Friday, August 21, 2009

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

[Mary Watkins (Photo by Phillip Brey)]

On August 17, 2009 AfriClassical posted “Mary Watkins, African American Composer (b. 1939), Part I.” It quoted from the composer's website and from its principal source, From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music, written by Helen Walker-Hill and published by the University of Illinois Press (2007). The post followed her life from her birth in 1939 to her resumption of interest in learning music, after focusing on sports for some time. Dr. Helen Walker-Hill writes: “Besides piano, she played violin in the school orchestra, as well as the cornet and tuba. She played trumpet in the school band and sometimnes did solos in assemblies.”

At 15, Mary and her piano teacher agreed she should enter a piano contest. Her rendition of Schubert's Ave Maria made a powerful impression on the audience but the judges gave her Second Place because of the liberties she had taken with the score. Walker-Hill continues: “She did receive a second prize of a season ticket to the Pueblo Civic Symphony, and the assurance that she had a fine musical sensibility and creative ability.” She was told to play what the composer indicated and find a professional teacher. “Both chastened and encouraged, she determined to persevere, and began studies with a Miss Page, a classical pianist in Pueblo.” The ticket brought her first exposure to live performances of a symphony orchestra.

Mary also won prizes in art and sports, which caused her White classmates to be more accepting of her, but she kept aspects of her African American heritage, such as gospel music, to herself. “Her black schoolmates saw her music as 'uppity' and pretentious, and they made her school days uncomfortable with teasing and ridicule. Mary had infrequent contact with other African American students outside of school and church.

She heard more classical music once she started college. Mary chose to study Music Education and to major in piano. She transferred to a teachers college in Alamosa, Colorado, where she met Edward Dawkins, a soldier stationed in Colorado Springs. They were married in February 1963. They left the area before she could complete her degree, and settled in the Washington, D.C. region where Edward's family was. Her daughter Sharron was born there, but she and her husband separated and she had difficulty supporting and taking care of the infant.

“Then she enrolled in Howard University as a composition student, and sent her daughter to be cared for by her mother in Pueblo.” For the first time in her life, Mary was free to spend time composing music when she chose. “Her teachers were the renowned Mark Fax and Russell Woolen, and her earliest written works date from that time. After graduating cum laude in 1972 with her Bachelor of Music degree, Mary stayed in Washington for several years, refining her jazz skills, arranging, song-writing, playing gigs, and working as musical director and resident composer for the theater group Ebony Impromptu. In 1974 she was divorced from her husband.”

Watkins traveled to Denver for a semester of study at the University of Colorado, and was also coached there by Joe Keel, a composer who played jazz piano. “It was here that she composed Potomac Park for full orchestra. It received a reading by the Pueblo Civic Symphony Orchestra, but unfortunately she was not able to go to Pueblo to hear it."

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