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U-M African American Music Conference goes virtual, celebrates Willis Patterson's 90th birthday

By Sydney Hawkins

The Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design has created a new $25,000 prize to advance the project of one graduating senior.

Scholars, composers and performers from across the U.S. will come together for a virtual event that will celebrate the upcoming 90th birthday of legendary bass singer, U-M alumnus and professor emeritus Willis Patterson.

The African American Music Conference, hosted by the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, will take place virtually Sept. 18-20. The event is free and open to the public.

Patterson, who will be in attendance, was the first African American faculty member to join SMTD, after two prior professorships at Southern University (Louisiana) and Virginia State College. Hired in 1968, he taught in the department of voice for more than three decades, and also served as the associate dean for 20 of those years.

According to voice professor Louise Toppin, who organized the conference, Patterson is well known for his singing, but also for his teaching, mentorship and work toward advancing racial equity both at U-M and on the national stage.

“I am organizing this conference, in part, to expand upon Willis Patterson’s work—he organized events like this back in the ’80s at U-M and it was groundbreaking,” said Toppin, who has organized several similarly themed conferences in recent years. “He was an important pioneer not only in U-M’s history, but in U.S. history—he broke barriers and saw to it that African Americans in the next generation had opportunities to thrive.”

In addition to being a tireless advocate for the school’s community of color, he also made enormous strides in promoting the inclusion of music by African Americans in both the traditional vocal canon and in mainstream culture.

In 1963, when he heard that NBC television would be recording a new version of Menotti’s opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors” to air during the Christmas season, Patterson wrote to the station to protest the customary racist practice of casting a white man in blackface to sing the bass role of Balthazar. NBC followed Patterson’s advice and invited him to New York to audition alongside several other black bass singers. Patterson ended up winning the role, and the re-airing of the production every December for the next three years helped to increase his profile as a performer.

Willis Patterson, John McCollum and Richard Cross in Amahl and the Night Visitors, NBC Opera, 1963. Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts, Detroit Public Library.

For the first time since their taped performance, Toppin will reunite the original 1963 cast of the production as part of the conference at 4 p.m. Sept. 19. The live conversation with Patterson, Richard Cross and Kurt Yaghjian will be moderated by Arthur White, Michigan Opera Theater’s Director of External Affairs.

The conference will include a mixture of pre-recorded and live conversations featuring some of the most prominent African American composers and scholars in the U.S.—both younger and older—who will discuss Patterson’s pioneering work in the fields of jazz and African American concert repertoire.

During opening night, Sept. 18, the Bentley Historical Library will celebrate the arrival of the Willis Patterson papers as part of the university’s archive. Patterson will join Bentley Director Terrence McDonald, U-M President Mark Schlissel, U-M Vice Provost Robert Sellers, SMTD dean David Gier and Toppin for a virtual conversation at 5:30 p.m.

“The extraordinary breadth of Professor Patterson’s career—as performer, professor, university administrator, scholar of and leader in African American music—make his collection an invaluable addition to the holdings of the Bentley Historical Library,” McDonald said.

The new collection, which contains more than seven linear feet of boxes including correspondence, research, photos and news clippings, focuses primarily on Patteron’s professional and musical career from 1952 to 1999.

Another highlight of the conference will take place at 7 p.m. Sept. 19. A “Facebook watch party” of a recent public workshop reading that SMTD presented of “Bre’r Rabbit and the Tar Baby,” the first of three stories in Nkeiru Okoye and Carman Moore’s “Tales from the Briar Patch.” The workshop premiere was directed by Toppin in February 2020 and was read by a cast of five African American graduate students.

“While there is a historical component to this conference, I am excited about presenting this contemporary opera and having a forum for people to engage with and discuss it,” Toppin said. “Projects like this are an example of the continued influence that Patterson still has at SMTD and beyond.”


More info:

African American Music Conference

Willis Patterson