Arts & Culture » Culture

Rhapsody in black


Few would think classical music attracts metro Detroit’s African-American listening audience en masse. But a well-researched and growing Web site may challenge that notion by exposing enthusiasts and neophytes alike to the African influences on this elegant art form.

According to, there were black composers who were at the top of their creative game during the heyday of Beethoven and Mozart. In 20th century America, racism marginalized black composers, but many worked overseas in places like Great Britain and France, and interacted in social circles without the burden of racism.

Bill Zick, a 60-year-old Ann Arbor activist, created and designed the informative site to serve as a one-stop shop for information on black composers and musicians who’ve played pivotal roles in the genre’s development. He took interest in the topic during the early ’90s while visiting the University of Michigan-Flint’s library. It was in the school’s music room that he first discovered the sounds of black composers.

“I have a lifelong commitment to civil rights. I’m not a musician, just a music appreciator,” Zick says.

Having worked for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights during the ’70s, Zick jumped at the chance to address the dearth of accessible information on black classical musicians. But an accident left him disabled by the late ’90s and kept him at home most of the time. So the Internet became his platform.

He posted’s first piece of information in 2000. The debut posting was the perfect preview of the types of adventures, fantasies and tragedies black composers have experienced in classical music since the 18th century.

The first subject was Joseph Boulogne, also known as Le Chevalier de Saint-George. The 18th century composer was the son of a slave who rose to the heights of French society through his mastery of classical music and fencing. He overcame racism to lead some of France’s most prominent orchestras, and his musical compositions were said to have inspired the likes of Mozart and Beethoven.

But after he killed a man in a fencing duel that resulted from a drunken quarrel, Boulogne was forced to flee France. He was sentenced to death in absentia, but influence reaches far. He was pardoned years later by Louis XV. A French biography was published on Boulogne last year, but Zick’s site offers a short, readable account of Boulogne’s life.

Zick’s research has since unearthed the stories of at least 16 composers and musicians, and a host of links to other Web sites that concern the African diaspora’s influence on classical music. He immersed himself in the subject, frequently buying the recordings of composers — William Levi Dawson, William Grant Still. He learned that some legendary composers, such as Duke Ellington and Scott Joplin, known for their work in jazz and rag, respectively, made forays into the classical realm. And lesser-knowns, such as Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, did the same, but to less acclaim and less fortune than, say, Boulogne.

Wiggins was born blind and autistic in 1849, a musical genius with a phenomenal memory. When his parents and two brothers were sold at a Georgia slave auction in 1850, he was thrown into the bargain. Wiggins’ new owners allowed him to learn the piano, as a parlor trick. After emancipation, his family was freed — but Wiggins was not.

“They started having concerts when he was 8 years old,” Zick says. “Presented him as a freak. Said derogatory things about him. They made him tour and give four to five shows a day. He couldn’t declare his independence or realize that he was being exploited. And his mother lost the fight to be his guardian. The slave owners and their heirs kept winning. His white managers kept almost all of his money.”

Wiggins died in 1908.

Not every story is as tragic as Wiggins’. The African-European Chevalier J.J.O. de Meude-Monpas created a collection called Six Violin Concertos, which was dedicated to Louis XVI. And Ludwig Von Beethoven once accompanied London-born black violinist George A.P. Bridgetower.

Zick’s efforts have been recognized by some of the Detroit area’s foremost proponents of ethnic inclusion in the classical arts. Aaron Dworkin is the founder and president of the Sphinx Organization, a multifaceted group dedicated to encouraging classical music training among young people of color (“Mystery of the Sphinx,” Metro Times, Feb. 26, 2003). He says Zick’s site is the most comprehensive that he knows.

“Unfortunately, there are very few sites with information about black contributions to classical music,” Dworkin says. Zick’s site “has a lot of information. It’s a fantastic thing, and a resource that should be supported.”

Although the Sphinx program is popular enough that it now has to turn away applicants, Dworkin agrees that black and Latino youth need greater exposure to this form of music.

Zick hopes will aid that effort.

Khary Kimani Turner is a freelancer writer. Send comments to [email protected]

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