Visitors love ‘Jubilee’ at Montclair Art Museum

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MONTCLAIR, NJ — The consensus after “Jubilee, a Celebration of African American Music” at Montclair Art Museum on June 26 was wildly positive. “Let’s do it again!” was a common refrain.

The Rev. Jesse Branson Jr., minister of social justice at Union Baptist Church in Montclair, hosted the event, providing background on the evolution of African American music. The two-hour program had one attendee enthusing, “Every contribution was heartfelt and delightful.”

The show opened energetically to a packed house with a performance by Montclair State University’s West African Drum and Dance Ensemble under the direction of Robert Levin. Audience members joined enthusiastically in a dance around the drummers.

Roosevelt Credit, baritone at the Metropolitan Opera, and fellow gospel singers offered up a moving rendition of “What a Friend I Have in Jesus” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

Spirituals evolved into blues with Montclair Early Music’s mezzo soprano, Elsa Larsson movingly delivering songs by rarely performed African American composers, such as William Grant Still, Beasley Smith and Julia Lee Niebergall. The Montclair Early Music ensemble, under the direction of Sandy Meltzer, accompanied Larsson.

Nissreen Almazouni and Jim Geyer danced the lindy hop, a dance which originated in Harlem. They were accompanied by a talented young group from Jazz House Kids.

Emily O’Brien, a virtuoso recorder player from Boston, did amazing things with a tenor recorder and great bass recorders. Her three pieces, the last one accompanied by the APEX string ensemble, were composed by contemporary African American composer Melissa Fitzhugh.

In the finale, the song “Lil Liza Jane” was led by MEM’s youth recorder students, Lyle Harmon, Maya Herrera-Shimokawa and Kimaya Sayles, who recently performed at the international Boston Early Music Festival. 

All of the music, spanning nearly 400 years, was composed by African Americans.

“It was a huge undertaking and a smashing success,” MEM founder and President Julienne Pape said. “It gave the audience the opportunity to hear compositions from important but little known black composers. We created the program to complement the observance of Juneteenth and hope to expand on it in the future.” 

Photos Courtesy of Julienne Pape