From left to right: Monica Ellis, Jeff Scott, Toyin Spellman-Diaz, Mark Dover, and Valerie Coleman.
Courtesy of Imami Winds
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By Rebecca Julie
Jan. 24, 2017
When Valerie Coleman was studying flute performance at Mannes School of Music in 1997, she came up with the idea for the name of her wind quintet: Imani Winds. With that in mind, she asked friends for names of quality New York musicians of color in the freelancing scene and came across bassoonist Monica Ellis, French horn player Jeff Scott, oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz, and clarinetist Mariam Adam. Swahili for “faith,” imani became the new quintet’s namesake.
Today, nearly two decades later and with four of the five original members still in the ensemble, Imani Winds has gone on to receive a Grammy nomination for Best Classical Crossover Album (2016). Last year, Mark Dover came on board as Imani’s clarinetist. Throughout its career, the group has been devoted to promoting diversity in classical music, and it works hard to reach as diverse an audience as possible through various outreach efforts and collaborations with other performers and composers. At the end of last academic year, UChicago named Imani Winds the new Don Michael Randel ensemble in residence on campus, succeeding the Pacifica Quartet.
On Friday, the Imanis teamed up with the University of Chicago Chamber Music Organization (CMO) to partake in the third of a series of CMO-hosted panel discussions on race, class, and privilege in classical music in the Logan Penthouse. The discussion was moderated by fourth-year Shirley Zhang.
The discussion quickly turned to the Imanis’ dedication to performing diverse music by composers of varying backgrounds. As Scott explained, wind quintets “don’t have the Mozarts, the Brahms, the Strausses, and so on. So we don’t have great literature, the great composers of the 18th and 19th centuries.”
Scott—who, along with Coleman, is a composer himself—discussed that this distinct lack of repertoire is what placed Imani Winds and other wind quintets in a unique position to influence the birth of an entirely new canon of repertoire.
“You just can’t survive without repertoire,” he continued. “So you celebrate the idea that you’re starting with a blank palette.”
From this blank palette, Imani Winds created its Legacy Commissioning Project. Through Legacy, Imani commissioned 10 composers of color for a variety of concerts, as well as recordings.
“We knew right away that it was important to commission music from underrepresented folk,” Scott said. “It’s hard enough to get your music premiered no matter who you are, but definitely if you’re African-American, or Latino, or Asian; if you’re not from the standard European canon, it’s hard to get music performed. We have a platform that we stand on, and we decided to put our money where our mouths were.”
Ultimately the musicians stressed that performing diverse genres is integral to promoting inclusivity in classical music, and integral to Imani on the whole.
“As artists, it’s our responsibility to be true to ourselves,” Coleman said.