On a wall inside the newly opened National Museum of African American Music in downtown Nashville is a quote by American musicologist and author Eileen Southern:
“The enduring feature of Black music is neither protest nor self-expression; it is communication, and one cannot imagine a time when Black musicians will have nothing to say either to others or to God.”
Communication is at the heart of the partnership between NMAAM and Vanderbilt. The museum officially opened this year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the doors now are open to ideas for acquisitions, guest lecturers, panel discussions, classes and performances.
“Our partnership with NMAAM is more than sustaining the success of an important community museum,” says Nathan Green, vice chancellor for government and community relations. “It’s about working on community-centric initiatives together, making the museum a platform for meaningful discussions.”
The museum experience takes the visitor through the historical roots of African American music along the Rivers of Rhythm pathway to exhibits specific to gospel music, blues, jazz, R&B and post-World War II popular music, and hip-hop. Along the way are many interactive experiences that allow the visitor to sing a gospel song, learn jazz improvisation or pretend to be a music producer.
“We look forward to welcoming music lovers from around the world to this magnificent cultural experience,” said NMAAM President and CEO H. Beecher Hicks III before the January opening. “We want to thank the thousands of people who have supported us along the way as we prepare to celebrate the history of African American music, which truly is the soundtrack of our nation.”
The museum currently holds around 1,500 artifacts in its collection, of which 400 are now on display, like ”Lucille,” the guitar owned by blues legend B.B. King.
A dress worn in concert by singer-songwriter India Arie
Wade in the Water: In August 2020 at a public information session with leadership of the museum, programming ideas were discussed, including a possible lecture series co-sponsored with the Vanderbilt Divinity School on the integration of music into worship and social justice initiatives.
Jazz legend Charlie Parker is just one of the jazz greats featured in the exhibit A Love Supreme. Music composed by Parker and other African American jazz, classical and popular composers was included in a concert featuring Blair faculty and students to celebrate the opening of NMAAM in January. An interactive in A Love Supreme allows the visitor to learn about improvisation and ultimately leave the exhibit with a snippet of their own improvisation on an RFID bracelet.
The Message, a National Museum of African American Music exhibit on the origins and influence of hip hop, looks at oral traditions in African American culture.
One Nation Under a Groove covers genres including popular music, soul, rhythm and blues, disco and funk. A collaboration between NMAAM, Jefferson Street Sound and Vanderbilt’s Wond’ry has been discussed.
African American spirituals formed the basis of melodic themes in some 19th-century American symphonies, notably Symphony no. 9 ‘To the New World’ by Antonín Dvořák. In March, at a panel discussion cosponsored by Vanderbilt and NMAAM, Associate Professor of Musicology Douglas Shadle discussed with NMAAM curator Steven Lewis and classical music critic Anne Midgette how the Dvořák symphony became a centerpiece in debates about race and American national identity.