When I was in my early teens I used to grab any and all piano music I could find in the local library, from Tom Lehrer songs to Mompou to Ignacio Cervantes. One of my favourite things to loan and bash through was the Petite Suite of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. At the time I knew absolutely nothing about SC-T, but slowly became a little better informed, and heard, among other things, his grand, and rather charming, Hiawatha oratorio–the whole arch, not the chunks we have to make do with today. (There is a complete recording with the great Bryn Terfel that Decca seems to have no interest in reissuing, to their shame).
Scroll forward about six to seven years and I’m working in a record shop in South London, about evenly divided between classical and popular musics. I could tell many tales about my time in that store, from Franz Reizenstein’s widow shrieking at me because I didn’t have any of her husband’s LPs in stock (they were all deleted), to my having to call the police on a couple of youths with broken bottles hanging around outside preventing me leaving, and realising when the police and their dog arrived that I had a pocketful of dope (I got away with it…). Nonetheless of all the memorable occurrences, my favourite is still the day when a very dapper elderly Black man came into the shop. He was dressed in tweed with a deerstalker hat and looked as if he was on the way home from a retired-Sherlock-Holmes convention. He came to the counter and asked to order a disc. Of course, I said, and what would he like to order? “Hiawatha by Coleridge Taylor”. I asked his name; he replied “Hiawatha Coleridge-Taylor.” Yes, I said, that’s the recording, but your name is?… He replied, “My name is Hiawatha Coleridge-Taylor”. I had met the great man’s son. It transpired that he worked as well-loved GP in the Wimbledon area. Although seemingly not a professional musician, his sister, Avril Coleridge-Taylor was a respected composer and conductor and is rightly getting renewed attention.
Once again, jump forward to a few years ago. I was searching for new Coleridge-Taylor recordings (happily, there were several) and my browser threw up an unexpected and unfamiliar composer: Perkinson Coleridge-Taylor. Except that his name is in fact Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Intrigued, I ordered a couple of his CDs and was fascinated to discover his slightly Bartòkian early works, including his Sinfonietta No.1, and Grass, both of which feature on his disc on the Çedille label. I wondered how he got such a colourful name, and imagined it might be assumed, but his mother was also apparently involved in music and theatre and named him as a homage.
There are a number of other African-American composers I particularly relish. C-TP’s works have been described on Wiki as blending Baroque counterpoint and American Romanticism, with elements of the blues, spirituals, and black folk music, and I think that does him justice. Quite different are the musics of Elliott Carter pupil Jeffrey Mumford–whose works are, quite simply ‘must-hear’ repertoire–Alvin Singleton, and Adolphus Hailstork. Recently, the music of Florence Price has had a sudden well-deserved resurgence; she was the first African-American woman to have a Symphonic work performed, and the two Violin Concertos are exquisite–the Second showing a hint of the Scriabins, which always gets my vote. It should not be necessary to draw people’s attention to William Grant Still or his Afro-American Symphony. An almost exact contemporary of Duke Ellington, Still’s works should be incontestable inclusions in the canon of great American Classical music. And yet, you know Copland; do you know Still?
I vividly recall my astonishment at hearing the Violin Concerto from Panamanian Roque Cordero: a big bold, richly orchestrated, and vividly imaginative 12-note work, it is also criminally underrecognised. As far as I can tell, it was recorded commercially only once, in the Columbia Black Composers series by the eminent African-American violinist Sanford Allen. (I discovered today that Allen is married to my favourite food writer and actor, Madhur Jaffrey, she of Shakespeare Wallah). Which brings me back to C-TP, who in 1972 (the year I met Hiawatha C-T) wrote a work called Blue/s Forms for Sanford Allen’s solo violin; his performance also appears on the Çedille disc. I was delighted when I discovered that the young violinist Randall Goosby has included this work, and pieces by Coleridge-Taylor himself, Florence Price, and William Grant Still, on his debut CD, Roots. An indispensable recording, surely?