Several years ago when I was brainstorming for a doctoral performance project, I knew that I wanted to deal with something that had to deal with African-American composers. This was because through all my studies I found that black composers were seldom represented in the classroom and on the performance stage. After some initial research I came across the works of Ed Bland mostly because it seemed he had many compositions for clarinet (my instrument). After acquiring his album Urban Classical, I became fascinated by the music I was listening to and decided to focus my research on him.
The musical compositions of Ed Bland provide great insight into the history of African-American composers in the second half of the 20th century. With a formal career expanding over a half-century, composing in both the traditional classical style and commercial style, Ed Bland’s music synthesizes of wide variety of stylistic elements which include Western influences, African-American rooted genres (jazz, blues, and gospel), and West African drumming. This adaptation of world music into classical composition exemplifies a recent trend of American composers.
Born in Chicago in 1926, Bland became interested in music in high school through joining his high school band. Upon attending junior college, he began working with Henry Sopkin who was head of the music department and director of the orchestra. It was also during this time he became interested and influenced by the music of Duke Ellington and Art Tatum. Ironically, Bland had an opportunity to be included in a jam session with Tatum during the summer of 1943. During a break in that session is when Bland heard a recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring from a neighboring home and went closer because he had never heard classical symphonic music like that before. Bland states (1):
“The Rite was of interest because it showed me that classical music, at least in the case of Stravinsky, could swing and have life. The harmonies of Tatum and Ellington, coupled with the instrumental colors of the Ellington band made my acceptance of Stravinsky’s early ballets painless.”
The Rite of Spring was a beginning point and a partial model to Bland for what he would later use to create the extended forms needed to incorporate the African-American experience in his music. This caused Bland to focus more on composing. After a stint in the Navy, Bland went to the University of Chicago and later transferred to the American Conservatory of music to study composition with Jean Boyd. Even though he accumulated a vast amount of credits, Bland never completed a bachelor’s degree.
This is where Bland started to move towards commercial music and started a career in this industry. From 1961 to 1994 Bland worked as a freelance composer, producer, musical director, and musical arranger for all the major television networks. He also did work in the same capacity during this time for Columbia, RCA, Epic, GM, Vangard, Audio Fidelity, Milestones, Delos, and United Artists Records.
In 1974, Bland resumed his activities composing art music by sketching out ideas for his Piece for Chamber Orchestra. This piece was completed in 1979. Bland states (2):
“So by ’78 I went back to concert music, which I thought was/is my life’s calling and have been going full blast ever since.”
Bland’s music in the Hamon Library collections
Several compositions by Bland are accessible through the Hamon Library. I would recommend with starting with his recordings and in particular Urban Classical. There you can not only get a nice overview of his music, but also hear his cornerstone work Piece for Chamber Orchestra. Then move on to Dancing through the Walls featuring flautist Danilo Lozano and Black Diamonds with pianist Althea Waites performing Sketches Set 7.
Hamon holds scores for these works:
- Atalanta’s Challenge: solo soprano saxophone and orchestra
- Paean for an endangered planet: mixed chamber ensemble
- Round Robin: double woodwind quintet
The Cry of Jazz
The Cry of Jazz is a semi-documentary film produced and directed by Bland that was completed in 1958 in Chicago by KHTB Productions. The film argued that current African-American life shared a structural identity with jazz. Most of the music is composed and performed by the late jazz great Sun Ra and his Arkestra. The film provides some of the earliest footage of Sun Ra from his 1950’s Chicago years. Bland later said (2):
“When the film came out, the response was hideous…Very few liked it. The Marxists hated it ‘cause it was independent of how they thought Blacks should think. But aside from me being called a Black fascist or whatever, a few people thought it quite unique.”
The Cry of Jazz can be streamed online via Films on Demand.
More on Ed Bland
Check out the newest CD of works Bland composed in the last years of his life available for purchase: Urban Funk Vol. 1 & 2
- Ed Bland, Biographical information for the International Dictionary of Black Composers, Ed Bland vertical file, Center for Black Music Research Library and Archives, Columbia College, Chicago.
- Matt Rogers, “In Time: Ed Bland Transcended the Moment with Music and Film.” Waxpoetics, Feb./Mar. 2007, 84-86.
Thanks to Rahni Kennedy, Music Catalog & Media/Metadata Librarian, for this guest blog post!
Images of Ed Bland courtesy of Mary Batten.