Hold On—A Celebration of the Life of Olly Wilson (1937-2018)

There is a tendency to separate morality and music instruction. Music instruction usually focuses on the notes or the historical facts. Olly Wilson’s lessons, by contrast, were holistic. He encouraged intellectual curiosity. I know that my use of analogies to explain concepts in class are the result of listening to him teach or discuss a variety of topics. All of us who studied with him modeled our teaching accordingly.

Written By

Trevor Weston

“The role of any artist is to reinterpret human existence by means of the conscious transformation of his experience.”—Olly Wilson, “The Black American Composer” (1972)

It is difficult to summarize Olly Wilson’s influence on my life as a composer, scholar, and human. (I had similar difficulty distilling my father’s influence on my life a few years back.) I do want to share some thoughts about Olly Wilson to celebrate his contributions to American music, especially African American music history, and to me personally.

TJ Anderson introduced me to Olly Wilson in April 1989 at the premiere of Wilson’s A City Called Heaven, commissioned and performed by Boston Musica Viva. The concert was a mentor to mentor exchange triggered by my acceptance into UC Berkeley’s PhD program in music composition where I would study with Wilson. I sat next to Olly Wilson during the performance where I followed the music with his personal copy of the score. Wilson often discussed Duke Ellington’s largess as an important element of his life and music. I experienced the same largess from Olly Wilson the first day we met. I had heard Sometimes for tenor and tape before this meeting in a composition class with TJ Anderson.  I was amazed by the new musical vistas in A City Called Heaven. This piece influenced a few of my first compositions in graduate school. After the concert, I received my first assignment in preparation for graduate school in the fall: Listen to more Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, and Charlie Parker.

There is a tendency to separate morality and music instruction. Music instruction usually focuses on the notes or the historical facts. Wilson’s lessons, by contrast, were holistic. After my first encounter with Olly Wilson, I realized that I had entered into an artist apprenticeship with a master artist. His teaching humanized the learning experience in numerous ways.  He was very much aware that I moved to California at the young age of 22 without knowing anyone in the state but him. Something as simple as attending my first San Francisco Contemporary Music Players concert with him via BART from Berkeley was a quick study in Bay Area mass transit. (As someone who only knew the NYC MTA and the Boston T in the 1980s, BART was an alternate universe to me.) The entire trip was a lesson in critical thinking. Teaching critical thinking was not the purpose of the trip, the concert was the goal, but discussions of the performance, notational issues in the music, the music’s effect on the audience and a discussion on choosing a barber—culturally an important decision connected to settling into a new area—were all covered from Olly Wilson’s typical approachable intellectualism.

Olly Wilson’s indirect teaching came from merely spending time with him. Months into my new home in California, I was invited to Thanksgiving dinner with Olly and Elouise Wilson, Mr. and Mrs. Bill Bell, and the children of both families. This may have been the first time I realized that thinking critically would not be limited to music or history in graduate school. If you read Olly Wilson’s writings on African and African American music, you will note that his arguments are supported by a combination of facts, observations, and experiences. Even the process of smoking the turkey for dinner received critical assessment. I made the mistake at dinner of saying that the NY Giants would beat his beloved San Francisco 49ers. He wryly asked, “Do you want to bet?” His critical assessment explained the obvious, the Giants were indeed doomed. Details ruled his discussions. Wilson’s knowledge and talent were intimidating, but he was affable. I will never forget the obvious kindness demonstrated by the invitation to Thanksgiving dinner. I cannot recall the number of times Bill Bell asked me if I had called my mother when I saw him on UC Berkeley’s campus after that dinner.

Olly Wilson encouraged intellectual curiosity.

Olly Wilson encouraged intellectual curiosity. I know that my use of analogies to explain concepts in class are the result of listening to Olly Wilson teach or discuss a variety of topics. All of us who studied with him modeled our teaching accordingly. Anthony Brown (a fantastic composer, performer and scholar whom I consider my older musical brother) and I realized a few years ago that we both prepared our talking points before we called Olly Wilson so that we had something interesting to say. Olly Wilson promoted the model of the composer scholar. Composers who were also musicologists become deeply interested in investigating music’s connections to larger concerns of cultural expression and historical placement.

Music composition lessons with Olly Wilson were humanistic. By that, I mean he assessed my music by: 1) what I actually wrote; 2) what I perceived to be its musical intention; 3) how an audience will perceive it; and 4) and whether or not there was a disconnect between those three previous concerns. This may not seem so obviously humanistic, but connecting the human reaction to the music with the construction of the music and the musical concept was a unique approach to me. I use this method to teach composition now. Recently, I spoke with a group of younger composers and shared a representative comment on my music from an Olly Wilson composition lesson. The original opening to my dissertation for orchestra contained pages of music without the strings doing anything. At the time I thought this was radical. Olly Wilson pointed out, “You do realize there are 50 plus musicians in the string section not doing anything? The majority of players of the orchestra are in the strings. The tradition has always used the strings as glue for the orchestra.” His comment reminded me of an important reality. My music was not stylistically wrong but it was poorly conceived for human performers.  My take away from that lesson: The human experience is wrapped up in the writing, performing, and witnessing of a musical composition. One is not disconnected from the other.

