MONTCLAIR, NJ — The consensus following “Jubilee, A Celebration of African-American Music” at the Montclair Art Museum on June 26 was overwhelmingly positive. “Let’s do it again!” was a common refrain.
The Rev. Jesse Branson Jr., social justice minister at Union Baptist Church in Montclair, hosted the event, providing insight into the evolution of African-American music. The two-hour program had an enthusiastic participant, “Every contribution was heartfelt and delightful.”
The show opened energetically to a packed house with a performance by Montclair State University’s West African Drum and Dance Ensemble under the direction of Robert Levin. Spectators enthusiastically joined in a dance around the drums.
Roosevelt Credit, baritone at the Metropolitan Opera, and other gospel singers delivered a moving rendition of “What a Friend I Have in Jesus” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
Spirituals evolved into blues with Montclair Early Music mezzo soprano Elsa Larsson emotionally delivering songs by rarely performed African-American composers such as William Grant Still, Beasley Smith and Julia Lee Niebergall. The Montclair Early Music ensemble, under the direction of Sandy Meltzer, accompanies Larsson.
Nissreen Almazouni and Jim Geyer danced lindy hop, a dance originating from Harlem. They were accompanied by a talented young group of Jazz House Kids.
Emily O’Brien, virtuoso recorder player from Boston, has done incredible things with a tenor recorder and excellent recorders. Its three pieces, the last accompanied by the APEX string ensemble, were composed by contemporary African-American composer Melissa Fitzhugh.
In the finale, the song “Lil Liza Jane” was led by young MEM recorder students Lyle Harmon, Maya Herrera-Shimokawa and Kimaya Sayles, who recently performed at the Boston Early Music Festival.
All of the music, spanning nearly 400 years, was composed by African Americans.
“It was a huge undertaking and a resounding success,” said MEM Founder and President Julienne Pape. “It gave audiences the opportunity to hear compositions by important but little-known black composers. We created the program to complement the June 19 celebration and hope to expand it in the future.
Photos courtesy of Julienne Pape