Musical geniuses and their legacy

In 1921, A. Jack Thomas petitioned city fathers for funding to start the first municipal band serving Baltimore's black community.

Recalling Black History

February 01, 1999|By Elizabeth Schaaf | Elizabeth Schaaf,PEABODY ARCHIVES

NEARLY every Baltimorean has heard of such hometown favorites as Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday, but scarcely remembered today are the many classically trained African-American musicians who flourished from the post-Civil War years to the 1960s.

During much of this century, Baltimore's black community was a hotbed of musical talent, producing many versatile musicians who performed jazz in clubs and social halls on Saturday nights, gospel in churches on Sunday mornings and classical or big band music at a variety of venues on Sunday afternoons.

Though many of their names may have been forgotten, their legacy lives on in the scores of musicians they trained and the musical compositions they created.

Two of the most influential African-American members of the classical music community here were W. Llewellyn Wilson and A. Jack Thomas -- musical geniuses by any estimation. The very dignified Wilson taught in Baltimore schools for 41 years, serving as chairman of Douglass High School's music department for years until his death in 1950. Thomas, a genial man with twinkling eyes, was revered as a teacher and conductor.

Humble start

Wilson was born into an impoverished West Baltimore neighborhood in 1887. He would often take his seven children to his birthplace to show them his humble beginnings.

Although trained privately by some of the leading members of Peabody Institute's faculty, Wilson was unable to pursue a degree there because Peabody only admitted white students at the time.

Wilson was a gifted cellist and music critic for the Afro-American newspaper.

Among his noted students are: jazz pianist Ellis Larkins; singer Ethel Ennis; composer Eubie Blake; Avon Long, who was the second person to sing the role of Sportin' Life in George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" on Broadway; soprano Anne Wiggins Brown, who created the role of Bess on Broadway; and Cab Calloway, the big band leader whose stage persona was the inspiration for Sportin' Life.

It was Wilson who persuaded the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to perform for students at Douglass High School as early as the 1920s. Wilson was principal cellist of the City Colored Orchestra, led by Charles L. Harris, and, in 1933 succeeded Harris as the orchestra's conductor. Wilson also founded the City Colored Chorus, a group of some 100 voices that performed classical works.

A. Jack Thomas was born in Pittsburgh in 1884 and was trained as a musician while in the Army, becoming one of the first African-American band leaders in the U.S. military.

After his military service, Thomas settled in Baltimore and opened the Aeolian Conservatory at the Druid Hill YMCA. He was chairman of the music department at the forerunner to Morgan State University and was also a member of the faculty of Howard University.

In 1921, Thomas petitioned city fathers for funding to start the first municipal band serving Baltimore's black community and became its conductor. The City Colored Band was founded years after a municipal band serving the white community started.

During the summer months, the band -- whose members kept their black tuxedo jackets on in even the hottest weather -- would perform outdoor concerts that drew thousands of people in black neighborhoods throughout the city.

In the early 1930s, he opened a music studio in New York City and became associate conductor of the Negro Symphony Orchestra in New York. In 1946, he founded the Institute of Musical Arts, a school at 811 W. Lanvale St., that had white and African-American teachers and students.

Thomas was a noted composer of major symphonic works. His "Etude en Noir" was premiered in 1941 by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. Five years later, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performed the work with Thomas on the podium, as the first African-American conductor to lead the orchestra.

Years later, Thomas retired to an Anne Arundel County farm. He died in 1962.

Documenting achievement

It is hard to fully imagine today the wealth and breadth of talent that once abounded in Maryland's African-American musical community. We need to continue the search for materials to preserve the memories and document the achievements.

Elizabeth Schaaf is archivist for the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. She is curator of "The Storm Is Passing Over," an exhibition of photographs and other memorabilia showing the musical history of Maryland's African-American community, which will open at the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Thursday and continue through March 26, when it begins an 18-month long, statewide tour.

Pub Date: 2/01/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.