Couples - mostly middle-class, middle-aged and almost entirely black - gather at Washington's Lincoln Theatre for a night of adventurous soul music, the kind seldom heard on today's commercial urban radio. Of the night's acts, Baltimore's Fertile Ground is the most musically daring.
The septet crafts a sound that slips in and out of jazz, R&B, Brazilian samba and African roots music. James Collins, a lanky man with unruly dreads who founded the band with lead singer Navasha Daya, addresses the crowd from his keyboards. "As black musicians, what we do is more than entertainment. It's a way of uplifting the ancestors," he says. "This is black music!"
The house erupts in applause.
The next evening, in Towson, a different crowd gathers for a night of "black music." Most at the Recher Theatre were born in the '80s and many attend classes down the street at Towson University. The full house is largely white. Tonight's bill features a Recher mainstay: the Baltimore-based Kelly Bell Band.
Bell's show is free of any easy signifiers of modern black music: no shades of bass-heavy R&B and certainly no hip-hop. For an hour, the Kelly Bell Band performs blues-lite songs with a high pop gloss, including a punchy snippet of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing."
"I bet you didn't think four and a half black guys knew that," Bell says, partly referring to the band's sole white member, keyboard player and business manager Kirk Myers.
Although they grew up in the same region, listening to some of the same sounds, James Collins and Kelly Bell have filtered those influences in dramatically different ways, arriving at their own definition of black music - and who its audience should be. Fertile Ground's style is unabashedly Afrocentric and jazz-suffused, while Bell's is pop-friendly with strong traces of rock and blues. Neither sees his music as mere entertainment. Collins and Bell profess a serious artistic mission: to preserve the essence of black music.
But what is black music in an iPod age where there are more musical choices than ever and genres are harder to pin down? And how will black music be defined, now that President-elect Barack Obama's victory has upended ideas about racial identity?
"Musically, it gets difficult. You have to weigh in the role of the artists and who they're trying to pitch it to. If they feel it's black music, it's black music," says Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black popular culture at Duke University and author of What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture.
But what about white artists whose music absorbs the vocal approaches and rhythmic syncopation of traditionally black styles: jazz, blues, hip-hop? In the last two years, some of the most authentic-sounding R&B came from white artists such as Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake and Amy Winehouse. They all adhered to musical templates of Motown-influenced melodies and aggressive, funk-laced rhythms. Each sang with a streetwise swagger that was mostly convincing. Meanwhile, the music of mainstream black acts such as Rihanna and Kanye West glinted with classic new wave and progressive punk, sounds generally associated with white acts.
A little more than half a century ago, during the days of segregation and Jim Crow, the definition of black music was clearer than it is today. For the most part, it was music made by and sold to black people. The foundation of it all (the harmonic structures, the rhythms, vocal colors and textures) had been informed by early styles shaped by blacks: spirituals, blues and jazz. But even then, artists such as Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke and the acts of the Motown machine drew sizable white audiences with a streamlined, sometimes anodyne sound. Still, the boundaries, dictated by legal segregation, were set. Black acts sang one way for the swanky white crowd at the Copacabana and another for the vibrant black folks at the Apollo.
In the early '70s - as the black power movement lost steam, as society grew more integrated and as blacks reaped some benefits of affirmative action - black music became more mainstream. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, architects of the Philly soul sound and founders of Philadelphia International Records, landed a historic distribution deal with CBS Records. Their strutting, lush productions for the O'Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and others scaled the Top 10. Stevie Wonder swept major categories at the Grammys with a string of landmark albums, including Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life. Acts such as Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5 and, later, Donna Summer dominated pop charts and packed arenas around the world.
But in today's pop music market - as the democratized Internet continues to liberate artists, fragment listeners and annihilate the old infrastructure of record companies - James Collins and Kelly Bell doggedly try to define black music for themselves.