I also learned over time that his concern for humans was not limited to musical issues. Olly Wilson’s largess touched many musicians. While living in 1995, Paris, I met Gérard Grisey for a composition lesson at the Conservatoire de Paris. Grisey’s demeanor visibly changed when I told him that I had studied with Olly Wilson. He was the first of many composers to ask me, “How is Olly?” While teaching in a small college in rural Indiana, I met William Bolcom who was invited as a special guest composer. After telling him my educational background, Bolcom asked, “How is Olly?” During an interview for a teaching position in at a school in the Southwest, I was asked, “How is Olly? Will he give a lecture at our school if you are hired to teach here?”  It was obvious to me that Olly Wilson’s reputation was larger than his music.  He made numerous personal connections with musicians everywhere.

His concern for humans was not limited to musical issues.

A particularly important connection for Olly Wilson was his friendship with the famous musician Earl “Fatha” Hines. Fate seemed to connect them together because Hines and Wilson’s father were born on the same day and died on the same day. After Hines’ death, Olly Wilson became the co-administrator of the Hines estate. One of the many special moments I remember working as an apprentice occurred when I had to search for specific charts in boxes of Earl Hines’s band arrangements. Preserving the Hines Estate is an example of a gift of stewardship by Wilson of important artifacts of American music. Likewise, establishing the first electronic music studio at an American conservatory, Technology in Music and Related Arts (TIMARA) at Oberlin Conservatory in 1967, is another important gift to the development of electronic music in America. Generations of musicians have benefited from Olly Wilson’s work in promoting and preserving American music.

“The ideal I strive toward as a composer is to approach music as it is approached in traditional African cultures.”Olly Wilson, The Black Composer Speaks (1978)

Traditional West African cultures believe that music is a force and not a “thing,” a concept I learned in Olly Wilson’s African American Music History class. Music’s essence is its affect or functional use. Considering Olly Wilson’s vast musical output, one can easily hear that his music was composed as an intentional force to affect or motivate listeners. I often begin discussions of electronic music in my classes by listening to Sometimes. Even though some of the electronic sounds are unfamiliar to undergraduates, Wilson’s interweaving of live vocal performance and recorded vocal performances of the spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” is haunting and arresting. Powerful musical statements in the piece are often rooted in the Black musical tradition in the context of Western art music. The music’s function is to communicate elements of the Black music’s vocal tradition explicitly or implicitly. In Sometimes and Of Visions of Truth, the use of folk songs is a starting point for presenting Black music in an abstract context. Sinfonia, A City Called Heaven, and Hold On use cells of blues riffs integrated in 20th century avant-garde vocabulary. In essence, Wilson’s compositions are demonstrations of the title of one of his important essays, “Black Music as an Art Form.” Music of perceptual interest, Olly Wilson’s works are a powerful voice of American music. Dvorák thought the direction of an American school of composition should be based on Native American and African American folk music, primarily, spirituals. Sometimes, A City Called Heaven, and the slow movement of Hold On fulfill Dvorák’s vision of American Music. At the same time, Wilson’s music ostensibly represents Béla Bartók’s vision of modern composers using a musical language totally integrated with the purity of folk music to create the new way.

Great minds help us answer big questions. In Olly Wilson’s case, he explained through his research what makes Black music identifiable. Not defining the music by the performer but by its musical organization and characteristics that allows us to trace elements of Black music in many genres of American music.  Wilson’s research and scholarship also addressed related areas of inquiry: What makes Black music an art form? What is the role of the Black composer? His scholarship laid the groundwork for future research in the nature and significant contributions of African Americans to the development of American music.

I consider Olly Wilson’s six conceptual approaches to creating music to be the Rosetta stone of Black musical analysis.

My first week in Wilson’s African American Music History class, spring 1990, was life changing. Anthony Brown was one of the teaching assistants for the course.  Wilson’s lecture on African culture began with a discussion of Black Athena by Martin Bernal, a book, given to me by my father, outlining the African/Egyptian sources of Western European civilization. A thorough discussion of West African culture in the opening week of the course was followed by Olly Wilson explaining his six conceptual approaches to creating music that link sub-Saharan West African music to African American music:

  1. rhythmic and/or metrical contrast
  2. a fixed framework (e.g. repeated patterns) and a varied part played or sung over that
  3. a percussive approach to vocal and instrumental performance
  4. musical forms featuring call and response
  5. a tendency to fill up all the musical space
  6. body motion being integral to music making

