Jazzed Up, Classically Composer and Conductor Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson Blends Styles and Exposes Audiences to a World of Black Music

By McGill, Nicole Johnson | The Florida Times Union, April 22, 2002 | Go to article overview

Jazzed Up, Classically Composer and Conductor Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson Blends Styles and Exposes Audiences to a World of Black Music


McGill, Nicole Johnson, The Florida Times Union


Byline: Nicole Johnson McGill, Times-Union staff writer

When Vereda "Tosci" Pearson's baby boy was barely 2 weeks old, she bundled him up and left Harlem, traveling south by train to Winston-Salem, N.C. There she handed her son to her sister, and then went back home.

The year was 1932, the midst of the Great Depression. Tosci Pearson would not be a regular part of her son's life again for at least 10 years. But she left him in loving hands that would provide him with a good foundation, a family and a place he would always call home.

And she also gave him something else.

The young music teacher, who counted among her friends some of the brilliant artists and activists of the Harlem Renaissance, gave her son a special name that would foreshadow his destiny.

She named him Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, after Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a black composer and conductor from England who gained worldwide recognition in the late 1890s.

Coleridge-Taylor did for black music forms what white composers like Brahms and Dvorak had done for European folk music. He blended classical music with other genres, and that versatility made him one of the most influential black composers of his time.

Perkinson shares the same reputation among composers and conductors today. He has made a career of breaking down musical stereotypes. In addition to classical, ballet and jazz, he has conducted and composed numerous movie scores, television shows and documentary films as well as theater.

On Sunday, he will bring his innovative style to Jacksonville as he conducts the second concert as composer-in-residence for the Ritz Chamber Players inaugural season at the Ritz Theatre & LaVilla Museum. One of Perkinson's works is on the program. The all-black ensemble features some of the top names in classical music from across the nation.

"He's one of my greatest champions in keeping this going," said Terrance Patterson, founder and artistic director of the group. "He's inspirational. He's just a wealth of knowledge on presenting music."

In his current position as conductor of the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble in Chicago, Perkinson continues to look for innovative ways to present music, especially black music.

The Chicago ensemble is based at the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago, where Perkinson is also coordinator of performance activities. The center's goal is to preserve black music and educate and expose audiences to the work of often-forgotten black composers and musicians. Perkinson's job is to present the music the center has preserved. Much of it has never been performed.

"All my life I've wanted to have a group of musicians at my command that would play anything," he said. "And at least if they couldn't play it they would be free enough to learn the idiom if I just pointed them in the right direction. People are surprised when they see the scope of what we do."

Surprised and evidently pleased.

The reviews have been glowing, praising Perkinson and the ensemble for their versatility and talent.

"Only one arts institution in the United States (and perhaps the world) has had the vision to present all of this music under a single banner," wrote Howard Reich, arts critic for the Chicago Tribune.

In another review, Reich wrote, "Perkinson and his band affirmed that audiences can be mesmerized by a sweeping range of music, so long as the musicians involved have mastered the performance style of each idiom."

With all his years of experience and knowledge and despite all the praise, Perkinson admits he's still learning and growing as a musician.

"I thought I knew a lot about black music," he said, "but it's like spit in the ocean. I know I'm not going to put a dent in it in my lifetime, but I'm going to do as much as I can."

Perkinson's music career began when he moved back to New York as a teenager. …

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