Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Musical History: James Ingram Fox

James Ingram Fox: ‘A treasured composer’
Celebrating our creative personalities
By Dr. Vibert C. Cambridge
Stabroek News
March 13, 2005

When James Ingram Fox passed away on February 8, 2005, at the age of 96, he was probably Guyana’s most prolific composer of classical music. He left an impressive collection of five symphonies, an opera, concerti, piano sonatas, choral works, and 60 songs. Many superlatives have been used to describe Fox. In 1987, Bridget Hart-Doman referred to him as “one of the most talented classical pianists, symphonic and operatic composers, writers and lecturers.” In 1998, Talise D Moorer described him as a “treasured composer.” His obituary summarized his life as a “true ambassador for music all over the world.”

James Ingram Fox was the first son of James Christopher and Clara Fox and was born on February 18, 1909 in Georgetown, British Guiana. His father was a dentist, and the family hoped that James would study medicine. Like his relative Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, he responded to the muse of music.

Fox grew up in a musical environment and developed his love for music in Guyana. He left during his teens for London via New York, but never reached his intended final destination. During a concert at Carnegie Hall, he was seduced by the works of Beethoven and Wagner, and this led to his decision to stay in New York and pursue music. It was a decision that did not find favour with his father, who cut off his allowances. To make ends meet, Fox took a job as an elevator operator for the princely sum of $17.68 per week. “Can’t forget the 68 cents,” said Fox in an interview with Hart-Doman. “In those days, black students and professionals had to do menial jobs or else starve to death.”

In 1932, Fox enrolled at the New York College of Music and studied with Dr August Fraemcke and Gottfried Kritzler. After earning his BA at the New York School of Music, Fox completed an MA in Music from Columbia University in 1938.

After graduation, because of the virulence of the racism that existed in American society, Fox was unable to find a job as a full-time music teacher. He kept his job as an elevator operator and worked occasionally with Morton Gould arranging music for Broadway shows. He would maintain this relationship with Gould for many years and work with him on musical compositions for radio.

Fox completed The Academic, the first of his five symphonies, in 1939. It attracted the attention of Dean Dixon (1915-1976), the African American Director of Music at The Julliard School, who became a promoter of Fox’s music. In 1940, Albert Coates conducted the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance of The Academic at the Royal Albert Hall. Fox’s other symphonies are The Choral (on the Ode to Nativity by Milton), The Hinterland (dedicated to the people of Guyana), The Emancipation, and Southland.

In 1945, Fox obtained a Guggenheim Award and travelled to Northern Nigeria. The research he conducted there was the basis for his opera Don Fodio: The Unhappy Warrior, according to Hart-Doman.

Fox’s productivity after graduation established him as an important composer of classical music. However, like other Black classical composers in the United States, his works were not recognized.

To address this problem, in 1950, Dean Dixon, who, according to Hart-Doman, “was fired from the Julliard because he wanted to incorporate Blacks into the Orchestra Department,” organized a concert of symphonic music composed by Black musicians. Among the composers whose works were celebrated were Samuel Coleridge Taylor (1875-1912) of England, Ulysses Simpson Kay (1917-1995), William Grant Still (1895-1978) of the United States, and Ingram James Fox of British Guiana.

The concert attracted the attention of many influential white musicians such as Aaron Copeland, Samuel Barber and Serge Koussevitzky. The concert opened doors for Fox. He obtained his first job as a music director, namely, at Wiley College, Marshall, Texas. His academic music career would take him to New York University, Dartmouth College, Western Michigan University, University of Chicago, and his alma mater Columbia University.

Fox’s musical horizons were constantly expanding. While continuing his academic career, he arranged music for Morton Gould and started to explore African rhythms. In time, he became established as a scholar and virtuoso of African rhythms and integrated these rhythms into his piano compositions. This creativity is evident in the opera Dan Fodio. Dean Dixon considered this opera to be a masterpiece “because of the tessitura [the position of tones in instruments] and the manner in which he used complex rhythms.”

In 1969, Fox was getting ready to travel to Frankfurt, Germany, to work on a production of Dan Fodio at the Hamburg Opera House when he was empanelled as a juror in the Supreme Court of New York. He became the foreman of the jury for the famous Black Panthers’ trial. Among the 13 defendants was Afeni Shakur, the mother of Tupac Shakur.

“The Panthers didn’t want me no way,” said Fox to Hart-Doman. “They saw me as the black bourgeoisie.” “He dressed so well, so conservatively, that I could imagine the Panthers calling him Uncle Tom,” said Edwin Keenbeck. “Yet they had taken him on their jury.”

Fox was able to allay their fears. Hart-Doman reported that during the jury selection, Fox was asked to give his opinion on his concept of revolution. He replied, “Revolution starts with the pen. It is necessary to every individual and nation... Revolution is in everything. We have revolutions going on all about us, today, in writing and music. You evolve in a revolution or rebellion.” The Panthers were acquitted. Several books have been written about the trial by members of the jury, and they have all been unanimous in their conclusion that Fox was an outstanding man.

Fox lived for many years in Harlem, the home of the Harlem Renaissance, and he had many influential friends, including Charles White, Betty Saar, and Romare Bearden.

Murray Kempton described him as a “multi-dimensional artist, and a man of great charity.”

Fox never lost his Guyanese roots. His speech retained the rhythms of Guyana. His love for Guyanese food and that legendary Guyanese hospitality remained part of his being. He loved and celebrated his African heritage and African musical creativity.

In his interview with Talise Moorer in 1998, Fox reflected, “Black music will add creativity and new dimension to any music you have... I would like to see all students of musicology travel to Africa to absorb these beats.”


Contact Dr Cambridge.

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