RPO musician shares about discrimination in music industry, going back centuries

Posted 1 November 2021 at 9:21 am

By Bob Golden of the Community Coalition for Justice

ALBION – Rochester Philharmonic’s Herb Smith performed and discussed racial injustice in the music world last Wednesday at Hoag Library, in an event attended by 75 people.

Henry Smith, past chairman of Orleans County Legislature, called Herb Smith “personable, professional, prepared, perfect!”

Henry Smith is the only Black man to serve on the County Legislature. In politics and business, he said he had similar memories as Herb Smith, but Herb’s compelling telling of two frighteningly wrongful criminal charges captured the fate of even a highly successful Black man in our society.

Henry struggles with understanding why people can’t be accepted for their accomplishments and quality, rather than being rejected simply because they’re a different color.

RPO’s Smith led off with a brilliant Classical trumpet solo. “This was composed by a Black Classical musician. You wouldn’t have heard of him. Black composers are often ignored. We didn’t hear of one at Eastman.”

He then played a Reggae piece, “I Can’t Get Ahead? Is it because I’m Black?”

Herb then took us through musical examples of great Classical composers, who were held back because they were Black. One such was composer/musician Joseph Bologne, 10 years older than Mozart. Mozart plagiarized at least one Bologne’s pieces (listening would convince you Bologne’s style as well). Yet Bologne was called  “Black Mozart.” US President, then Ambassador to France, John Adams said “Bologne can do anything.”

Bologne taught Marie Antoinette. Although highly accomplished, educated and the only viable conductor candidate for the Paris Symphony, was declined because the musicians didn’t want to play with a Black musician. He was the child of a rich White slave-owner and Black slave mother.

Another was a young Black woman, who auditioned against maybe 100 other Classical pianists, behind screens so the examiners didn’t know the person’s race, sex or age. She became the final candidate and so she performed without screen. The judges declined to accept her, apparently once they saw that their favorite was Black and a woman. She became famed pianist/singer Nina Simone. Herb played a moving video by Simone, so moving the audience applauded.  Aside: How could we treat these creators of such beauty, so cruelly?

Herb showed a video of white Pat Boone performing “Tutti Frutti.” It became a huge hit. Then, Herb showed L’il Richard singing the exact same piece a year before. L’il Richard never saw a cent from Boone’s hit, his piece.

He showed white Elvis Presley singing “Hound Dog.” Then he showed an earlier film of Big Mama Thornton, singing the same piece. She didn’t see a cent from her piece. Plagiarism and misappropriation of pieces commonly happened to Black musicians.

Of Herb Smith’s performance and talk: “Fantastic,” said Albion music teacher, Mike Thaine.  “Very important discussion we need to have in music and our community.”

Thaine brought his Jazz Ensemble and other students.  “It was of great value to bring a musician of his caliber into this community, for the adults, there, including music teachers, musicians and the youth.”

But even when the great ones got work, they weren’t treated very well.  Two of the most popular and highly regarded, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and Nat “King” Cole, performed in the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, yet weren’t allowed to stay in those hotels because they were Black.  That persisted until the 1960’s. They couldn’t eat in those hotel restaurants. Even those top acts and Duke Ellington and Count Basie were paid considerably less than their white counterparts like Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Harry James, Herb Smith told the crowd.

Bob Golden, one of the event organizers, pointed out that many of the top White Swing bands, had Black arrangers, like Fletcher Henderson and Sy Oliver. So even though they couldn’t play with them, they were responsible for much of their top music.

Kae Wilbert, also an organizer, who had recruited Herb, noted that there seem to be less Black musicians. Herb said that many inner city schools have cut music and art. So inner city children often are not being exposed to the arts, or have access to the same musical experiences as in the suburban schools.

Henry Smith asked if there are hopeful signs. Herb described several scholarship programs designed for kids in poorer schools districts. “There is a recognition of the problem.”

Herb had started promptly at 6:30 p.m. It was about 8:30 p.m. when Joyce Riley, vice president of the Hoag Library, asked if Herb could play one more song. He chose Duke Ellington’s 1931 “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”

It was pointed out, that that was the origin of the name “Swing” music.  But, of course, it was Benny Goodman who was called the “King of Swing.”

Herb finished a clever, complex and beautiful performance of “…Swing.” The full house stood and gave him a standing ovation.  He had to wave them down to say his good-byes.

Joyce added that she is pleased that the Library can be hosting these programs. “We have so much to learn and consider in our society.” She added, “Herb Smith is off the charts.”