Three-day musical residency at WIU to celebrate the African-American composer
April 11, 2022
MACOMB, IL — A relationship, developed through a love of music and culture, led to a unique ensemble gathering at Western Illinois University for a three-day residency in May to record an important sacred work from an African-American composer.
WIU’s Director of Jazz Studies, John Cooper, and his wife, Gayle, enjoy a long friendship with Sharon Reed, founder and artistic director of the Heritage Ensemble community choir in Peoria, IL. Through his research into music composed by African-American artists, Reed came across works by Glenn Burleigh, an Oklahoma composer who not only published his own pieces, but was very protective of who performed them.
After Burleigh’s death in 2007, her family kept her work at home. While Reed was researching musical works by African American composers, she came across Burleigh’s work, and the Heritage Ensemble performed one of his pieces on a smaller scale in 2008. A Burleigh musical colleague then gave Reed all his remaining scores for the Alpha Mass, a sacred composition that brings together the musical traditions of Western art as well as the jazz, gospel, blues and Latin genres.
In May, the Heritage Ensemble and musicians from across the United States will gather in the Recital Hall of WIU’s College of Fine Arts and Communication to perform Burleigh’s “Alpha Mass,” a 15-movement Catholic mass. The DVD recording will be captured by some of WIU’s video and lighting engineers, and will also be placed on YouTube.
“This project aims to document a wonderful work by a great African-American composer,” John said. “Sharon and I were considering suitable topics for a recording of this scope…a project that would help document the Heritage Ensemble and make a contribution to all of this often underrepresented literature. This mass is in Latin, blues and gospel, all in one piece.”
Reed said a big part of the production process was finding research grants and getting the music ready for recording.
Speaking of the Heritage Ensemble’s mission, Reed commented, “I call it the ‘edutainment’ process. We first educate ourselves on the music as a whole. We also educate and entertain our audience about the cultural heritage of the African American experience through music.
Because the existing scores were not fully orchestrated, John had to write many of the arrangements that did not yet exist (or were lost) for the 15-movement piece. He also hired all the musicians to accompany the choir in their Macomb recording session.
“It really is an archaeological project,” John said. “We got the piano and vocal sections from Burleigh’s colleague, and I scored the orchestrations for the musicians who weren’t available. We hire the best musicians from Illinois and around the country.”
Reed and Gayle have a 30-year relationship, working together in churches and schools in the Peoria area. Gayle, who is a staff coach, will play piano with the studio orchestra, and John will play trumpet as part of a 12-member band.
The Heritage Ensemble gave its inaugural concert in August 1999 and frequently collaborates with other musical entities in the region and the country, notably during a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York. While COVID-19 pandemic precautions shrunk the band size from 30-35 to just over 20, Reed said technology has allowed the band to perform live shows and expand their audience.
“The Heritage Ensemble was formed out of a need to fill a cultural void,” Reed said. “The recording project is a major undertaking for the Heritage Ensemble, and an opportunity to document the band’s accomplishments and this wonderful composition by Burleigh. John is an important part of it. He is a member of our ensemble and serves the ensemble. through compositions, arrangements, performances and contracts. It’s a community choir, but it’s more of a family. This project feels like it was meant to be.
The hope is that Burleigh’s sister, LaVonne, can travel to Macomb from Chicago to see the recording of her brother’s music.
“This project serves to celebrate a masterpiece of African American art,” John said. “Burleigh was so protective of his music and was self-published. Without a project like this, these pieces risk falling too far from American consciousness. A lot of things have come together, thanks to Sharon’s determination. He There were a million opportunities to stop the project, but she showed a fierce sense of urgency to move it forward.”
John, who is retiring at the end of the spring semester, said he was proud of how the University has embraced the project as well, helping with video and audio production.
For more information on the Heritage Ensemble, visit heritageensemble.com.
Posted by: Jodi Pospeschil ([email protected])
University Communications and Marketing Office