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With All Strings Attached

With All Strings Attached

Composer William C. Banfield notes the clash of artistry and commerce while weaving together a world of music

By Kendra Hamilton

He’s “a modern magician” of music who has only to raise his baton to “(fetch) forth a spirit and image that touches new meanings and interpretations. Nobody interprets with a clearer voice and higher tone,” says Dr. Ray Browne, founder of Bowling Green State University’s Department of Popular Culture.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., chair of Harvard’s department of African and African American Studies, calls Black Notes: Essays of a Musician Writing in a Post-Album Age, “a must read” and “a book from which to learn and by which to teach.”

They’re lauding Dr. William “Bill” Banfield, a quadruple threat in the world of music. Banfield is a composer with nine symphonies to his credit, not to mention countless smaller scale works — concerti, chamber works, operas, choral and jazz works — that have been performed all over the nation.

He’s also a performer — with highly acclaimed jazz performers such as Patrice Rushen, Earl Klugh, Najee, Nelson Rangell and many others.

And he’s a scholar. With degrees from the New England Conservatory of Music, Boston University and the University of Michigan, Banfield, 43, may well be one of the youngest endowed professors in the nation. He holds the $1.3 million Endowed Chair in Humanities and Fine Arts at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., where he founded and directs the American Cultural Studies program.

But perhaps most importantly, Banfield may be making his true mark as a musical and cultural critic. Through books such as the recent Black Notes and the highly regarded Landscapes in Color: Conversations with Black American Composers, through his work preserving the original scores of Black composers and his radio programs on Minnesota and National Public Radio, Banfield is creating a sustained conversation on the clash of artistry and commerce in the lives of Black music-makers. In the process, he’s also communicating a unique vision of American culture through its music.

But right now, Banfield is simply trying to catch his breath in the midst of a whirlwind of a fall semester.

He’s just returned from the world premiere of his ninth symphony, the “Hope Symphony,” a massive work with a 100-voice chorus commissioned by the National Endowment for the Art’s American Composers Forum. Teased about the superficial similarities to Beethoven’s ninth symphony, Banfield chuckles and explains that Beethoven, in fact, served as a model for the work.

“Beethoven had his Goethe to inspire him with that wonderful universalistic vision of the healing spirit of the word (in poetry). Well, my Goethe was Arna Bontemps,” he says, referring to the Harlem Renaissance poet and playwright who ended up preserving the movement’s legacy as head librarian at Fisk University.

Banfield even lived for a time in Bontemps’ childhood home — now the Arna Bontemps African American Museum in Alexandria, La. — while he was writing the work.

And there’s much more. Two of Banfield’s operas — “Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On” and “Soul Gone Home” — are about to open in New York City. He’s also promoting a new CD — his eighth, featuring longtime friend Rushen, former Pat Metheny trumpeter Mark Ledford and Sounds of Blackness, among others.

The title of the CD is “Striking Balance.”

“For me, it’s one of the biggest challenges of my life, the need to strike a balance between all these different sides, all these different passions,” Banfield says. “Going back to high school, I’ve been warned, ‘You’re trying to do too many things. People don’t do all this. You need to focus.'”

Going back to high school with Banfield means time-traveling to what he proudly names “the No. 1 public high school music program in the country”: Detroit’s famed Cass Technical High School. Cass Tech produced true musical luminaries, from pop diva Diana Ross to Ron Carter, the great jazz bassist and Miles Davis sideman, to Regina Carter, a jazz violinist whose musicianship is so sublime she was recently invited to play the Stradivarius that belonged to 19th century virtuoso Niccolo Paganini.

“I have to give all the credit for any success I may have had to my parents, who loved music and encouraged me to listen to everything. And I also have to give credit to Detroit, which is a lively and artistic city where music is just in the soil,” Banfield says. “My guitar hero was Jimi Hendrix. But from my parents taking me to symphonies as a child, I grew up wanting to write symphonies for Jimi Hendrix. As a kid, I didn’t know the difference between rock and popular music and classical music.

“In a way, I still don’t know the difference,” he laughs. “And it’s a blessing and curse.”

It was certainly a blessing at the New England Conservatory of Music, which, despite the traditional sounding name, was in fact a hotbed of experimentation with what was then in the 1980s a wild new idea: interdisciplinary studies. Under the presidency of renowned classical conductor and jazz historian Gunther Schuller, students in the conservatory’s “Third Stream” program studied both jazz  and  classical performance, theory and composition. Later in Banfield’s graduate education experience, however, that interdisciplinary bent would also become a curse.

But first Banfield recalls that Boston during the 1980s was a veritable mecca for Black performing talent. “You ever look at the Jay Leno show? All of those musicians? Well, all of us are in our 40s and, 20 years ago, we were all in Boston” at the New England Conservatory and the Berklee College of Music, he says.

“Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo Marsalis, Kevin Eubanks, Najee, Don Byron — all those guys were my partners. Then you had Tracy Chapman, Ricky Bell from Bell Biv DeVoe, the New Kids on the Block — there was a great stew and brew of about 30 musicians. I compare that movement in my book to the Harlem Renaissance.”

The Banfield of the Boston years was a man with a vision. He’d begun teaching — illegally — in the Boston city schools at age 19 and discovered so much talent there — Ricky Bell was one of his students — that he founded B Magic Records in order to produce their work.

“This was in 1980 — long before P. Diddy. I was 20 years old and I was producing demos. I had a distribution deal with a New York company. My first record had Najee on it, (and it charted on) the Billboard national lists. I very nearly chose a career path in the music business, and if I had, I guess I could be a millionaire now,” he muses.

But commercial success wasn’t the thing that motivated Banfield — the music was. He got grant funding that allowed him to branch out from recording into teaching. The new company, Young Artist Development Inc., both recorded young artists and trained them in the nuts and bolts of running a record company.

Banfield found he loved the teaching so much that, instead of pursuing funding to make the company really take off, he found himself applying to Boston University (BU) for admission to the master’s program in theology and philosophy.

“I felt like I wanted to be able to imbue these kids with the social and spiritual meanings of the music that I was teaching,” Banfield explains. But at BU, Banfield says, the blessing of his interdisciplinary training and imagination became a curse and posed a significant problem.

Banfield’s dream was to write a thesis on the relation between African philosophy and African American music and culture. It’s a common enough notion these days, but this was 1985 or 1986. His advisors balked — though they turned enthusiastic when Banfield suggested a European version of the very same idea, focusing on Wagner, Nietzsche and German culture.>He says now of the experience, “I’m glad I had the battle because it actually helped me to formulate my pedagogical ideas.” But at the time, he admits he was soured, and he left BU with a master’s under his belt and a single-minded focus on shaking the dust of academia off his graduation robes.

“I had no intention of doing anything but moving to New York and getting a record contract at Fox,” he says.
But fate had other ideas.

During the BU years, Banfield had kept up his music studies — he had, in fact, come under the tutelage of Dr. T.J. Anderson, the world’s leading Black classical composer and then-chairman of the music department at Tufts University.
Hearing of Banfield’s plans, Anderson buttonholed the young man one day and told him in no uncertain terms: “We don’t need any more Wynton Marsalises, Bill. You need to go and get your doctorate because you’re a talented composer.”

 It was just the nudge Banfield needed. He applied to the University of Michigan in 1988 for doctoral studies — and embarked on a career of  teaching, creating interdisciplinary programs for the study of African American music and culture and, of course, pursuing his great loves: composing and performing.

He has managed to successfully strike a balance between his many loves, and his music — which sweeps gracefully from jazz to the most romantic European effusions through the avant-garde to spirituals and soul and back again —  reflects his success in artistic terms.

In pedagogical terms, however, he’s still doing battle —  this time with the forces of commercialism that are swamping the African American music that is his passion.

“Toni Morrison talks about Black music being the great model with all the strategies being there to aid in a people’s cultural striving and surviving,” he says. “Music  helped our people form an image of themselves that gave them the armament to do battle in a world that hated them, and to feel and be beautiful.

“What are hip hop artists going to look back to for their model of excellence? ‘Bootylicious’? I would argue that they’re not thinking about the mark they’re making in culture; they’re thinking about how much they’re getting paid and how much advertising time they’re getting.”

Banfield pauses a moment to wrestle with the words. “I know that what I’m saying can be construed as an attack on this generation’s music — but it’s not,” he says, noting that he fully acknowledges and embraces the artistry of rappers such as Tupac Shakur and Queen Latifah as well as grassroots movements emanating from places like Philadelphia and Baltimore.

But, in sharp contrast to the Motown model that Banfield grew up with in Detroit, where excellence in musicianship was the ne plus ultra, Banfield is convinced that, “unfortunately money and commercialism are at the center for this current generation of hip-hop performers —  not art.

“It’s all about show biz and buzz. That generates their whole aesthetic, and kids want to emulate that model. But while that may be a great model for entrepreneurship, it’s a bad model for art.”

This is the message that Banfield carries with him into the classroom and in Black Notes —  in spite of the risk of being labeled behind the times, an “old fogey.”

“I love the quote from W.E.B. Du Bois, that the slave songs were the ‘articulate message of the slaves to the world.’ So at the end of the day, we have to ask as I ask in (Black Notes), ‘What is the articulate message of this generation to the world?’

“If the meaning cannot be found outside of materialism, there is none. No art that is based on materialism can survive,” he says. 

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