Monday, August 17, 2009

Mary Watkins, African American Composer (b. 1939), Part I

[Mary Watkins (Photo by Phillip Brey)]

Mary Watkins has a website, It begins: “Welcome to my web site! I've been playing and composing music for most of my life and will probably continue to do so as long as I am alive. It is like the air I breath, the water I drink and the food I eat. It keeps me alive and healthy. It revitalizes me, expands me and raises my vibration.”

The Biography page opens with these words: “Mary Watkins is a composer and pianist with a vision. Although her training is classical, she moves fluidly and masterfully within and between the classical and jazz traditions, blending them seamlessly and incorporating other styles of music into her original works.” “All of this has led her to write with equal skill for different media, including symphony orchestra, chamber and jazz ensembles, film, theatre and choral groups. She has written many songs. She has also made her mark as an accomplished arranger and producer of numerous albums.”

The principal source for this multi-part AfriClassical post on Mary Watkins is the book From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music, written by Dr. Helen Walker-Hill and published by the University of Illinois Press (2007). Dr. Walker-Hill is a former member of the Piano faculty at the University of Colorado Boulder. She has brought the composer to our attention.

She writes that Mary Watkins was born in Denver, Colorado on Dec. 9, 1939, and was adopted 14 months later by Benjamin and Evelyn Maloney, an African American couple in Pueblo, Colorado. They named the child Mary Maloney. The future composer was three years and nine months old when she began piano lessons with Edith Johnson in Pueblo. The family did not live in the part of the town in which most African Americans lived, so she was keenly aware of the lack of other children of color in her neighborhood.

She had a long-running conflict with her piano teacher about playing by ear. She had perfect pitch. Much of her early musical experience was derived from her family's church and its many activities. At age 8, Mary started playing piano for Sunday school and junior choir. She was given a greater role in the music of the church as she matured. For a few years Mary preferred sports to music, Dr. Walker-Hill writes, and did not enjoy practicing.

Music regained her interest when Mary was 12 or 13 years old. Both jazz and classical music on radio and television began to appeal to her. The author elaborates: “The music of Tchaikovsky and other composers of the Romantic era awakened emotions that almost frightened her with their intensity. When she heard other students in her school who had progressed during the time she was avoiding music, she felt the competitive drive to prove she could play as well as they.”

1 comment:

JMW said...

Mary Watkins has just had her large orchestral work Five Movements in Color recorded by The Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College, for release along with Olly Wilson's song cycle of Visions & Truth.