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Music People: composing a life 

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"Throughout my career I've always felt like a new kid on the block," says composer and conductor Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, "because I so often move from place to place and from field to field." His most recent relocation was in 1998, when he came to Chicago from New York to take charge of Ensemble Stop-Time and the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble, two performing arms of Columbia College's Center for Black Music Research, but Perkinson's entire life is a tale of being plopped down in unfamiliar surroundings--and thriving.

As a child Perkinson was shuttled between North Carolina and New York from one relative's home to another. "My mother was a free spirit and didn't have time for me," he explains. "She lived in a loft in the Village and was busy with classical piano recitals." She had named her only son after Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the eminent turn-of-the-century English composer whose father was a physician from Sierra Leone, and she insisted the teenage Perkinson take piano lessons after an exam revealed his knack for music.

In 1945 Perkinson entered New York's Music and Art High School and took up the trombone because "I didn't want to lug a bass home on the bus." When his teachers found out he could easily sight-read and identify pitches, they encouraged him to compose and conduct. A choirmaster liked his voice and put him in a chorus that sang with the New York Philharmonic. "Here I was, a kid, singing in Berg's Wozzeck and taking directions from [Dimitri] Mitropoulos and Stravinsky."

After graduation Perkinson attended New York University and the Manhattan School of Music. He went on to study composing at Princeton, where he apprenticed with Roger Sessions and Earl Kim. "Sessions showed me the broad strokes," he recalls, "and Kim, a Schoenberg protege, was into details. I got the best of two approaches."

The early 50s were Perkinson's formative years. He had a teaching position at New York's Professional Children's School, and he delved into the jazz scene, occasionally playing piano for singer Dakota Staton. He wrote his first major composition in '54, the Sinfonietta no. 1 for Strings. The work put him in a class of trailblazing African-American classical composers of the postwar era that included Hale Smith, Olly Wilson, David Baker, and Wendell Logan.

Perkinson had been teaching on and off at Brooklyn College, but he decided to quit to piece together a life as a professional musician and composer, hoping to accumulate "new stimulating experiences that usually elude professors." He didn't lack for work: a brief stint as pianist in Max Roach's jazz quartet was followed by a job coordinating music for Jerome Robbins's American Theatre Lab. "One highlight was a crackerjack performance of L'histoire du soldat, with Jason Robards as narrator," he says. "I rehearsed the ensemble for Leonard Bernstein to conduct. Lennie thought my music was similar to his, so he sent an emissary who inquired, 'The maestro would like you to help him with his Mass.' But I didn't want to ghost."

Perkinson's own compositions were getting good notices. "Attitudes, a Solo Cantata for Tenor, Violin, Cello, and Piano" was performed by the New York Philharmonic with his friend George Shirley as the soloist, and he wrote for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and what is now the Dance Theatre of Harlem. In the mid-60s, his friend the singer Barbara McNair asked him to conduct her band on tour. "I got to know people in the entertainment industry this way--totally different animals," he says. When McNair landed a syndicated TV variety show in 1969, Perkinson became the first black music director on TV. A tune he churned out for McNair to sing on McMillan and Wife was rearranged into a bossa nova tune that opened the show. "I'm still getting residuals from that one," he says, laughing. Later Lena Horne would tap him as arranger and conductor for her celebrated return to Broadway. His first job scoring a feature film, The McMasters, a 1969 interracial western, led to a string of movie gigs in the 70s and 80s. In the last ten years he's composed works for flutist Harold Jones and has written music for the theater, including Regina Taylor's Oo-Bla-Dee, which premiered at the Goodman last year.

Perkinson acknowledges that he hasn't enjoyed the job security he would have had in academia, "but I wouldn't trade what I've learned and been able to accomplish for anything in the world." He says he took the new job with the Center for Black Music "mainly because it offered me the opportunity to assemble a body of mostly local musicians who'd feel comfortable playing Ellington and Stravinsky, Bach and Bird," but it's also introduced him to music and composers he didn't even know existed. "My mission is to bring that knowledge to the public. I feel revitalized in my old age."

Perkinson will conduct the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble in a program this weekend that includes the Violin Concerto in G of Chevalier de St. Georges, the black composer who dazzled late-18th-century Paris, and Perkinson's Generations: Sinfonietta no. 2 for Strings. Ensemble Stop-Time will also perform. The concerts are on Friday and Saturday at 8 PM in Buntrock Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan. Admission is $15. Call 312-294-3000. --Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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