated in music club activities such as those provided by the Rhode Island Federation of Music Clubs, the Chopin Club, the Beethoven Club and the Chaminade Club. In addition, the local newspaper--the Providence Journal-Bulletin--and its affiliate radio station--WPJB/fm--presented young musicians in Sunday evening concert showcases. Little did I realize then that one day I would become an honorary member of the Chopin Club--the second oldest music club in America. Neither did I anticipate becoming the first African American, first musician and youngest person to be inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame, which was established by the Journal-Bulletin.

In those early years we took pride in the newly—formed Rhode Island Philharmonic--an orchestra with which (not too many years later) I performed as soloist in concertos by Beethoven (#2 and #4) and Grieg. Without discrimination financial and moral support was given by whites as well as blacks. Only recently did I learn of some token opposition to my application for membership in the Junior Chopin Club. In response white supporters who recognized my talent threatened to resign the Club. Fortunately, none of this came to pass.

Providence was only 43 miles south of Boston, and many of the great artists came to the Rhode Island capital as readily as they went to Boston. Through the Community Concert Series, the Aaron Richmond Celebrity Series, the R.I. Philharmonic, the visiting Boston Symphony and Metropolitan Opera, and the local radio stations that broadcast concerts and the classics, one heard a wealth of what was then referred to as “good” music.

To this day I vividly recall seeing pianist Arthur Rubinstein’s hands and arms flailing high above the keyboard as he played DeFalla’s “Ritual Fire Dance;” and Vladimir Horowitz, during the World War II era, stirring the audience with patriotic fervor as he opened his program with “The Star Spangled Banner” and concluded it with his transcription of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Then there were other keyboard giants like Rudolf Serkin, Claudio Arrau and Alexander Brailowsky. We also heard the violin virtuosos such as Heifetz, Milstein and Francescatti. As for great singers no one could ever forget the dignity and beauty of Marian Anderson singing Schubert’s “Ave Maria;” or the humility and purity of Roland Hayes singing German lieder and Negro spirituals; or the sounds and presence of Lily Pons, Eileen Farrell, Jan Pierce and Ferruccio Tagliavini. All of these I heard before graduating from high school, and every experience was a veritable feast. From them I continued to experience more of music’s wonderful language.

Graduating from Hope High School, I chose to continue my studies at the New England Conservatory--this time as a full-time degree student. At this time I had decided against entering the more highly competitive arena of New York and the Juilliard School. (Four years later I heeded that challenge.)

My life at the Conservatory proved to be a haven from which I emerged with flying colors--graduating first in my class, summa cum laude, receiving the Conservatory’s distinguished George Chadwick Medal, performing as graduation soloist with the Conservatory Orchestra, and being inducted into the Honorary Society of Pi Kappa Lambda (the Phi Beta Kappa of music). This society had previously awarded me a scholarship won through competition against other top-ranking Conservatory students. Now I felt ready for New York.

The incoming Juilliard class was addressed by its President and eminent composer-administrator, William Schuman. I will never forget his opening words, spoken as if they were meant specifically for me: “It does not matter about the number of degrees earned, honors received or prizes won…in New York and at Juilliard is a standard and level of excellence that makes all of these meaningless!!” With one sweeping statement he knocked the wind out of my high-flying sails. In retrospect I can totally agree with President Schuman...what I thought I knew and could do so well, there were countless others--of my age, and even younger--who were able to do it better.. Those pats on my back from the home town crowd no longer meant that I was the best. They did mean, however, that I had to meet the challenge--this time with new eyes and ears, and an ever-deepening understanding as to what truly constituted excellence and success.

Juilliard had some truly great teachers who represented not only the epitome of their field, but were also extraordinary human beings. From this great institution I earned three degrees (B.S., M.S. and D.M.A.) and a Professional Diploma, and each of my three principle instructors broadened my horizons by revealing additional parts to the art and science of piano playing.

The first of these artist-teachers was Beveridge Webster, with whom I still communicate, travelling to his retirement home in New Hampshire whenever preparation for a major performance requires additional guidance and insights. (As a boy from Pittsburgh Webster was taken by his father to France and Germany to study respectively with the celebrated pedagogue, Isador Philipp and the renowned Beethoven interpreter, Artur Schnabel.) “Bev-Web,” as his students affectionately call him, is revered for his unparalleled knowledge, performances and command of piano and chamber music literature. From him I learned keyboard works that I might otherwise have never known. His ability to demonstrate a mastery of nuances and colors seemed made-to-order for my sentiments and temperament.

