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African-American Chamber Orchestra Brings Classical Music to Inner City Kids - 2004-02-05

Jazz... blues... gospel... hip hop. All these styles of music are inextricably linked to the African-American experience. But what about classical music? Bach? Mozart? Beethoven? The music of these dead, white, European men isn't usually associated with the black community in America. But an 83-year-old man in Chicago has spent the bulk of his adult life trying to change that. VOA's Maura Farrelly recently sat down with Leo Harris and his musical colleagues... to find out why.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, A Little Night Music - The piece was composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1787... and heard on the radio in Chicago 139 years later by a six-year-old African-American boy named Leo Harris. The year was 1926... and ever since then, Mr. Harris has had a love affair with classical music. He learned to play the violin as a child. When he grew up, he encouraged his wife and children to play. And then in 1983, when Leo Harris finally retired from his job as an air conditioner repairman, he founded the South Side Family Chamber Orchestra. It's composed entirely of African-Americans, and it performs primarily in Chicago housing projects and schools where the majority of students are black and Hispanic. And, for the last 20 years, members of the orchestra have been giving free string lessons to any inner city student who wants them.

"It awakens something that's inside," he says. "It's something that's innate that you have inside of you. I don't say that everybody has it, but it awakens that, and that's my effort, is that every child should have the opportunity to have that happen to them. And that's why I try to go around and play for all the different minority groups, so that all the children have the opportunity to hear the classical music."

Classical music doesn't really have a strong following among African-American listeners... and because of that, there are few black classically trained musicians in the United States. Tameka Reed, 26, is one of them. The cellist says she was very excited two years ago, when she first heard there was an all-black orchestra on Chicago's South Side.

"It's a rarity. It's not common," she says. "And I decided that it was a great opportunity to meet other black classical musicians, 'cause in my experience, with my schooling, there aren't a lot of us."

Things are changing. Pianist Awadajin Pratt and violinist Nokuthula Ngwenyama have been bringing young African-American listeners into concert halls and music conservatories across the country. Both performers were born in the United States... both are black... and both are in their thirties. But classical music in America is still a basically white and Asian genre. Just one of the 111 performers in the Chicago Symphony is black. The Cleveland Orchestra boasts two out of 108. And the Boston Pops has two black performers in a field of 93 players. David Howard, principal violinist for the South Side Family Chamber Orchestra, says part of the reason African-Americans aren't drawn to classical music, is that for the last century or so, many live performances have taken place in fancy concert halls, where African-Americans couldn't attend… either because of segregation or the cost of a ticket.

"Classical music was something that was taken up by a privileged class after the fact," he explains. "When it became a profession, and when the conservatory movement began, then, due to economic reasons or legal reasons or social reasons, it's more difficult to make the exposure."

And that's why octogenarian Leo Harris still spends hours every day searching for grant money to support the all-black orchestra he founded. He says he wants to share not just the beauty... but also the power of classical music. Mr. Harris says he believes in the 20 years his players have been offering free lessons, classical music has saved countless inner-city children from gang violence... and gotten many of them into college.

"See, here's the key thing about classical music: It requires discipline. Discipline is what is lacking in our society, not only in minority communities, but everywhere. And it's very seldom that you hear of a violinist going to jail," he says.

It seems that some very important people in Chicago agree that classical music has the power to change lives. In January, 2004, Leo Harris was honored by Chicago Magazine as one of seven "Chicagoans of the Year." The South Side Family Chamber Orchestra was invited to perform at the ceremony. The piece they played was... of course... Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.