Jessye Norman curates Carnegie fest on black music

Jessye Norman remembers being an 18-year-old Howard University student studying music literature, when she noticed a glaring omission in her textbook.

“The study book for that two-year course was written by a man named Grout, and it was called ‘(A) History of Western Music.’ However, there was no mention of any African-Americans as a part of this history of American music,” the opera great recalled.

While the impact of black music on American culture has been undeniable, Norman believes that too many people haven’t been educated about its history. She is hoping that the three-week festival she is curating on black music, titled “Honor,” will provide music fans with more knowledge about its rich tapestry.

“In the course of the festival, there’s so much information, and so much that will be imparted to the public that I really hope … that it will be educational, informative, enlightening and simply an uplifting experience,” she said in an interview last week as the festival began.

Participants include Maya Angelou, the Roots, Shirley Caesar, Ben Vereen, Terence Blanchard and dozens of other artists at Carnegie Hall and other venues around New York.

Come Monday, Carnegie Hall will host the world premiere of the Langston Hughes poem “Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz,” which for the first time features a score ? composed by Laura Karpman.

Norman lauded Karpman’s work: “We’re terribly excited about it, because it includes every kind of music one can imagine as being the soundtrack of our lives in the 1960s, whether we’re talking about the blues or jazz or gospel music.”

Norman, 63, hopes the festival, which runs through March 23, will become a starting point for people to learn more about black music.

“One can’t talk about African-American culture thoroughly in only three weeks, but what one can do is to begin to spark the imagination of people to go away and to do more research on their own,” she said.

She said the study of music helps people recognize how connected various forms of music are. For example, she said, Baptist preachers were using raplike rhythms in their sermons a hundred years ago, “already sort of doing what these wonderful young people are doing now.”

She added that “it must be wonderful to know that what you’re doing is growing out of something, and perhaps this information is somewhere in your DNA.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press