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African American music lecture highlights politics of the industry past and present

Photo by Halie Johnson

Pioneering African American double bass legend Ortiz Walton, PhD. shared his experiences on Tues., April 11 of fighting racism in orchestral music. When Walton joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra he became the first person of color to join a major symphony in the U.S.

"It felt like the culmination of my career," Walton said when he was asked how that experience made him feel. "It was always a dream of mine to play in the symphony."

Walton who chose the piano as his first instrument at age four said that he has always been a champion for civil rights and he mentored many talented African American artists and musicians, including the distinguished Ishmael Reed.

His wife Carol Walton, PhD. helped the aging jazz musician during his lecture, filling in details that he sometimes struggled to remember, stressing that music has been extremely political for Walton in many ways.

When a student asked Walton if he was ever able to just be a musician and not an African American musician a somber look came over his face.

"It's a tricky question," he said. "The answers are difficult to come by … very rarely was I able to forget."

Other musicians and the management of the Boston Symphony would never let Walton forget that he was black; they continually reminded him, he said.

Walton noted, to the audience's surprise, that the Chicago Symphony hired its first permanent black musician in 2002.

"You can't help but think of music socially and politically. It reflects the political and social platforms of our time," said Music professor India Cooke.

Mills Colleges' Music 180 class "African American Music: The Meaning and the Message," taught by Cooke, hosted the four-part lecture series that included other jazz and orchestra legends: Melanie Berzon, Angela M. Wellman, M.M. and Karlton Hester, PhD.

Many students like senior and Ethnic Studies major Stacey Johnson felt honored to attend the lecture.

"I felt honored to be here – to hear from someone who's lived what we're studying," she said.

"It was a treat to be in his presence – a gift," said junior Jamilah Bradshaw. "It is important for lectures like this at Mills because we need to be inspired and we need to let women of color know there is a place for them in the music field."

Senior Bonniebrooke Bullock, a student in the class who introduced Walton, said she had a hard time finding Walton's book Black, White and Blue. She said she expected to find many copies of the book considering that he received his PhD. from UC Berkeley and is a resident of the Bay Area. When asked why she thought is was difficult to find his work she equated it to the book being out of print and how African Americans are left out of much of U.S. history.

Senior Monica Hollins said that many parents didn't always do the best job teaching their children about African American music.

"African American musicians are overlooked in Oakland, and at an all women's college in Oakland it's important for us to get this information," she said.

Cooke said that this music is a political message for all people and we're all responsible for spreading and sharing that message.