November 6, 2019

Manhattan School of Music students explore the impact of the African American experience on music

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C. shows how the historical African-American experience has fueled musical creation and expression in the US and beyond.

Last month, a group of Manhattan School of Music Jazz Arts students left New York City at dawn for a nearly five-hour trip to Washington, D.C. to visit the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history and culture.

The New York Times calls the National Museum of African American History a “must see.

For MSM Jazz Arts faculty member, the award-winning jazz pianist, composer and conductor Damien Sneed, seeing the museum is vital for young musicians of any ethnicity or nationality as they embark on their own musical journeys and creative paths.

“I want my students to have the chance to understand the struggle that African Americans had to go through, how they channeled that negativity into their creative processes to create the great styles of music we have today, from jazz to classical and beyond,” explains Damien. “This is the music of America.”

Taking part on the trip are Domo Branch (BM ’22, Jazz Percussion), Rosina Bullen (MM ’20, Jazz Voice), Nick Creus (BM ’21, Jazz Guitar), Josh Green (BM ’22, Jazz Percussion), Christian McGhee (BM ’21, Jazz Percussion), and Lizzy Ossevoort (MM ’20, Jazz Voice), as well as MSM Chief of Staff Alexa Smith (MM ’10)

SLIDE SHOW: From left to right: Alexa Smith (Chief of Staff), Damien Sneed (Faculty), Domo Branch, Christian McGhee, Nick Creus, Lizzy Ossevoort, Rosina Bullen, and Josh Green

Nick Creus (BM '21, Jazz Guitar) in the music exhibit at NMAAHC.

Alumni group Imani Winds (Jeff Scott, Monica Ellis, Mariam Adam, and Toyin Spellman Diaz) featured in the classical music exhibit.

Students in the lobby after touring NMAAHC.

Domo Branch (BM '22, Jazz Percussion) in the history section of the museum.

Faculty member Kelly Hall-Tompkins' album spotted in the music exhibition.

Rosina Bullen (MM '20, Jazz Voice) reading about her vocal jazz idols, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

Faculty member Damien Sneed and Chief of Staff Alexa Smith experiencing the museum.

Exploring the past to understand the present

The group began their tour of the four-level museum traveling back to the 15th century and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, moving up through the periods of The Civil War, Emancipation, Segregation, the Jim Crow Era, and into modern times.

Through videos, photos and interactive displays, the “Musical Crossroads” section shows the central role of African American music in the history of American music, and how “in a land where racism and oppression existed as a continuing battle to be fought against and won, African American music provided a voice for liberty, justice and social change.”

The MSM students agree that seeing the exhibits and getting greater understanding of the complexities of the African American experience throughout American history is invaluable.

“African Americans have been so influential in jazz, which is the music I love and study myself,” says Rosina Bullen. “It’s so important to have this foundation and learn about its history. I’d really like to spend even more time here, to take everything in.”

Jazz student Christian McGhee agrees. “You can read about all of this in a textbook or watch a documentary, ” he remarks. “But here you can see artifacts up close and really immerse yourself.”

 

MSM alumni and faculty featured in the exhibit

Damien Sneed’s music is part the exhibit. The students also spotted mentions of, and music by, several faculty and alumni—including faculty members Kelly Hall-Tompkins, alumni Max Roach, and Imani Winds members Jeff Scott, Monica Ellis, Mariam Adam, and Toyin Spellman Diaz.

The whole experience is overwhelming. Especially the music exhibit—it’s as if we’re standing in front of our jazz heroes!

(MM '20, Jazz Voice)

Students Lizzy Ossevoort and Rosina Bullen grew up in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, respectively, and were surprised by many of the things they read about in the exhibit.

Says Rosina, “We don’t really learn about African American history in Europe, so it was quite interesting to come here and properly understand more about it.”

“Today was so important,” says Alexa Smith, Chief of Staff at MSM. “Music is a such an important lens for understanding America’s history. Our students are playing a role shaping the future of music as well as the world we live in, and so learning where American music has come from, is vital.”