MusicologyStriking the Right KeyTammy KernodleTitle: Associate Professor of Musicology, Department of Music, Miami University of Ohio, Oxford
Education: Ph.D., M.A., Music History, Ohio State University; B.A., Choral Music Education and Piano, Virginia State University
Sunlight poured through stained-glass windows and illuminated the church piano in Danville, Va., where, from the time Tammy Kernodle was a teenager, she played what was considered sacred music every Sunday morning. But on Saturday nights, in the dim haze of smoke-filled nightclubs, she played jazz.
“My parents weren’t happy,” Kernodle remembers. “My father called jazz ‘honky-tonk music.’ “
The first African American woman ever awarded tenure in the Department of Music at Miami University of Ohio, Kernodle reconciled the perceived disparity between the sacred and the secular, particularly after an encounter with the work of jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams.
“I didn’t know who Williams was,” Kernodle says, “and didn’t want to hear her. I had these archaic notions about women pianists. Then I heard her. It blew me away.”
It also initiated a profound change in her intellectual path. Kernodle chose Williams as her subject of study, crafted a book proposal and secured a publishing contract. “I knew then that this was meant to be,” Kernodle says.
It was confirmed when Kernodle searched through a collection of Williams’ papers looking for jazz symphonies and found movements of the Catholic masses that Williams wrote in the 1960s instead, and again by an encounter with Williams’ sisters at a lecture.
“I presented what the religious pieces reflected about Mary Lou’s faith and about Black Catholic identity in the 1960s,” Kernodle recalls. “At the end, her youngest sister stood up and said, ‘Mary Lou would be so proud that you talk about her that way. It’s almost as if you knew my sister.’ That was a humbling moment.”
As matriarch of the Bebop movement, Williams was frequently visited by jazz legends Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. She was also on the forefront of the 1960s Catholic Church reform when the Vatican II commissioned her to write a jazz mass, validating the notion that artists can revel in both the sacred and secular.
Like Williams, Kernodle has extensive expertise. She also has her dream job.
“At 11 o’clock I teach 19th-century violin concertos,” Kernodle enthuses. “At 12:00, I teach Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richard, and at 2:00, the Supremes, the Marvelettes and the Shirelles. I have a reputation as a very hard professor, yet our hip-hop seminar is popular. I teach a jazz history course with 58 seats, but usually 800 or 900 students register,” she says. “We look at the music as narratives of freedom and identity. I’m amazed students are so taken by what I bring.”
Colleagues are similarly supportive. “I have been mentored greatly within a primarily White community of Americanist scholars, and by Black scholars as well, who have seen something in me that I didn’t,” she continues, “that I present a unique narrative as a Black woman dealing with the music from technical, as well as cultural aspects.”
She has also dealt with blatant racism and wrote her master’s thesis on African American composer William Grant Still in defiance of a professor who insisted Black music was not a valid subject of study.
“I decided somebody had to start writing about our music in a way that individuals who dismissed it would know this tradition is diverse,” Kernodle says. “Black music defines so much of our American identity.”
Trained in traditional musicology, Kernodle immersed herself in a self-directed study of Black music. Considered a William Grant Still expert, she lectures widely at conferences, directs several choirs, conducts numerous workshops, and will soon celebrate the release of her first book from Northeastern University Press, Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams. She considers an upcoming Lincoln Center lecture during the 2004 Mary Lou Williams celebration another highlight of her career.
“She is a dedicated scholar with innovative approaches and inspiration,” says Dr. Pamela Fox, president of Mary Baldwin College, former dean of the School of Fine Arts at Miami University, and Kernodle’s former mentor. “Dr. Kernodle is also an exceptionally gifted teacher. She is a rare blend of keen intellect with vast factual and conceptual command of information, the highest standards of excellence, insightful pedagogy and course design, compassion, humor and vivacious delivery filled with infectious passion.”
Says Kernodle, “I’m just a simple country girl who got a chance to pursue her dreams.”— By Crystal L. Keels
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com