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Black Classical Musicians in Detroit Embrace an Alternative Sound

Classical music is not typically seen as music for and by African-Americans, but some black musicians in Detroit hope to change that perception.

Lauren Jeziorski

As a young kid, the trombone was never on Kenneth Thompkins' radar. He'd played the viola in elementary school. In third grade concert band, though, he got the chance to play almost every instrument. And in that, by fate or perhaps purely by accident, his fingers found their way from the confines of four strings to the freedom of a brass slide. Slow but sure, he became a trombonist. A very skilled one, at that.

"You're just doing stuff," Thompkins explains. "I was just doing it and enjoying it and then developed more of a passion for it – it just kind of developed." Thompkins eventually landed at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1997 as principal trombone – the second African-American in the orchestra's history to land a full-time appointment. He's now in his 21st season with the critically acclaimed group. Not bad for a kid from Maryland who wasn't much into the '80s music blaring out of boomboxes and car stereos in his formative years.

"I listened to a lot of public radio and orchestral music on the radio," Thompkins says. "I listened to that a lot more than the current popular music. It wasn't what I gravitated towards." For Thompkins, it was the beauty of the ensemble that he found so captivating – how the strings and the brass interplayed, particularly on larger works by Mahler or Beethoven. "A piece close to an hour long that can take you through close to every emotional state that you can go through without words," he says. "To me, it's very, very powerful. As a performer, you're sitting next to the strings and the basses and your whole seat is reverberating – it's pretty cool. I just love it. It's extremely engaging and the music is extremely powerful and moving."

Thompkins, a graduate of Northwestern University and Temple University, has performed with Toronto Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and others. He loves classical, but the irony of being a black man in a mostly European tradition isn't lost on him. He's heard it all before. "Racism is systemic. It's in the American DNA," Thompkins says. "I can't say there's a system of racism that has stopped me from getting opportunities. And being a black person in a predominantly Caucasian field … most people are just surprised. Period. That comes across from white and black people. At this point, I'm used to it. I don't think it's a barrier, just more of a curiosity. I don't take it as racism, just ignorance in the pure sense of the word. I'm not going to lie – you do get some looks. Like, 'Oh, you're here?' It's like, yeah. I'm here, here – for 20 years."

His debut solo recording, Sonatas, Songs and Spirituals – released last year – is a compilation of his favorite varieties of music – not just classical. There's gospel, contemporary classical pieces and a composition for trombone and electronics. "I wanted to be able put these out and have it represent who I am, and have that reflected in this recording," he says. But Thompkins wasn't the first African-American hired full-time to play with the DSO. That would be Joseph Striplin.

Detroiter Joseph Striplin, a violinist and conductor, has been with the DSO since 1972 as second violin. A Cass Tech and Wayne State University graduate, Striplin's vantage point as a black classical musician could be seen as decisively nuanced. While he acknowledges the minority-within-a-minority reality of black classical players, he says that there has always been a handful of players of color – even in Europe.

"For the most part, until fairly recently, the number of blacks who get deep into classical have been very small," Striplin says. "Over the years, I've seen that slowly changing. One reason is the Detroit Symphony has come up with various ways of reaching out, particularly to communities of color. Although there are two of us who are regular members of the DSO, for years, we've had black substitutes. Substitutes of the orchestra are very fine players too. They're not subpar, they just haven't yet gotten a job at a major orchestra – it's not a reflection on them."

Striplin has performed with the Indianapolis Symphony, St. Louis Symphony and a long list of others. As a conductor, he has worked with the Dearborn Youth Symphony, Highland Park Symphony, the Savannah Symphony in Georgia during its ninth annual Black Heritage Week – and currently serves as conductor and music director of the Southfield Philharmonic and the Grosse Pointe Symphony Orchestra. Conducting gives Striplin another way of approaching the music he adores. His first exposure was during the '70s while he was at Wayne State.

"I got a chance to see a lot of these pieces from the inside. I was studying scores," Striplin explains. "That was an invaluable experience. You get an idea from working with different conductors about what an orchestra values in a conductor." On the opposite side, "Playing the music gives you an opportunity to learn it well." Blacks in classical music – at least from the periphery – might very well be a problem of perception. "There used to be a perception in the black community that classical music is not 'our music,'" Striplin says. "There might be a little bit of that left, (but) any music can be one's music. Why can't we embrace European music? Europeans can embrace our music."

One of Striplin's violinists in Highland Park embraced the music but became a leader in her own right – and took classical violin to another level.

A lifelong Detroiter, Michelle May came from a musical family. Her mother played classical piano and her siblings played instruments, as well. She came of age during the Motown era of the '60s and '70s. In fact, she lived down the street from Berry Gordy. Music, she recalls, was part of everyone's life. Later, she attended the popular Detroit Community Music School where she met and became lifelong friends with jazz violinist Regina Carter. Like many kids her age, May took musical lessons, going from piano to flute to, eventually, violin. "For the most part, our tradition," she says in reference to her musical training, "starts in classical music."

May took a different path from Carter and decided to go into education – not just as a backup plan, but because she always wanted to be a teacher. She earned a bachelor's in education from Marygrove College (minoring in music) and a Master of Arts in counseling from Wayne State University. Yet music was a constant companion. May continued to perform in orchestras and ensembles throughout the city, honing her craft. "I really wanted to teach. I knew from early on," May says, "because I had friends like Regina Carter who were going to make this their life. I was not going to practice eight to 10 hours a day. Especially in college, all day, every day. That just wasn't me. Later, I morphed into jazz."

Before that, she played with suburban metro Detroit symphony orchestras to keep her skills sharp. After some creative restlessness and having performed with jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and other notable local musicians, May wanted to stretch her classical roots from European to American soil – jazz. She started an all-female quartet, which blended jazz sensibilities with classical training, and called it Musique Noire. It encompasses world music as well as anything that might be dubbed unclassifiable. "It's black music," May says. "The premise of what we do – there's always that black music influence. All of us are still playing classical music on various levels."

Discover Detroit Youth Volume's mission to bring urban kids ages 3-18 into the world of classical music with lessons in violin and viola. Read the story.

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