Jazz trombonist, Melba Liston

The Center for Black Music Research, founded in 1983 at Columbia College Chicago, practices citizen musicianship by providing the opportunity for academic communities and the general public to research and view the center’s expansive black music collection. The center exists to highlight the significant role that black music plays in world culture and history.

The city of Chicago acquired a great resource when Samuel Floyd Jr. was inspired to create the Center for Black Music Research. Because of Floyd’s dedication, the center has expanded from a single office supporting Floyd alone, to a fully staffed suite of offices at Columbia College Chicago. The center was founded in recognition “of a need for an integrated approach to the study of black music that encompasses the arts and humanities as well as social, political and historical approaches to scholarship.”

The development of the CBMR was revolutionary. Monica Hairston O’Connell, the center’s executive, reflects that “there wasn’t anything like the center at the time.” Since its inception, the center has strived to engage the community through symposia, concerts and other programming.

In 1987, the center established its first performing group, the Black Music Repertory Ensemble. Since then, there have been three other ensembles: the Ensemble Kalinda Chicago, Ensemble Stop-Time and currently, the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble. Each of the ensembles has performed locally, and some have also performed nationally. Along with performances, the ensembles offer lecture-demonstrations to give audiences context to the music they are hearing. Examples of their performances include a tribute to R&B icon Ray Charles, and a program featuring the work of black women composers throughout history and across genres.

Integral to the center is its collection. The CBMR began compiling an assortment of materials, and in 1990, the Library and Archives was established, which continues to be devoted to accumulating materials about black music worldwide. Two years later, the Library and Archives was opened to the public.

Its holdings are extensive. The collection features more than 5,400 cataloged books and dissertations, 4,500 scores and pieces of sheet music, 11,000 sound recordings, along with 72 archival collections that include materials such as personal papers, manuscripts, recordings, photographic materials and publications. Hairston O’Connell asserts that “the center is not just about preserving and keeping a collection, but generating new knowledge and dissemination. We want it to be a living archive.”

When creating its programming, the CBMR strives to show that its materials can be used by anyone, not just scholars. This is perhaps the center’s most important function: providing the general public the opportunity to use the center’s unique holdings.  One example of its mission being realized came in 2010, when jazz saxophonist Geof Bradfield requested to view and research the CBMR’s extensive collection of Melba Liston (depicted above), an influential jazz trombonist. Liston was an active musician during an era in which there were few women brass players, and even fewer who toured with jazz bands. She played in the bands of several important jazz musicians, including Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and Count Basie. She was also very active as a composer and arranger, and continued to arrange music – even after suffering a stroke that left her paralyzed – until her death in 1999. Bradfield, inspired by the success of Liston, composed the work Melba!, a jazz suite that traces her story as a professional jazz musician. Without access to the collection of Liston’s scores, Bradfield might not have gained insight into her life and work.

Liston’s collection and history have inspired other events as well, including a panel in New Orleans titled Beyond the Solo: Jazz, Gender and Collaboration, which featured the CBMR’s own Monica Hairston O’Connell. Coming full circle, many of the papers written for the event will be published in the spring 2014 edition of the Black Music Research Journal, which is a twice-yearly, scholarly publication of the CBMR. These are just two small examples of what the center’s collection does to inspire programming both within the CBMR and on a national scale.

The Center for Black Music Research, with its vast collection of materials and program offerings, provides a unique way for Chicagoans and national visitors alike to gain knowledge of the rich history of black music. As Hairston O’Connell states, “It’s really inspiring to be involved in an organization where you’re surrounded by history and able to share it.”