I consider these concepts to be the Rosetta stone of Black musical analysis. It is the key to understanding the organization of music in the African diaspora. Wilson’s work embraces the complexity of the subject making his discussions and explanations more potent. After centuries of convenient or expedited explanations of the nature of African culture and its connection to African American music, Wilson’s work takes the important perspective that this tradition’s artistry demands a more substantive exploration into the complexity of the historical, geographical, and sociologic factors that resulted from the Atlantic slave trade.  Wilson’s work illuminates the misunderstanding of what occurred historically so that everyone will understand Black music better. His last published writing appears in the Cambridge Companion to Duke Ellington, in Chapter 5, “Duke Ellington as a Cultural Icon.”  After a career of intellectual discovery and exploration, Olly Wilson uses his discussion of Duke Ellington to illustrate how this American icon rose above America’s cultural expectations of his musical output. This chapter points to the essential concern of all of Wilson’s writing through a quote by Thomas Jefferson. In Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson states, “Whether they [Blacks] will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved.” Olly Wilson’s life’s work demonstrates the “proof” Jefferson mentions and counters the common negative associations of Black artistic capability embodied in this quote. In a sense, Olly Wilson’s research addressed the artistic residues of America’s original sin evident in a founding father’s writing on the nature of Black musical creativity.

“In that sense my music is directly related to the struggle in that it aspires to inform, motivate, and humanize my fellow men in their aspirations.”—Olly Wilson, The Black Composer Speaks (1978)

Many of us are mourning the huge loss of a talented musician and intellectual. We also celebrate the many numerous gifts Olly Wilson left us. His work demonstrated to all that there was a traceable link to the music made by African Americans and the musical traditions found on the African continent they left during the Atlantic slave trade. African performance practices inform and are readily noticeable in any form of American music connected to the continuum of African American music. There has been a long tradition in this country of individuals identifying characteristics of African American music as weird/funny (minstrelsy) or interesting but non-essential, at best.  Sometimes this music is deemed inappropriate in serious musical expression. For example, one of my compositions was criticized for asking a “classically” trained choir to stomp their feet and clap like a tradition African American vocal ensemble. Wilson discussed the importance use of physical body motion in the process of making Black music. The movement is integral to the music. Understanding this concept explains why the Temptations danced while they sang and many traditional Black churches stamp their feet and clap as they sing. The movement is the music.

Olly Wilson has demonstrated the strength of African American musical traditions through his compositions. Black music is not limited to one form of musical expression. In the same way that the defining characteristics of a waltz can be heard in music by Johann Strauss, Chopin, Ravel, and the composers of the Second Viennese School, blues expression is heard in the music of Ellington, Louis Jordan, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and A City Called Heaven. This is an important point. Some limit Black expression to its folk genres, others to American pop recordings. The strength of any culture is revealed in the diversity of its various forms of expression. Black musical expression “exists” if it is identifiable in various forms. When Olly Wilson wrote “The Significance of the Relationship Between Afro-American Music and West African Music” (1974) he provided for us the keys to analyzing and composing music in the African American tradition and in turn, insight into American musical culture.

Olly Wilson’s compositions and research were his ultimate answers to every question he raised in his research. He never complained, but I do think that he felt an affinity to Duke Ellington’s dilemma: Famous and respected but not recognized in the same way, at that time. If you believe that Wilson’s work revealed important observations about Black music to have a better understanding of ourselves, then we might consider Wilson’s last essay on Ellington addressing the important issue of implicit bias with respect to assumptions about relevance of music created by African Americans or music created with the influence African American music. Inclusion in concert music is currently under more scrutiny. Olly Wilson was a pioneer.  He started teaching at UC Berkeley in 1970 and I was the first composer of African descent, to my knowledge, to enter the graduate program in composition at Berkeley 19 years later in 1989.  Olly Wilson paved the way for many people in composition and encouraged serious study of African and African American music in the Academy.

Olly Wilson paved the way for many people in composition and encouraged serious study of African and African American music in the Academy.

Finally, Olly Wilson did have a wry wit, a good sense of humor, and a kind heart. During a class discussion on Louis Jordan, he mentioned the dances that he and his friends did to “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie.” I chuckled a bit like a doubtful nephew which encouraged Olly Wilson to demonstrate by dancing across the stage in Hertz Hall while we listened to the recording. It was a mic drop moment before we started to use this term. He gleefully played for me the lullaby he wrote for his first granddaughter and quietly bragged that he was asked to be the best man at his son’s wedding. Although we mourn Olly Wilson’s death, we can say that he lived life to its fullest and left many gifts that have enriched our lives.

In “Duke Ellington as a Cultural Icon,” Olly Wilson described Ellington with words appropriate for its author. This quote seems to speak to Olly Wilson’s wonderful contribution to American society.

Ellington’s [Wilson’s] music reflected a more nuanced, subtle, and complex reading of African-American culture, and, ultimately, projected a sophisticated and realistic understanding of African-American life. Duke Ellington [Olly Wilson] used his music to communicate the complexity, depth, joy, and beauty of the contemporary African-American and American experience.

Thank you Olly Wilson for all that you shared with me and all who knew you.

Olly Wilson dancing with his wife Elouise at Trevor Weston's wedding.

Olly Wilson dancing with his wife Elouise at Trevor Weston’s wedding.