In August 1963, as a quarter-million people rallied for civil rights in the March on Washington, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson was in Amsterdam. The African-American composer and conductor, his prospects in America stalled, had traveled to Europe for study. As the march unfolded, Perkinson witnessed a spontaneous Dutch mirror of the event, young Amsterdammers parading in support of their American counterparts.
Perkinson’s music, too, bridged distances. On Thursday, Castle of Our Skins offers an all-too-rare chance to hear it in performance — in this case, parts of his String Quartet No. 1, composed in 1956, polished elaborations on the spiritual “Calvary.” Named after the British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Perkinson (1932-2004) was marked for music from the start. The Quartet displays Perkinson’s thorough academic training. But he flourished in and out of the academy, moving freely among genres.
Perkinson’s European tuition expanded but also confirmed his skill, revealing, as he recalled, “how much I knew” — and how racial barriers in America had limited his chances to apply that knowledge. Upon returning, he began conducting ensembles and arranging for such jazz lions as Max Roach and Donald Byrd, joining Roach’s quintet as pianist for a crucial European tour. Perkinson lent his facility with strings, horn sections, and choirs to Melvin van Peebles, Harry Belafonte, and Marvin Gaye. He wrote for ballet and theater, film and television. (His lean, funky score to 1974’s “The Education of Sonny Carson” would, decades later, take its place in the pantheon of hip-hop samples.) Perkinson also continued a wide-ranging classical-music career. He helped start the Symphony of the New World, the first American orchestra featuring both black and white musicians; later he founded and conducted Chicago’s New Black Music Repertory Ensemble.
His concert music ranged wide. Early works — the Quartet included — display robust, close-hatched neoclassicism. The 1964 cello-and-orchestra essay “Commentary” and Perkinson’s 1975 Piano Sonata No. 2 (“Statements”) filter spiritual motives through a rigorous serialist modernism. Other works feature ingenious and convincing translations of jazz idioms into classical notation, with Perkinson’s solo violin “Blue/s Forms” being perhaps the best example.
Thirteen years after his passing, many of his classical works — and nearly all his theater and ballet scores — remain unrecorded. (A soundtrack of his score for Paul Carter Harrison’s singular musical “The Great MacDaddy,” for instance, feels long overdue.) Perhaps his prolific breadth and versatility diffused his reputation. But Perkinson’s musical identity was based more on quality than vocabulary. For the important 1978 anthology “The Black Composer Speaks,” he was asked about the black artist’s role in society. His answer? “To be excellent.”
Castle of Our Skins plays Thursday, 7 p.m., at African Meeting House, 46 Joy St. Tickets $10. www.maah.org, www.castleskins.orgThe group repeats Perkinson’s quartet at a festival before the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s free concert in Franklin Park on Oct. 1, beginning at 1 p.m. www.bso.org
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