John Malveaux Mixes Music & History
By Dianne Anderson
Music and history are synonymous to classical aficionado John Malveaux, whose epic concert venues demonstrate that one story can’t be told without the other.
Many people assume Black classical connections followed emancipation, but Black composers go back much further in time, starting with the highly sought-after musician Chevalier de Saint-Georges of African and French origin.
Malveaux said it’s no accident that Blacks never received their rightful recognition, although their contributions have been undeniably great and intentionally neglected.
The Black experience can be traced back to the beginnings of the classical era, considered by many as the sacred cow of the arts.
“It goes back prior to Mozart, it didn’t just start in the 17th century in America. They were called Afro-Europeans of mixed race, but they are of African descent. George Bridgetower was sought after and performed with Beethoven,” said Malveaux, a recent inductee to the Long Beach City College Hall of Fame.
He has a long fascination with classical music, which was further magnified through a close friendship with Roy Harris, a white composer who was boycotted by the industry in the 1976 bicentennial because of a statement he made regarding Blacks.
“Roy Harris said – and this is the reason it was boycotted – the white man’s shame is he bought slave blood in freedom’s name. That’s a high intellectual contradiction that white society hasn’t been able to deal with,” Malveaux said.
MusicUNTold, a nonprofit arm of the Long Beach Central Area Association, has hosted dozens of musical promotions, many straddling or crossing political lines of worthy themes and causes.
In 2010 that included Salif Keita from Mali, a singer and songwriter who has endured a lifetime of discrimination and death threats.
“He’s the most famous albino in the world. We did a project, not only a concert of his music, but albinos were being tracked down and killed because they were believed to be a cure for AIDS,” Malveaux said. “We had specialists and we brought in an exhibit from New York. That was the first African performance in the history of the Long Beach Performing Arts Center.”
Wherever music is to be heard, Malveaux is sure to find the historical African influence in the vibe.
Some among many past productions include “Music Without Borders,” a free concert held at the Long Beach Museum of Latin American Art, presenting exhibits by composers Carlos Chavez and William Grant Still of the early 19th century.
Two shows in the “Mullato” series brought to light the struggles and explorations of the impact of the color divide, of Jim Crow and Nazism in the life of a biracial woman in the 1920’s. That library fundraiser one-woman play was written and performed by actress Juliette Fairley.
In looking at the racial rift in classical music, Malveaux recalls Maestro Paul Freeman’s story, a great African American conductor and founder of the Chicago Sinfonietta. He talks of meeting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in passing at the airport.
“Dr. King asked what was he doing at the airport. He said he was going to conduct the Atlanta Symphony, and Dr. King responded, hallelujah, the last bastion of elitism. That’s classical music, that’s what the challenge is,” Malveaux said.
Next up, Malveaux’s goal is to push what he started before his event honoring Roy Harris was canceled. Harris was the epitome of American music and yet his own message of the injustice of slavery was not tolerated within the same circles that lifted him up.
Harris’ work first premiered in Washington, DC in 1976, but was soon blackballed until 2009. Harris died in 1979. After 33 years, MusicUNTOLD held the West Coast symphony debut in Long Beach.
But Malveaux holds out hope of bringing Harris’ symphony back in a bigger way. He had organized a professional performance in honor of the Bicentennial at Disney Concert Hall last year, but it was canceled due to the pandemic.
“The date was canceled. The question and challenge now is, what date will Disney Concert Hall offer to reschedule?” he asks.
Malveaux has amassed his latest large-scale project, video logging prior concerts and rare footage for the community to enjoy. Last month, they revisited a concert from eight years ago on women’s history month featuring Afro-folk stories and performances.
Malveaux is keen on getting down to the timelessness of musical roots that have been largely hidden from the history books, but he said breaking down walls that relegate classical genres as a purely white experience takes persistence.
It could be completely discouraging, but he compares it to the long view of the telescope.
“It may seem like an exercise in futility in the short run, but it’s the teleological perspective — that is, I’m not going to change it, but somebody is going to pick it up from me,” he said.
To visit the projects and archives of past performances, see https://musicuntold.com/