Celebrating Black Music History at SF Community Music Center
By Lou Fancher
It’s the rare centenarian organization that is as vital and forward-looking as the San Francisco Community Music Center. Founded by Gertrude Field in 1921 with the mission of making music accessible to all people through low or no-cost music lessons and concerts, the CMC is making a larger impact on the Bay Area now, with a greater diversity of programming, as detailed in SFCV’s recent feature.
While continuing to offer a vast array of opportunities for people of all ages, a new Black Music Studies Program and a recommitment to listening to the community are harbingers of the directions the organization will pursue as it enters a second century in operation. Inclusion is not a new word for the CMC: In 1945, its board of directors furthered Field’s humanitarian vision by establishing a hiring process that sought the best instructors, regardless of race.
CMC Executive Director Julie Rulyak Steinberg, in an interview, says, “Community has so many meanings to consider: cultural identity, geography, like-mindedness, generational roots, deeply held values — the list goes on. This kind of multifaceted thinking is always key to the ways in which we seek to reach the various communities we serve through the development of CMC’s programming. When CMC considers how we will frame and prioritize community in our next 100 years, we are finding new ways to listen to those around us, inviting and uplifting diverse voices that reflect a community’s needs and experiences to create music programming and creative work, and expanding our thinking about what role music and the arts can play for our students and teachers beyond traditional teaching and performance.”
Her statement mirrors that of many arts organizations, until she adds, “If we have learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that the arts are a listening tool, a tool of justice, and a way for people to connect to something that is deeply nourishing for individuals and communities.”
Composer, musician, and music scholar Maestro Curtis leads the tuition-free online Black Music Studies series of courses he teaches with his wife Nola Curtis, an established and recognized vocalist, musician, teacher, dancer/choreographer, and the accompanist for the CMC Older Adult Choirs. About developing and leading the program, Curtis says, “As a direct descendant of African slaves on both sides of my family, it is a legacy and an honor to be in a position to tell the story and the history of Black music from a Black perspective. The Community Music Center has respected my experience and has allowed me to display, from my perspective, what Black humanity has given to the world and to the music world.”
During the fall 2021 quarter, the curriculum debuted with a 101-level class; Historical Foundations of Black Music Before and During the Atlantic Slave Trade, followed by Historical Exposure of the Black Music Origins of Small Ensemble Singing. In the early quarter of 2022, History of Black Choral Singing and Historical Perspectives on Singing With Accompaniment were offered. Current courses include the histories of West African drumming and of tribal singing.
Approximately 50 people have enrolled in the program since last fall. Curtis says he will continue to expand the course offerings. A special celebration on April 23 at Yerba Buena Gardens showcases a new work by Maestro Curtis, A Song of Triumph: The History of Black Music. Featured in the performance are Maestro Curtis, the Curtis Family C-Notes (the Curtises and their five children), and special guests Bishop James Adams, James Henry, Pastor Gerald Gordon, Ken Little, Larry Douglas, Ricardo Scales, Tony Bolivar, Neil Stallings, and Dorothy Morrison.
“The story of Black music in America and the trials and tribulations associated with the Black experience in America is an unending and ongoing story,” says Maestro Curtis. “This class celebrates the beauty that Black Americans have given to the world and to the music world. The Song of Triumph concert is like a painting on the wall for you to see the past that has brought us to where we are. It’s an extension of the Black Music Studies Program series and an ongoing conversation to bring us into the wealth of love and genius that American Black humanity has given to the world.”
“The participation in the class has been stellar,” Steinberg reports, separately. “There is a hunger for knowledge and truth. To have the majority of my students, who are not of African descent, participate and be open and have healthy discussions about the Black American experiences seems to have given people a sense of respect, joy, love, and hope in a future where we can begin to look at each other in a way that has nothing to do with race, creed, or color, but with an understanding that our humanity is the very same humanity that lives in all God’s human beings. It’s been well-received. It’s been a privilege. The age range is from people in their 20s to 80s. It’s been empowering for the students in the class. They can see the origins of music and culture that they enjoy today. It’s been a harmonious and enthusiastic exchange.”