Black Music Month: What does music mean to you; the curators

by: cathy foreman


For Black Music Music, I wanted to take a slightly different approach than what I did for International Jazz Appreciation Month by asking a number of different people from across different niche’s, “What does music mean to you?” With the number of people I’ve asked and their responses, I’ve been able to break this out into a series. Leading the series, I talked with curators of live music events and festivals. I was intentional regarding the group of people I posed this question to because I wanted to see how they would each approach the question with no prodding or idea of how the article would later develop.

When one thinks of a curator, you tend to think of a person who gathers art for an exhibit or other content to be featured in a museum or gallery of some sort. Rarely does one think of the person behind such events as music festivals as a curator, until recently… say the last 15 to 20 years or so. And why wouldn’t these individuals be considered as curators when they are the ones “gathering” music acts to perform at some of the biggest and best live music events in the country.

There’s a trick and finesse to curating. And curating a music event is something quite special. The logistics alone are harrowing, to say the least. Live music events have always been popular, but with the creation of more and more music festivals, the coordination of schedules can be a logistical nightmare. When coupling the coordination of dates, venues and all the other behind the scenes madness it can be a pretty high stress job. The goal is to curate an experience that the masses will appreciate, while hopefully exposing them to something new and different. As a curator you want the event to be equally as rewarding for participants as it is for the audience and it then becomes a passion project.

As a concert photographer, I am exposed to some pretty awesome live music. I’ve always appreciated music, but it wasn’t until I started attending concerts, in my late 30’s, that I truly appreciated what the artists do and the overall experience as an attendee. When I was able to get a little closer to the behind the scenes portion of it, I gained a whole new appreciation for what these people do. Whether it’s a one night event or a multi-day extravaganza, these people are to be commended on not only the curation of musical acts, but the team needed to help pull off such events. My hat is definitely off to you.

So, right now we’re in the midst of festival season and I wanted to start this series by asking these logistical engineers known as curators, “What does music mean to you?

Charles Whitfield:

A native of Charlotte, Charles is the creator and curator of the Queen City Jazz Festival. This year, the festival turns five. You can always count on Charles to curate an amazing one day music event. A music lover, I look to Charles to put me on to new and old music I’ve not heard and in some cases, not even heard of the artist. His appetite for music is varied and I can see that within a lot of his posts on social media, while his festival, the QCJF, is grounded more in jazz.

Charles is much more than a music lover. He has been an artist manager and was the head of A&R with Hidden Beach Records. With these roles, he would most definitely have a different take on the question. I was curious to see his answer.

Charles Whitfield

“Music means everything to me. It has totally shaped my life. I was blessed to have an older brother who turned me onto Earth, Wind, and Fire, the Isley Brothers, Al Jarreau, George Duke and many others early in my life and so from an early age quality music was what I loved. I have been blessed to work with Jill Scott, Anthony Hamilton, Mike Phillips, Kindred the Family Soul, Norman Brown, Sunshine Anderson and countless others so I have been blessed to work up close with some of the most talented musicians on earth. To me quite simply Music is Emotion on Tape in the highest form. I am blessed god gave me a gift to know what truly good music is cause each day it shapes my life. Thanks for asking me about how important it is to me!!! Much love and respect.”

Yvonne Anderson:

Yvonne is the content manager for the John Coltrane International Jazz Festival held in High Point, North Carolina, the birthplace of John Coltrane. The festival is in its 9th year and we can surely expect it to be one for the books with performances by Lisa Fischer, Benny Golson, Nnenna Freelon, Boney James, Eric Gales and more.

As content manager, Yvonne manages the festival’s website and social media platforms. She is also the point of contact for the approved photographers of the festival. It’s a different point of view for Yvonne because she’s not so much involved with the logistics as she is with ensuring the most up to date information is provided to the public … the festival’s potential patrons. So, I was equally curious to see what her response would be.

“I never learned to play an instrument. I am a listener. For me , music provides balance, peace, alternate view points and sometimes expression of things for which I have no words. I am grateful anytime I have the opportunity to work within a community of musicians. They are amazing people.”

Janis Burley Wilson

Janis is the the CEO and President of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. She believes that “the African American experience is an American experience” and by extension is for everyone to understand and appreciate. A native of Pittsburgh, one can see how and why the development of a festival that’s become such a huge success was and is important to Janis. Originated in 2011, the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival is her second musical endeavor with the first being the JazzLive which she started in 2003. With her hands in so much of the arts community, I was truly intrigued and couldn’t wait to see how she answered this question.

I like good music;  music that sounds good, and is good for the community. Simply put, I need music I can feel that captures the art of storytelling.  Storytelling is the heart of hip hop and jazz, and these are the genres that resonate most in my soul. I find solace in music; it eases grief and disappointment, reminds me who and how I love, but also creates a connectedness to greater humanity. Listening to music alone in my car, or in a concert hall filled with people  from around the world, speaking different languages, singing together gives me  life.  Music captures creativity at its most potent and universal. Plato said when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of state always change with them. I NEED artists today to decide what their values are going to be and create accordingly. This isn’t a game.  Singing about nonsense isn’t making progress. I want artists today to use their music as a platform for spreading resources to our communities. Music brings us closer to each other and help us come together as a community; it creates a sense of identity. Artists need to take this seriously. “

Music is universal; it speaks to everyone. These curators and others are charged with ensuring the message they put out is one of harmony and togetherness. It’s not something to be taken lightly. And you most definitely have to be a lover of music whether you’ve played and instrument or not … whether you’ve been in the industry on one side or the other or not. It’s pretty simple in that respect, while the task of producing a quality event, defining this space and being socially responsible with your message and the representation of that message is so … much … more.