Monday, January 11, 2010

Composer Regina Baiocchi and the Late Hale Smith, Part 1

Effect of Late Hale Smith on Regina Baiocchi "...was profound to say the least!"

AfriClassical interviewed Regina Harris Baiocchi by phone on Jan. 6, 2010. We requested the interview to explore her career as a composer as well as her knowledge of her teacher, mentor and friend, the late composer Hale Smith, who passed away Nov. 24, 2009. Regina is the person who informed us of his death, late on that day. Part 1 of the interview was timed to precede the premiere, on Chicago's legendary classical radio station WFMT, of one of her works, and the performance of another. On Dec. 9, 2009 AfriClassical posted; "WFMT Airs Premiere of 'Tryptych' of Regina Harris Baiocchi on Jan. 18, 2010." The post quoted this message from the composer: "
CUBE Ensemble will premiere music they commissioned me to write titled triptych for clarinet, percussion, and 'cello; and my piano sonata, Liszten will also be performed live on WFMT 98.7 FM 'Live from Studio One.' I'll be in great company. Music by Hale Smith, Valerie Capers and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson will be featured also." For those not within broadcast range of the station, the post includes a link for listening to the audio of the broadcast online.

Hello Regina, I am happy to make your acquaintance by phone. I did want to fill in a bit of the background. You have quite a bit of it here on "The HistoryMakers" Then I thought we could get to the point where you made the acquaintance of Hale Smith, and how that affected your career.
Well, the effect was profound to say the least! As I've been thinking about our conversation, I have known him for about 20 years.
What was your background in music as a child before you came to the level of education that brought you in contact with Hale?
I've been in music since I was 4 years old. At the age of 4, my Mom put me in a children's choir, a Community Choir. It was a group called the Girls' Choir because we were all female voices.
Were you born in Chicago?
Is that where you've always lived?
Yes. I was in New York when I went to NYU...
I was living in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin for a while, freshman year of high school, but for the most part I've been here all of my life.
But as I mentioned, I've been in music since I was 4 years old, and I was a member of the Girls' Choir, a group of female singers that worked at a place called Metropolitan Methodist Church, a very old, prestigious church here in Chicago on 41st and King Drive which prior to being named after Dr. Martin Luther King was called South Park. We were not Methodist; I was raised Catholic, but it was the Community Chorus that my Mom felt would be a good place for me and my four sisters to be. So that was my first introduction to music, and then I began playing guitar at about 9. I was in 4th Grade, and my teacher, a nun, a religious sister, offered to teach me guitar lessons. Her name was Sister Mary Dismas and I studied guitar with Sister Dismas probably from age 9 through elementary school. So I went from singing in the Girls' Choir to playing guitar for Sunday Masses. At the time, the Catholic Church, post-Vatican II, was moving toward having more liturgies said in the vernacular.
I was in the seminary, just to let you know.
Okay! Well, we kind of followed the trend from Latin Masses to English Masses. When I was coming along in the 1960s, guitar Masses were very popular, and I think the Catholic Church was trying to keep abreast of what was going on with the Civil Rights Movement and the Women's Movement et cetera. And so in order to keep the base that they had, they did whatever they felt they could do, to try to appeal to people. So as a result, guitar Masses became very popular and I was one of the kids that played for the Sunday liturgies with Sr. Dismas. Usually these were Masses that were attended by school kids. I also around the same time became a member of the Gospel Choir at our church, St. Elizabeth's, which was the oldest Black Catholic church in Chicago. I didn't realize at the time until I went to other places; I thought that every school reflected the culture of the people who attended. I was really surprised when I went to school with other Black kids who didn't have the same opportunities that I had, to be introduced to Black poets, writers and singers. The sisters who ran the school, St. Elizabeth's School, were out of Philadelphia, a group called the S.B.S., Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Their mission, in the United States, is to educate Native Americans and African Americans. So their curriculum tended to be steeped in the culture where they were working. In other words, on reservations they often taught Native American students how to read and write their own language, when that was possible. In terms of Black culture they taught us Poetry, Music, Literature; exposed us to those things created by Black composers, singers, dancers et cetera.
Sounds like a rather non-traditional approach?
I didn't realize that at the time, but it was. We had a regular college prep curriculum in elementary school and high school like other kids did. There was a great effort to introduce us to things that were created by people who looked like us. When you're a kid and that happens - because even adults live in their heads - a kid especially thinks that every other kid is doing the same thing! I was kind of surprised when I went to high school - I went to Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. I started out at St. Mary's Springs Academy of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. I thought I wanted to go there, because my two older sisters had gone there, but it was such a culture shock that I really did not survive! So I came back home and I went...
Would that have been an overwhelmingly majority group setting?
Absolutely! My older sister was the first Black student at St. Mary's Springs Academy. Then my next oldest sister was the second Black student, and I was the third Black student. Because they are older than I am, by the time I got there they were gone so I was the only Black student in the entire school. That was a little overwhelming! The school and the teachers and the Sisters of St. Agnes who sponsored me bent over backwards to make me feel welcome, but you know when you're 13-14 years old, away from home, and you go from a curriculum that's steeped in Black culture to a farming community in Wisconsin the difference is like night and day. I just kind of felt myself drowning culturally.
That was expecting a lot of you, I would think!
Well, you know my older sisters did so well, my parents presumed I would be just as happy there as they were. Because they were very happy there. Neither of them went on to become Sisters of St. Agnes, but we still have ties to that order and ties to some of the girls that we went to school with. The kids were great! It was just - you know I just was not ready. It was a very traditional Catholic school. They taught Latin, Greek, Spanish, French, Italian and German. I wasn't ready for all the changes. I think if I had to take a stab at it, even though Fond du Lac is a French name for a town, Wisconsin as you can imagine was a very Germanic place.
I just wasn't ready for it!
(In Part 2 of the interview, Regina Harris Baiocchi discusses her years at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. Hale Smith and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson are profiled at

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