Tuesday, August 25, 2009

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

[Mary Watkins (Photo by Phillip Brey); Dancing Souls; Kay Gardner, Mary Watkins; Ladyslipper GSOT 120 (2000)]

AfriClassical has previously posted “Mary Watkins, African American Composer (b. 1939),” Part I and Part II. The principal source is the book 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). Part II followed the composer's life to the composition and performance in Pueblo of Mary's Potomac Park, a work for full orchestra.

Dr. Walker-Hill tells us: “The major turning point in her career came in 1976, after she met the singer Holly Near at a music workshop and was exposed for the first time to women-oriented music. That year she moved to Los Angeles and took the professional name Mary Watkins. Before long she was working for the Olivia Records Collective, owned and operated by women, where she soon found herself producing records for such artists as Holly Near and Linda Tillery. Watkins then progressed to composing music and performing it with her own jazz combo. She followed the collective to Oakland in 1977.

“In 1978 she recorded her own jazz fusion album, Something Moving, on the Olivia Records label. This recording received critical acclaim and considerable air time, earning her a position on the 'most-played' radio charts. She received a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Performance grant, enabling her to make a second album, Winds of Change, for small combo combined with a 42-piece jazz orchestra.” Mary recorded it live in San Francisco in 1981; it was released on the Palo Alto label in 1983.

“If Something Moving had been well received, Winds of Change brought Watkins, in the words of one reviewer, to 'fame's doorstep.' It was reviewed in Down Beat, MS., and Keyboard magazines, and Jazz Forum placed it among the ten recordings most played on jazz stations.” “Leaving behind the women-only policy of the Olivia Collective, she now featured men as well as women in her jazz combo.” Watkins had a successful reunion with her birth mother in 1982. It influenced Mother's Song, a solo piano piece on Winds of Change, as well as Spiritsong, the next recording she made.”

“In 1986 she composed the first of a long series of scores for important, social-consciousness-raising documentary videos and films: the award-winning Ethnic Notions, followed in the next years by Valuing Diversity, Fighting for Our Lives, Out in Suburbia, Color Adjustment and many more.” Her satirical adaptation of The Nutcracker Suite, The Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie, was performed by the Oakland Dance Brigade each Christmas for a decade. “The music for the Lorraine Hansberry Theater productions of The Resurrection of Lady Lester and The Bluest Eye followed in 1988 and 1989.”

“The commissions and grants kept coming: fellowships from the City of Oakland, the California Arts Council, Meet the Composer; commissions from the American Jazz Theater, the Redwood Cultural Works, Boy's Choir of Harlem, and Sacramento's Camellia Symphony Orchestra. They enabled her to write the large-scale jazz, orchestral, and choral works she loved.” “She taught piano at Holy Names College for a couple of years, and thought about pursuing an advanced degree in order to teach practical harmony and theory.”

“In the late 1990s Mary was still playing concerts with her group, appearing frequently in the Bay Area with the violinist India Cooke. She began a series of concerts improvising with flutist/composer Kay Gardner, performing at the National Women's Festival in Muncie, Indiana, the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, and other places nationally. Together they put out a CD, Dancing Souls, much of which was recorded live at these festivals.”

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