Renowned Musician and Historian Guthrie Ramsey Traces the Evolution of Black Music

Blues People concert

On a mid-December afternoon, as Rutgers University–Newark's fall 2023 semester was coming to a close, Dr. Guthrie Ramsey took the stage at Express Newark’s Lecture Hall and did something remarkable: He presented a self-produced film on the history of African-American musical forms. He followed with TV clips of the Clark Sisters, a Black gospel group in Detroit, before pivoting to prior clips showing their mom teaching them vocal techniques years earlier. Ramsey then discussed those techniques while tying them to a powerful lineage of Black artistic prowess and community dialogue through music. And finally, he had vocalists join him onstage to demonstrate these and other techniques live while he accompanied them on piano.

For Ramsey, a renowned music historian, pianist, composer, and Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Pennsylvania, it was a masterclass not only on the subject at hand but on teaching itself, on combining scholarship and performance to educate a general audience on the intricacies of Black vocal technique and musicianship while linking that to the larger social and historical context out of which they sprang.

Arts Education for the Community

The captivating performance-lecture was part of Express Newark’s Free School, an innovative arts and educational initiative started last year by Salamishah Tillet, Henry Rutgers Professor of African American and African Studies and Creative Writing, and Director of Express Newark. The initiative encourages artists, students and the Newark community to engage with pressing social issues. It began in 2023 when Tillet brought artist Willie Cole to Express Newark to teach a class and collaborate with RU-N students and local residents on a large recycled-plastic-bottle chandelier and exhibition, a project that tackled environmental racism and climate change, issues that Newark and other cities continue to grapple with.

“The Free School takes Express Newark’s Third Space model and puts it into a curriculum,” said Tillet. “It’s about having university professors alongside professional artists working together with students and Newark residents who are artists—and increasing collaborations between the university and the city of Newark. It’s about creating more opportunities for connection and creativity for folks to learn, create art and advocate for change together.”

Ramsey’s lecture was merely part one of the programming that Tillet co-created for his visit.

Jam Session With Stefon Harris

After Ramsey's presentation, Tillet took the mic and invited RU-N Associate Professor Stefon Harris up to the stage. Harris, a Grammy-nominated jazz vibraphonist and music educator who has performed with some of jazz’ biggest names, sat with Ramsey and engaged him in an intricate and wide-ranging discussion on his musical background, career trajectory and pedagogical approach, along the way looping back to vocal technique, gender politics, the history and cultural function of Black music, and why it’s more important than ever for musicians to share their gifts amid the current politically fraught climate in the U.S. Ramsey ended the afternoon session by taking several questions from the audience.

For Harris, whose performance and teaching experience are widely admired, the discussion with Ramsey was especially moving.

“It was vital to have Guthrie, an artist and scholar who moves in both spaces, to help us understand the importance of the art, culture and history of Black music, and to connect these things for the audience,” said Harris. “And the connection we had was beautiful. It felt like we were kindred spirits, on the same page right away. Speaking with him was like making music: We listened and challenged each other right away.”

Later that evening, in part three of the program titled, Express Newark Presents Blues People, Ramsey led a five-piece band featuring three vocalists, including his daughter Bridgette, through another multi-modal presentation featuring sets of live music curated around a cinematic tour of poet Amiri Baraka’s life as an artist. The concert was inspired by the 60th anniversary of Baraka’s seminal 1963 book, Blues People, which he published as Leroi Jones and which traces the history of Black Americans through the evolution of Black music.

Tillet tapped Ramsey to expose new audiences to the text, knowing that he would bring a special flair to the task.

Blues People is such an important book in American and African-American music history,” said Tillet. “I wondered how he would teach this book and wanted someone who could teach it in multiple modalities.”

Ramsey comes to the book not only through his passion as a musician and scholar but also on a personal level: He is the husband of Baraka’s oldest child, Kellie Jones, a Professor of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, and worked with his father-in-law on a number of projects, co-taught a course with him at Penn, and performed with him before Baraka died in 2014.

“I knew talking about Blues People would lend itself to a multi-modal experience,” said Ramsey. “The visual always helps, and Amiri thought of himself as a musician—he often was in front of a band while reading his poetry and performing, including mine.”

Harris also saw the value in having Ramsey weave his way through the book in his inimitable way, taking the audience with him on a multisensory journey. He also thinks that Ramsey is uniquely qualified to reveal and comment on the book’s vital place in American and African-American history.

“It’s incredibly important to have an artist who’s also a scholar interpret the significance of Blues People,” said Harris. “The book is so much deeper than being just an intriguing read. It helps you understand yourself in the context of culture and the art you choose to create moving forward.”

The Beauty of Collaboration

For Ramsey, the entire program was a transformative experience, demonstrating to him how his musicianship and scholarship could work together in collaboration with two people he holds in high regard: Tillet and Harris. The conversation with Harris was especially gratifying.

“There was something about the quality of the exchange that made me see myself differently,” said Ramsey. “I’m used to interviewing other musicians whom I look up to, and in being interviewed by Stefon, whose music is so moving to me, there was a kind of sincerity and thoroughness of preparation that he brought to the table that was humbling and thrilling for me.”

Tillet’s plan is to continue exploring Blues People through various artistic mediums at Express Newark, starting with a photo exhibition launching on February 20 that asks artists to revisit and have conversations with the book.

“Express Newark is a highly multidisciplinary space,” said Tillet. “Arts activations are a great way to continue engaging this important book.”