One of my earliest and fondest memories is of standing in the center of our kitchen at about age four, stick baton in hand, "conducting" symphonies by Dvořák and Rimsky-Korsakov*. My mother had given in to my pleas for the 78 rpm records. She thought the music completely unappealing and constantly yelled at me for turning the volume up, but I loved her without bounds for buying me the ninety-eight cent record.That is Jan Willis in the photo above, and the extract is from her autobiographical Dreaming Me. She grew up in Docena, Alabama in the 1950s when life was even less just then than it is today. While Jan Willis was discovering classical music, America's leading impresario declared that he didn't believe in male "Negro symphony conductors", yet alone female Negro symphony conductors. Fortunately, classical music's loss was spirituality's gain: after studying with Lama Yeshe - who also influenced Philip Glass - Jan Willis went on to become the first African American scholar-practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. In 2000 she was named one of the six spiritual innovators for the new millennium by Time magazine and today is professor of religion and East Asian studies at Wesleyan University.
For days and weeks, I was completely lost in the roaring sonorities of Scheherazade and in the somber strains of the New World Symphony. My head and arms sunk and rose in waves and flurries as the music wholly enveloped me. I thought the New World particularly moving, somehow divinely captivating. Its sound struck a deep, still, soul-place in me, though I did not and could not say why. It was only much later that I learned of Dvořák's interest in black spirituals.
I do not remember when I first heard classical music. Nor do I know how I could have known the names of particular composers. I suspect I first heard the music in movies such as Walt Disney's Fantasia or on television. How I ever claimed to comprehend the intricacies of musical notation and meter I am not sure. Yet I was somehow drawn intensely and irrevocably towards this kind of creativity; and I marveled that in music, as in mathematics, there was a language that was universal. And so, for a time, while my father was toiling away at making steel in the fiery blast furnaces of the Ensley mill, I determined that if life were just, I would become a great conductor.
* While writing this post I was prompted to put a Rimsky symphony on the CD player; David Zinman's account of the Second Symphony Antar with the Rotterdam Philharmonic just happened to be the one I put my hand on. Listening to it again was a salutary reminder of how classical music's big opportunity is neglected music.
No review samples involved; but dependent arising dictated that the very cheap copy of Dreaming Me that I bought online came signed by Jan Willis. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.