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'Black Swans': New Collection Features Recordings Of Early Black Classical Musicians

(SOUNDBITE OF CLARENCE CAMERON WHITE AND WILLIAM LEONARD KING'S "CRADLE SONG")

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: The year is 1919. World War I has wrapped up, but in cities around the U.S., Black military veterans are facing white racial violence. Riots break out in cities from Chicago to Knoxville. It came to be known as the Red Summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLARENCE CAMERON WHITE AND WILLIAM LEONARD KING'S "CRADLE SONG")

CORNISH: And this is the backdrop to the work of Clarence Cameron White, a violinist and composer from that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLARENCE CAMERON WHITE AND WILLIAM LEONARD KING'S "CRADLE SONG")

CORNISH: This recording from later that year is rare for many reasons - its age, its clarity, his musicianship. But it's also rare because many classical music performances from this time by Black artists recorded by Black music labels were thought to be lost to history. This year a collection of that music has been restored and released - more than two dozen recordings of Black classical musicians from that period. It's called "Black Swans."

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT NATHANIEL DETT'S "IN THE BOTTOMS - BARCAROLLE")

CORNISH: We spoke to professor Sais Kamalidiin of Howard University about them. He says that considering the obstacles facing these artists, it's a wonder we can listen to these recordings at all.

SAIS KAMALIDIIN: We're talking about a time period when Jim Crow in a lot of the states was in full effect - absolute segregation. So the idea that these people would take on the mantle of being a culture carrier for Western European art music was very, very unusual - that they would have the courage, No. 1, and they would choose to do that when, if you had musical talent, you'd be pushed into the jazz and blues direction and, in some cases, discouraged from doing Western European art music because, you know, who was going to be there to support your career? What would your audience be other than your travel to Europe?

CORNISH: When we think about that period - as you said, Jim Crow, racial violence against Black Americans in particular - it's kind of mind-boggling that people found the capital - right? - access to capital and the will to start a label, so to speak, because just having access to the equipment, all that sort of thing, could not have been easy. Were people trained in - mostly through Black colleges and universities? Sort of where did this come up?

KAMALIDIIN: We owe primarily what we have in these recordings today to two people more than others - George W. Broome from Massachusetts - Bedford, Mass., and Harry Pace with the Black Swan Label. To do what they did with rudimentary equipment - needless to say, it wasn't the finest that was available, even at that time. And to decide to put this kind of music, Western European art music, so-called classical music, out in the public - to even have some idea of breaking even financially was bold and brave in a way that is hard to describe.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLARENCE CAMERON WHITE AND WILLIAM LEONARD KING'S "LAMENT")

KAMALIDIIN: They're making multiple statements with this attempt. They are making a statement of, this is great art. These are great artists. They need to be respected and need to be known more widely. But this is also a business that we are entering into that should gain respect for the African American businessperson at that time. We want in. We're going to be in. And so somebody has to break the ice.

CORNISH: I want to talk about Florence Cole-Talbert because she actually made recordings for two of the labels that are here, Broome and Black Swan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORENCE COLE TALBERT PERFORMANCE OF DELIBES' "BELL SONG")

FLORENCE COLE TALBERT: (Singing in French).

CORNISH: She is singing very difficult music. Can you talk about it - "Bell Song"?

KAMALIDIIN: She's a coloratura soprano. And both her parents were specialists, a singer. Her father was a bass, and her mother sang concert music also. It was almost destined for her to have the exposure and the training that she had to do what she did. She became world famous. But once again, because of the lack of recording and some of the racial challenges that were faced, her career was not what it could have been if she had not been African American.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORENCE COLE TALBERT PERFORMANCE OF DELIBES' "BELL SONG")

COLE TALBERT: (Singing in French).

CORNISH: What do you think was significant about her voice?

KAMALIDIIN: The clarity of her voice, a wonderful upper register.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORENCE COLE TALBERT PERFORMANCE OF DELIBES' "BELL SONG")

COLE TALBERT: (Singing in French).

KAMALIDIIN: She was known as the first lady of the Grand Opera. But she was very, very famous for just having accuracy with pitch. Everything about her was first-rate.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORENCE COLE TALBERT PERFORMANCE OF DELIBES' "BELL SONG")

COLE TALBERT: (Vocalizing).

CORNISH: One of the people with one of the longest and most successful careers - the names on this disc is Roland Hayes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLAND HAYES AND G. SUMNER WORMLEY PERFORMANCE OF VERDI'S "SOLENNE IN QUEST'ORA")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing in Italian).

CORNISH: And there was a series of private releases in 1917. He performed for many years. Can you talk about his musical style, what we're hearing and his influence?

KAMALIDIIN: Roland Hayes was lyric tenor with operatic excerpts - very, very skillful in his use of his voice. The recordings made during his prime - he was as good as anyone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLAND HAYES AND G. SUMNER WORMLEY PERFORMANCE OF VERDI'S "SOLENNE IN QUEST'ORA")

HAYES: (Singing in Italian).

KAMALIDIIN: Roland Hayes was the person who first started including the Concert Spirituel in his recitals. Today as an African American singer, you would almost dare not do a recital and don't include the Concert Spirituel. And to think that Roland Hayes is the person who set the standard for that is very, very profoundly important to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLAND HAYES AND G. SUMNER WORMLEY PERFORMANCE OF VERDI'S "SOLENNE IN QUEST'ORA")

ROLAND HAYES AND G SUMNER WORMLEY: (Singing in Italian).

CORNISH: Well, Professor Sais Kamalidiin, thank you so much for speaking with us and enjoying this music with us. I can tell that you get a lot of energy out of it.

KAMALIDIIN: It's tremendous. This was a project that was long overdue. I'm just thankful to have this opportunity to talk about it. And maybe if even a few people will get this recording, enjoy it, care to learn more about these great artists, I think the quote from Grace Bumbry on the front cover says it all. They'll never be sorry.

CORNISH: Sais Kamalidiin, professor of music at Howard University. "Black Swans" is a collection of recordings of Black classical artists from more than 100 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LES RAMEAUX")

HARRY BURLEIGH: (Singing) And anthems raise. Hosanna. Praise be to God. Blessed is he who comes bringing salvation, salvation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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