New Musical Composition Inspired By Jacksonville Celebrates City’s Diversity

Apr 5, 2019

A new composition inspired by the city of Jacksonville, written by the Jacksonville Symphony’s first ever composer-in-residence, is making its world premiere this weekend.

“‘Bridges’ is a tribute to the city of Jacksonville, its diverse communities and the bridges that bring them together,” Courtney Bryan, the Jacksonville Symphony’s Mary Carr Patton Composer-in-Residence, wrote for The Florida Times-Union. But she stresses that “Bridges” isn’t the story of Jacksonville, it’s the story of her learning about the city.

The title, “Bridges,” was suggested by the Jacksonville Symphony when they brought the idea to Bryan. The symphony did give her the chance to change it, but she felt the concept of bridges was a good universal theme.

“The bridges separate the city... It separates everybody. But the bridges could be seen as something to bring everybody together,” Bryan, a native of New Orleans, told WJCT News. “The whole goal of this piece is the idea of bringing everybody of Jacksonville together, just kind of celebrating the different parts of the city. Seeing what's in common, more so than what’s different.”

She was first approached by the symphony a little over two years ago. Shortly after accepting the commission and taking on the role of composer-in-residence, she made her first trip to Jacksonville to begin the process of learning about the city and searching for inspiration.

“I wanted to tell the story of Jacksonville,” said Bryan. “It was really tricky to know where to start because I'm telling a story through music, I'm not writing an essay. So I'm not thinking so much beginning, middle and end.”

She learned about the history of Jacksonville by going to museums and art galleries. She met up with artists and went to shows and concerts to get a feel for the culture. But perhaps the most important experience she had during this process was working with children at Jacksonville schools and afterschool programs.

“So there were elementary, junior high and high school students throughout different parts of Jacksonville, and we did this project called sounds of your neighborhood where I had them improvise sounds of their neighborhoods,” she explained. “What fascinated me about going to the different schools with all the different ages and different neighborhoods, there were some differences… but for the most part, everything was very similar.”

She said the themes inspired by the children run throughout the whole composition and tie everything together, but in subtle ways that may be difficult to hear.

But “Bridges,” like Jacksonville, isn’t always subtle.

During one of her trips to Jacksonville, Ulysses Owens Jr., a grammy winning drummer/percussionist and Artistic Director at Don’t Miss a Beat (one of the after school programs Bridges worked with), took her out to get a feel for Jacksonville’s nightlife.

Composer Courtney Bryan with students at Don't Miss a Beat.
Credit Courtney Bryan

“We have this thing in Jacksonville where we say, ‘Duuuval,’” Owens said. “And so we were doing that like all night.”

“I’ve gotta thank Ulysses for that too. He said, ‘Wait, you’ve gotta include Duuuval,’” Bridges said, laughing.

She took to YouTube and started listening to people doing the chant, which she said is embedded throughout the composition - usually played on the chimes. Sometimes it may sound like church bells or a school bell, but it’s still the Duuuval chant.

“Originally, when I thought about having children involved in the piece, I pictured a part where they start chanting Duuuval, and then I was curious to see if the audience would chant Duuuval back,” she said. “Musically, it took a different direction.”

But she’s intrigued by the possibility, as slim as it might be, of this weekend’s crowds joining in on the chant.

“I will say if people chanted it back in the context that it’s in, it would be kind of surprising,” she said with a grin. “I would get a kick out of it. But I don't know if that would be expected.”

“The really cool thing about music is it is for everyone,” said Sydney Schless, Marketing and Communications Manager for the Jacksonville Symphony. “It can bring all sorts of people together.”

But the classical music world at large hasn’t always successfully reached out to communities of color - something Schless said the Jacksonville Symphony is trying to address in various ways. “It's something that, I think, is definitely being looked at and paid attention to and is an issue we're trying to address in what we do, across the board,” she said.

“As a composer, the access thing is very in the front of my mind, because I've definitely been denied opportunities early on where it's just assumed, ‘This is not for you,’” Bryan, who is African-American, said. “But I've always sort of known it was for me.”

“I had a teacher early in high school who didn't agree to teach me. He taught another student composition, who was a white male,” she said. “But with me, he told me, ‘Oh, you're more of a big band composer.’ So he just didn't teach me. And I remember how much that hurt.”

But diversity isn’t just lacking on the stages of concert halls… it’s also lacking in audiences.

“I know as a child, getting to see the symphony early on was important,” Bryan said. “And a lot of times it did involve getting free tickets through school, or just hearing about stuff.”

She said she still vividly remembers the first time she heard the work of a black composer in a symphonic setting and how impactful that was for her. “I heard the composer Hannibal Lokumbe with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and he did this piece called African portraits,” she said.

“So representation really does matter. Access to concerts to even see things that let you know, ‘Oh, this is something that, that I can do. Or this is something out here that I really have a love for,’ is important,” said Bryan. “Then the economics to make things available so that it's not just those who already have money can do it.”

Owens thinks the Jacksonville Symphony missed a great opportunity to do just that this weekend.

“We don't know when we're going to get the next Courtney Bryan, and we don't know, surely, when she's going to come back to Jacksonville,” he said. “So my thing is, why don't we have 200 girls of color in the audience to see this… or girls and boys of color? Why didn't we bus in kids from all over the city to see and hear this music?”

In response to concerns raised by Owens, Schless wrote the following in an email to WJCT:

“The Jacksonville Symphony takes pride in being the second largest music education entity in Duval County, falling only behind the Public School system.

“Last season alone, 49.8% of our total impact number was made through our Community Engagement and Education initiatives, a large part of which comes through our relationships with Title 1 Schools in the area. In the 2017-2018 season, 131 out of the 167 elementary, middle and high schools visited were Title I. 11,500 Title 1 students attended live performances in Jacoby Symphony Hall. Their teachers were given education guides beforehand to expand on the educational opportunities. Title 1 students attending our open rehearsals for the Nutcracker performance, paid only $2.50 per ticket. Our Jump Start Strings program provided free string-instrument instruction to more than 100 students in after-school programs at five different Title 1 elementary schools in Duval County. To my knowledge, this season, we opened up our Young People’s concerts to Title 1 schools from $1-2 to try and combat the lack of STEAM funding. For this upcoming program specifically, all of the schools that Courtney Bryan visited while here were offered free tickets to hear the premiere so those students had the opportunity to attend.

“We are also always working to provide diversified program for audiences throughout Jacksonville. Outside of our Masterworks concerts, we have eight different Pops concerts that cover genres from Rock and Jazz to Broadway and Country. Movies open up the Symphony to an incredibly wide audience and we have done those in the Symphony Hall and at Daily’s Place, where we even performed with Hip-Hop artist Wyclef Jean.”

But she acknowledged that diversity is still an industry wide issue that the Jacksonville Symphony is still working to address.

“If we're going to truly merge and understand each other and dialogue, we can't just have a conversation,” said Owens. “We need to have conversation, and then take action.”

And he thinks if the lack of diversity in the classical music can be adequately addressed, the quality of the art will only improve.

“For me, it’s an artistic problem. We are limiting the art,” he said.”We're dealing with this now in jazz music. We are limiting the impact the art can have when we limit the audience and the people that can be affected by it.”

Criticisms aside, Owens said this weekend is an important step forward for the Jacksonville Symphony and the community it serves.

“This weekend is amazing,” he said. “And that's why I'm going to be there.”

The world premiere of “Bridges” was Thursday, April 4. Tickets for performances on April 5 and 6 are available at JaxSymphony.org.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.