Classical Music’s Latest Bloomer

A conversation with composer Joseph C. Phillips Jr. about his sublime marriage of jazz and classical music.

Photo courtesy of Carolyn Wolf

TR: What did you listen to growing up?

JCP: Growing up in the D.C. area, I listened to go-go music in high school, and I loved Prince. I started a job my senior year in high school. That’s when I first had money. So I eventually started buying tapes and eventually CDs. I tried to listen to whatever. I still listened to popular music, but I also started listening to a lot of jazz. That’s when I began knowing about Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. I even listened to the avant-garde stuff like Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton. Once I got into college, everything sort of opened up. Not only did I have money, but I also had the music library, so Claude Debussy and Gustav Mahler became big influences. Basically, I listened to whatever I liked.

TR:  What defines modern classical music today?

JCP: Well, there is this movement of young composers who are cross pollinating things. Earlier people were stuck in these categories. It was either you’re European classical music or that you’re avant-garde jazz or jazz, etc. Partly it was because composers grew up only listening to that respective particular music; now composers are coming out who grew up listening to rock music, R&B or hip-hop. And those genres become a part of their musical vocabulary.  And I’m a part of that, too. Growing up, I heard no classical music beyond film music.

Two of my idols, Steve Reich and Philip Glass sort of rebelled against the classical establishment, mostly because the classical establishment wasn’t going to play their music. So they decided to do their own thing. That’s been a model for a lot of people now.

TR: Have you had to deal with any challenges within the classical music world due to race?

JCP: Being in the new music realm and going to various concerts, I rarely see many African-American people. I don’t know the reason. I’ve always been inclusive in terms of friends and my music influences.  So I don’t feel like I have to be in the “black” world or the “white” world. But I am conscious of the lack of African Americans in the classical world. I find that even in my own groups, a difficulty of finding African-American musicians who want to play my compositions. I do have some African-American musicians, though.

I know from growing up and hearing about James Reese Europe and William Grant Still, there have been some black American composers who have gotten in. But one thing I don’t want to be is sort of marginalized. I don’t want to be “the black composer.” I want to be known as “the composer who happens to be black.”

In many ways, I’m not interested in the conventional classical world. Of course, if the New York Philharmonic Orchestra or the San Francisco Symphonic Orchestra asked me to write a piece, I would. Again, that goes back to that Steve Reich model. I feel like if these doors are closed, find another one.

So I don’t know how much race is a hindrance for me. Maybe it is, and I just don’t know it. But I do feel the twinge of wanting to see more black people coming to new music concerts or seeing more black musicians perform modern classical music. For conductors, it’s even rarer to see blacks. I would hope that people would look at me and say, ‘Hey, there are some African-American composers out there in the classical world.

John Murph is a regular contributor to The Root.