In a city with much music and many African American musicians, the National Association of Negro Musicians, whose national convention begins here Sunday, shouldn't seem like such a secret.
Were it not for the 92-year-old organization, the early careers of the late, legendary Marian Anderson, as well as the very much alive mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, might well have been harder. True talent rarely goes unnoticed. "But you can't spend the majority of your life Xeroxing the music that you need," says Simpson, who has an active concert career and a full professorship on the Indiana University voice faculty. "You have to have your own - something you can connect with."
Scholarship money from the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM) funded the nuts and bolts of her launch.
So if there's extra excitement around Center City's Doubletree Hotel this weekend, it's because NANM is using it as its convention nerve center though Monday. (The concluding gala concert, featuring Simpson and numerous well-known singers such as Donnie Ray Albert and Marquita Lister, will be Monday at North Philadelphia's Bright Hope Baptist Church.)
The organization's profile isn't all that high - the local chapter, known as the W. Russell Johnson Music Guild, has 65 members, nationwide membership is about 800, and the convention will attract 300 - in part because it functions for the welfare of musicians, some of them classical, many of them church musicians. Many have gone on to cross racial lines, but that's not what the NANM has traditionally done.
The scholarships offered, which go as high as $2,000, are helpful, but the psychological support may be more important. Time and again, members say they felt they were voices in the wilderness when they decided to devote their lives to music other than jazz or rap; they needed to see peers doing the same.
"To me, these conventions are like when you're running a marathon and you stop by the water table, rejuvenate, and then go back out," says Simpson. "People are sometimes tired by the time the opportunity comes and they can't take full advantage of it. It's funny, one month you feel like you're doing very well and three months later you wonder if anybody out there knows your name."
One member currently being boosted by the organization is the young Philadelphia pianist Dynasty Battles, a longtime Settlement Music School student who won last year's NANM competition and has recently finished his first year at Temple University. If there's one thing that tells him his talent is worth developing, it's that the African American composer George Walker's Piano Sonata No. 1, generally considered to be challenging, almost feels easy to him, "as if I'm playing something out of my own life experience."
His classical idols are lofty: Martha Argerich and Sviatoslav Richter. His dreams are big: "I want to play on all the stages around the world. I want to record 20th- and 21st-century music that isn't familiar to the mass public." And though counseled by NANM members to get an education degree so he has something to fall back on, his ambition is all but a prerequisite for the local guild.
"You have to want to do it," says Hazell Jefferson, vice president of the local guild.
Battles will perform during the convention under the watchful eye of pianist Blanche Burton-Lyles, one of the guild's venerable members, who is being honored for her decades of service to the Philadelphia community.
Now in her 70s, she discovered while growing up in Philadelphia that she had perfect pitch and went on to become the first African American woman to graduate from the Curtis Institute and to perform as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic. While she has plenty of music chops, she's something of an attitude-adjustment counselor - or, as Simpson calls her, "a finishing school for when you think you're already finished."
Though soprano Latonia Moore was one of the Academy of Vocal Arts' most promising graduates of the last decade, she had deportment issues that Burton-Lyles helped her address with impressive concert gowns, in the belief that "they see you before they hear you." (She also ordered Battles to wear a tux this weekend so he'll resemble "a young Denzel Washington.")
Though the members have plenty of tales of bigotry - Burton-Lyles said one of her fellow Curtis students didn't want to play a piano after she had touched it - they discuss them only when pressed. One of the local guild's main philosophical beacons is the iconic Anderson, whose memory is kept alive by Burton-Lyles' creation of the Marian Anderson Residence Museum at 762 Martin St.
She quotes Anderson often - and the importance of rising above the difficulties of the pre-Obama generations: "She often said, 'Don't become bitter. Don't become part of it.' "
That extends to Burton-Lyles' advice on dealing with career disappointment in a world where 400 may audition for four slots at a given school. "If you didn't win a competition, maybe the judges didn't have their coffee," she says. "There are all kinds of factors."
It's the glass-half-full philosophy. Even Jefferson, who showed early promise as a musician, dispassionately discusses working most of her adult life for United Parcel Service before she could complete a degree and work as a teacher and music therapist.
Problems are addressed with actions. When Jefferson discovered that the group's younger scholarship winners weren't encouraged by their parents, who couldn't be counted on to get them to their lessons, NANM member Joyce Gregory founded the Georgia E. Gregory Interdenominational School of Music in the heart of North Philadelphia, at 17th Street and Allegheny Avenue.
The fact that the organization has maintained the word Negro in its name is cause for consternation in some circles; Jefferson admits that some musicians have refused to join because of it. Older members have watched themselves morph from Negro to black to African American and aren't concerned. "I think all of us know who we are," Jefferson says with a laugh.
They also know that their basic musical identities lie in spirituals, and that performance of them is in danger of dying out. "There's a big difference," says Jefferson. "It all started with the spiritual. The spiritual started with the slaves. They all came out of an experience."
In other words, rising above is good. Forgetting is not.
For video of pianist Blanche Burton-Lyles talking about the conference, go to www.philly.com/nanm.EndText