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Jewish World Review June 22, 2001 /1 Tamuz, 5761

Stanley Crouch

Amity Shlaes
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This history is
music to my ears


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE concerns about the vilest aspects of rap that were voiced at the Hip Hop Summit here in New York last week were still in the air Monday evening when a friend and I attended a gathering at a private club on E. 66th St. Once more, it was demonstrated that limited ideas about Afro-American life are always at war with the rich and varied realities of black, brown, beige and bone citizens.

The Center for Black Music Research had come to town from Columbia College in Chicago to give a sampling of the epic task it has put upon itself, which is documenting and performing works by black composers from all over the world.

Since Samuel Floyd founded it in 1983, the center has unearthed a good deal of important information about black musicians, most of them American, and some of their achievements that go back more than 200 years.

But as you might know, nobody comes that distance just to talk and play some music. The central purpose was to help raise $1.35 million in response to a $450,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. So even though its teeth might have been capped in velvet, the center had come to put the bite on Manhattan, the scars from which should be worn proudly.

What these scholars and musicians are doing is truly significant. One example was the discovery made by Floyd of a great man from St. Thomas Island named Alton Augustus Adams. Floyd visited Adams in the Virgin Islands after seeing his name mentioned in newspapers from the '20s and '30s.

Around 1909, Adams started a band in St. Thomas for young people. In 1917, the United States bought the Virgin Islands for $25 million from the Danes. Adams' band was discovered and so impressed all who heard it that the entire unit, called the Adams Juvenile Band, was inducted into the U.S. Navy.

By 1921, people were calling it the best Navy band in the service. In 1926, the band toured the U.S. to great critical acclaim.

By 1942, Adams was running an integrated Navy band, five years before President Harry Truman's executive order that integrated the armed forces. So Adams brought off two impossibilities: One, he was a Navy band instructor in era when black men could only serve as mess attendants and stewards and, two, he led an integrated band way ahead of his time. Bandmaster Adams was something.

So were the musicians from the Center for Black Music Research who performed Monday evening. Some still in their 20s, others older, they played with class, soul and fire.

The atmosphere maintained both the down-home black tradition of fervid distraction and the welcoming mood so central to what makes the best of our American culture shine, no matter the color of its makers.

To see these musicians so well-dressed, with such good manners but also full of humor and light-years from being snooty or stiff was to realize how far the most deeply human elements and ambitions of Afro-American life and tradition are from rap at its worst.

As for the misguided hip hop mantra about "keeping it real," the evening underlined Oscar Wilde's observation that though we all might be standing in the gutter, some of us are looking at the stars.


JWR contributor and cultural icon Stanley Crouch is a columnist for The New York Daily News. He is the author of, among others, The All-American Skin Game, Or, the Decoy of Race: The Long and the Short of It, 1990-1994,       Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives, and Don't the Moon Look Lonesome: A Novel in Blues and Swing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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