Sascha Gorodnitzki, my next major Juilliard artist-teacher, was a product of the Russian tradition of pianism. He revelled in teaching and performing the grand repertory of the Romantic Period and demanded order and discipline in all that his students played. From his classes on piano technique I quickly learned the science that answered lingering technical questions. Execution of seemingly difficult keyboard passages were removed from “chance” to “certainty” through the application of his scientific rules that related to hand position and finger preparation. His monthly musical soirees were major events that attracted audiences comprised of the musical elite, students and friends. Crowding into his spacious Central Park West apartment we heard stunning performances of concertos and other major works performed by some of his outstanding students who one day would emerge as world-class pianists and artists.

In the intervening years away from Juilliard, two other artist- teachers--Jeanne-Marie Darre, in Paris, and Santos Ojeda at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York--were also invaluable to my continued development.. Darre, like Webster, was also a product of Philipp’s training. Her astoundingly formidable keyboard technique seemed even more incredible considering the smallness of her hands. In one program she had performed all five Piano Concerti by Saint-Saens for her graduation from the Paris Conservatoire. With a diet of studies and etudes by Czerny, Chopin, Longo and Benjamin Cesi she worked with me to develop strength and independence of fingers, as well as the freedom and sparkle that were the trademark of her own playing..

Santos Ojeda was a “Mr. Fix-it,” a journeyman whose creative teaching often explored the unconventional. He had an uncanny ability to devise and discover ways to play troublesome technical passages. Under his direction I was groomed to enter the international competition circuit where I won Fourth and Third Prizes, respectively, in the Marguerite Long International Competition in Paris and the Tenth International Piano Competition in Rio de Janeiro. Both of these events took place in 1965 and together attracted nearly 200 of the world’s best young pianists.

Ania Dorfrnann studied in her native Russia and later in Paris where she was discovered by the legendary conductor, Arturo Toscanini and had the distinction of being the first woman to perform with him as a concerto soloist. Dorfmann was one of the distinguished panel of jurors who adjudicated the Marguerite Long Concour. Following the competition this renowned pianist invited me to study with her at the Juilliard School where she was a member of the faculty.

Returning to Juilliard after being out in the professional world, I was one of 25 (and only the second African American) admitted into the prestigious Doctor of Musical Arts degree program. Dorfmann gave me the most intense and demanding training of my life. For three years she relentlessly yet patiently worked to further reveal and refine what she considered to be an exceptional talent.

In her beautifully decorated studio, with two Steinway concert grands positioned side by side, she taught and demonstrated her extraordinary level of artistry. One also heard an unforgettable array of supported, suspended sounds that were drawn from keys depressed and caressed by deeply penetrating fingers. As a youngster in Providence I had heard this special music-making from live Sunday afternoon concerts broadcast from Carnegie Hall. The New York Philharmonic conducted by Toscanini, Bruno Walter, John Barbirolli and Dmitri Mitropoulos often featured world-renowned soloists. With Dorfmann the greatness of those yesteryears was now being indelibly reproduced, and I was personally touching the greatness of those yesteryears. For years to come I would mentally have a lesson with her as I, over and over again, replayed her words and unforgettable sounds.

The Juilliard doctoral program also sparked for me a new interest and responsibility to research and perform the little known, but finely crafted piano works of African American composers. Many of these compositions reflect the diversity of our rich cultural, social and musical heritage, they also reveal a craftmanship that is comparable to the excellence recognized in the works of the greatest European masters. These wonderfully refreshing and artistically stimulating compositions by African Americans have added substance and intrigue to recital programs, expanded one’s awareness of our history and historical contributions, and enlarged the catalog of pieces that might be used for teaching purposes.

From New York and Washington the career expanded. Through personal promotional efforts, along with those (at different times) of three managements, the fruitage of early childhood dreams--performing as a concert pianist--have now become a reality. The imprint of the church cannot be ignored. In Paris one newspaper critic wrote: “He brought to the second movement [of the Beethoven Concerto #4] a wonderful hymn-like quality.” From a review in Vienna one reads, “He is a God-gifted musician.” The church, to this day, has provided a platform for service and opportunities to express the talents that it nurtured decades ago…and through the benefactions of church, family, friends and foundations life’s unfoldments have continued to be providentially revealed in ways too numerous to chronicle at this time.

Musicians are those perennial students whose musical treasures are never exhausted, or even fully comprehended. As a concert artist and university Professor of Music, learning, performing and teaching new music and revisiting old pieces is always enhanced by the revelations of time and experiences. This is what makes one a better artist and a better teacher. For me it has been meaningful to recount steps already taken. Life’s voyage is never taken alone. Woven through its fabrics is a vast network of people, events and opportunities. Hovering above all of these is the Hand and Calling of the Divine. It is well for the musician to recognize one’s purpose as part of a divine mission, designed to elevate mankind through the highest and noblest expressions of beauty and inspiration. To do this makes each of us better, happier and healthier people for having touched the beauty and harmony of music For this calling, and for these opportunities, I consider myself very blessed.

© 1996 Raymond T. Jackson

 

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