Classical music has had a long history of lacking diversity, which is why Aaron P. Dworkin founded the Sphinx Organization in 1997 to encourage and support minorities in this art form. The name was inspired by the iconic Great Sphinx of Giza statue in Egypt, which “reflects the power, wisdom and persistence that characterize Sphinx’s participants," according to the Detroit-based organization's website.
Today, the Sphinx Organization’s programs reach more than 100,000 artists and students, while performances by the orchestras and ensembles are viewed and attended by more than two million people each year.
UMS recorded a special performance by the Sphinx Virtuosi, an orchestra of the Sphinx Organization, for its 2021 season of virtual programming, and the concert is streaming for free on ums.org through February 8. The program is titled This Is America and includes works by Michael Abels, Jessie Montgomery, and Xavier Foley. On the final day of the stream, there will also be a special conversation with three Sphinx artists: Gabriel Cabezas, Bill Neri, and Melissa White. Each musician will discuss the performance as well as talk about their musical careers. You can download a PDF for the This Is America concert notes here.
A 2005 MacArthur Fellow, Aaron P. Dworkin was dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance and is now a tenured professor of arts leadership and entrepreneurship at SMTD who also hosts the weekly videocast Arts Engines; he currently serves as a strategic advisor for Sphinx. Afa S. Dworkin, his wife, is a celebrated violinist and educator who now leads the Sphinx Organization.
Afa S. Dworkin, who has been honored with the Kennedy Center’s Human Spirit Award and was named one of Detroit Crain’s 40 Under 40, has expanded Sphinx's outreach and range enormously during her tenure as president and artistic director.
I spoke to the Ann Arbor-based Afa S. Dworkin about the Sphinx Organization and the Virtuosi concert recorded for UMS.
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the University Musical Society released a digital presentation of jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis and The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet performing his new composition, "The Democracy! Suite," in a virtual concert filmed at the Frederick P. Rose Hall in New York City.
Marsalis usually visits Ann Arbor every year and often brings special guests with him to play at Hill Auditorium, but this year’s concert was virtual due to the pandemic.
"The Democracy! Suite" is an eight-part response to the political, social, and public health crises we’re dealing with today. The swinging grooves and lyrical jazz was composed to uplift, inspire, and galvanize listeners to work together for a better future.
But what made "The Democracy! Suite" feel different was the commentary Marsalis gave behind it.
On October 25, siblings Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello) and Isata Kanneh-Mason (piano) played a free concert exclusively for UMS from the music room of their home in Nottingham, England. Presented by U-M alum and NFL great Braylon Edwards, the concert was available to stream through November 4 on UMS’s website.
Sheku was supposed to play in Ann Arbor twice this year: once with the Chineke! Orchestra and another performance with the City of Birmingham Orchestra and Chorus but both performances were canceled.
Like many others, I was introduced to Sheku Kanneh-Mason when he performed at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s 2018 royal wedding, an event watched by more than two billion people worldwide. During that performance, he played with an intense connection to his instrument that was admirable and captivating. Sheku's won the Classic Brit Award and the Royal Philharmonic Society Young Instrumentalist Duet Prize, and he's also released two albums to date, Inspiration and Elgar. Isata is also a wonderful artist who released her debut album, Romance, which topped the UK classical charts in 2019. She’s also currently a graduate scholar at London’s Royal Academy of Music. The duo and their five other siblings make up the classical group The Kanneh-Masons, once called the “world’s most talented family” by Simon Cowell. The group just released their first album, Carnival.
Athletic Mic League returns after a 15-year hiatus to confirm its status as Ann Arbor's "Playground Legends"
The Ann Arbor hip-hop collective Athletic Mic League was on hiatus for more than 15 years as its members pursued solo projects—and life.
The group formed in 1995 at Huron High School and released three albums during its 10-year run—The Thrill of Victory...The Agony of Defeat (1998), Sweats and Kicks (2002), Jungle Gym Jungle (2004)—and two EPs: Feel Good (2001) and Isolation (2005).
But right before the pandemic started, Athletic Mic League reunited for a four-day studio retreat and recorded the majority of Playground Legends there, a seven-song mini-album that will come out soon. But the group has released three singles from the sessions: "Hold My Hand," "Finish Line," and "Complications." The current lineup of the collective includes Grand Cee, Buff1, Trés Styles, 14KT, Wes Taylor, VaughanTego, and Mayer Hawthorne (not shown in the photo above).
Athletic Mic League (AML) takes inspiration from Outkast, Wu-Tang Clan, and Hieroglyphics Crew, as well as soul and jazz music. AML's songs showcase sharp lyrical content and instrumentals decorated with soul-music loops. "Hold My Hand" and "Complications" feature retro-soul vocals over laid-back beats. In contrast, "Finish Line" is a nice uptempo track that opens and closes with a sample from motivational speaking guru Eric Thomas.
Below, AML dishes on the stories behind its new singles, the reunion, and what’s next for them.
Like most musical groups, the Rob Crozier Jazz Ensemble spent much of 2020 in quarantine due to the pandemic.
But Crozier managed to keep the creativity flowing by digging into live recordings the group made at Grosse Pointe’s Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe in February 2019, and the result is the Ensemble's first live album.
