Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson: Success Against the Odds

As a person of color, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004) faced inordinate barriers to entry in the overwhelmingly “white” world of classical music. He came of age and began his career in an era before the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Perkinson’s hybrid compositions infused classical forms and techniques with jazz, blues, and spirituals, far out of conformity with the modernist expectations of the time. He was admired by many of his contemporaries, but his music was anything but mainstream “classical.” Against these odds, Perkinson managed to forge a successful career path on his own terms, staying true to his values and gracefully steering clear of racial pigeonholing.

Perkinson would eventually put his growing status and abilities toward efforts to diversify the classical music field, but diversity per se wasn’t his signature calling card. In fact, Perkinson more or less rejected the “Black composer” lane, saying:

…it is very difficult to say what black music really is. There are kinds of black music, just as there are kinds of other musics…
Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson
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Origin Story

Despite this apparent resistance to being labeled a “Black” composer, Perkinson’s musical vernacular often made use of traditionally Black styles such as jazz and blues. The title of Perkinson’s Quartet No. 1, Calvary (1956), references a Negro spiritual of the same title, and the first movement is clearly derived from the earlier music. 

Sheet Music for Calvary (Negro Spiritual)

Notwithstanding its origins, Perkinson remained explicit that his Quartet No. 1 was NOT an attempt to write “Black” music: 

“When I sat down to write this string quartet, I was not trying to write something Black; I was just writing out of my experience.”

While this statement might seem a bewildering contradiction from a composer whose music so clearly pulls from Black idioms, Perkinson’s biography offers a plausible explanation: Perkinson was born and lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, until age 11, when he moved to New York City where his mother was a pianist, organist, and theater director. Perkinson would have routinely heard spirituals in North Carolina and blues and jazz in New York City. As with any composer, Perkinson’s starting point for composition was the music he had heard around him. His artistic foundation was built on those influences, whether or not the intended artistic message was about those origins.

Perkinson’s treatment of the Calvary spiritual in his String Quartet No. 1 bears out this explanation: The Calvary melody present in its first movement is transformed by skillful counterpoint, motivic, and rhythmic interventions to the point where it is difficult to recognize. One doesn’t need to know the spiritual to enjoy the quartet, which seems to be as Perkinson intended it. 

Feeling the Blues

The Calvary Ostinato movement from Perkinson’s Lamentations for solo cello, written in 1973, is another instance of the composer deriving inspiration from his Negro spiritual roots. Here, the treatment of the Calvary theme shows the strong influence of blues on Perkinson’s music. 

Perkinson went further here, titling the work “Black/Folk Song Suite,” but with an important universal qualifier:

The common denominator of these tunes is the reflection and statement of a people’s crying out.
Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson
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Today, 20 years after his passing, Perkinson’s output still feels fresh and vibrant. A new generation, unconstrained by the formal modernism of the 1950s and 1960s, is happily rediscovering Perkinson. His beautifully crafted music is truly American in the best sense, listenable at first hearing, and worth listening to again!

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