Live is a nice mix of funky fusion, straight-ahead jazz, and world music, featuring tunes from Crozier's last two studio albums, Tall Trees (2017) and Ocean Blue (2018), plus a couple of new songs. For this album, the Ensemble consisted of bassist Crozier, Rafael Statin on reed instruments, pianist/keyboardist Keaton Royer, drummer Rob Avsharian.
Crozier and Co., who were always active playing area stages and festivals before the pandemic, recently started performing again to socially distanced crowds as part of the ongoing series Jazz After Dark at Weber’s Restaurant.
In advance of the album’s release concert at Weber's on September 5, I emailed with Crozier about Live and how he stays creative during the pandemic.
A2SF's "The Future of the Arts Must Be Antiracist" explores the pitfalls P.O.C. face in creative communities
As a finale to its virtual Top of the Park series, the Ann Arbor Summer Fest (A2SF) had a vital discussion called "The Future of the Arts Must Be Antiracist" on July 7 about racism in the arts, streamed live on YouTube and other platforms.
While we’ve seen many discussions on race as of late, this one was particularly interesting because it addresses an issue that has been looming for a long time in Washtenaw County: the lack of racial diversity inside the local arts scene.
As a Black classically trained musician, I’ve had my fair share of feeling like an outsider in musical circles so I was delighted by this discussion. Lack of diversity is not unique to Washtenaw County, of course; it plagues all of society. But it was refreshing to hear the topic addressed in a city like Ann Arbor where there is such an influential arts festival like A2SF.
A2SF Programming and Operations Manager James Carter invited several prominent Washtenaw County Black artists and executives to describe their experiences working in the arts here. The panel consisted of Jamall Bufford, Omari Rush, Jenny Jones, and facilitator Yodit Mesfin Johnson, who talked about their backgrounds and described why it’s important to create a more inclusive environment for African-Americans in the arts.
Kyle Hunter knows the power of music and songwriting in his life. He’s a rapper, DJ, and creative who likes to write in some form every day. To him, “not writing would be equal to not drinking water. If you don’t drink water, bad things are just gonna happen.” His creativity feeds his existence and adds balance in his life.
In 2005, a teenage Hunter began developing his musical skills as an MC under the name G.eneral P.opulation, or GenPop, and he became a notable member of Tree City, which was also formed at the Neutral Zone. The group has been absent for a decade but is now planning to release an album later this year entitled PURE LEVELS. During Tree City’s hiatus, Hunter and the other members of the music collective performed and released solo projects, and more solo recordings are in the works for this year. He also worked with the Branch Out Collective, which consisted of Tree City and the group Celsius Electronics.
Some may even know him under the alias DJ Silas Green, spinning or creating music that touches on hip-hop, funk, ambient, and noise. He has a biweekly residency, Big Mood Mondaze, at 734 Brewing Company in Ypsilanti, and he's spun at Ziggy's, Elks Lounge, and at Circ Bar as part of Shigeto's ongoing Ann Arbor Trax Authority night.
I spoke with Hunter about Ann Arbor as a hip-hop hub, the impact of the Neutral Zone, his musical influences outside of hip-hop, and Tree City’s plans for the future.
This story was originally published on November 8, 2018.
Jamall Bufford is one of the most influential hip-hop artists from Ann Arbor. He has influenced many MCs in town with his quick wit, lyrical wordplay, and open-minded stances on social issues.
Previously known as Buff1, he rhymed with the hip-hop collective Athletic Mic League and later helped start the performing arts group The Black Opera. For those unfamiliar with this hometown gem, The Black Opera calls itself "rap’s first performing arts group" and the duo dress as different characters each song during their live shows. Bufford is also a solo artist and his latest album, Time In Between Thoughts, continues in pushing past the typical boundaries in usual hip-hop subject matter by exploring themes like colorism and the dangers of social media.
Bufford, who has performed with Eminem and Mos Def,
performs at the Ann Arbor District Library's downtown branch on Friday, November 16, at 7 pm along with fellow A2 hip-hop artist DaG. We talked to Bufford about how Ann Arbor has influenced him as an MC, whether he’s an activist, and more.
Modern Element prides itself on being “a band made up of all genres," said Trunino Lowe, the group’s trumpeter and 21-year-old leader. "We have a mixture of jazz, hip-hop, R&B, gospel, blues, neo-soul, Latin, reggae and pop. We don't have a favorite genre. We just play for the soul."
The Detroit group consists of Benny Rubin Jr. (alto sax), Jeffrey Trent (tenor sax), LeRoy Mickens (keyboards), Tony Stanford (bass), and Louis Jones III (drums) and has been spreading soulful vibes since their high school days.
"We all went to Detroit School of Arts together," Lowe said. "Being in band and jazz band, we were always together. While being in combo together, we decided to really be a band after high school."
That education was a huge influence on Lowe's life and he has trouble understanding why arts classes are always on the chopping block in schools.
Northern Virginia rapper Joey Blanco been called a modern Big Pun or Noreaga because of his suave vocal style and Latin heritage.
And when asked about his influences, Blanco admits that Pun, along with Jay-Z, Big L, Nas, and Biggie, is one of his favorites.
But Blanco has his own cadence and tone, marked by assertive vocals rapping English lyrics peppered with colorful Spanish ad-libs.
"I think it’s doing great," Blanco said of Latino hip-hop, "I just feel as though there’s no artists that perform in English and that are killing it with the Spanish ad-libs. I feel like I’m bringing that to the game. I’m just trying to bring something new to the Spanish culture."