Bill and Bessie in the Warehouse:

Nancy Keefe-Rhodes, Columnist/Features Writer 05/23/08More articles

When artist-musician Terry Adkins performs on May 30 at the closing ceremony of his exhibition in tribute to blues legend Bessie Smith, he’ll play guitar and leave the horns and woodwinds to Bill Cole. Adkins played sax and flute for the packed opening ceremony on April 24 when local “hoodoo man” Arthur Flowers formed the other half of that evening’s improv duet. But woodwinds – especially Asian double-reed horns – are Cole’s specialty. For next Friday’s performance he’ll choose among the Chinese sona, Korean hojok and piri, Indian shenai and nagaswarm, Ghandian bamboo flute, Tibetan trumpet and Australian digeridoo.
“Songs of Hearth and Valor, Recital in 8 Dominions, After Bessie Smith” is the mixed media exhibition that Adkins first exhibited a year ago in Philadelphia, where Smith spent the last 16 years of her life. SUArt’s Jeff Hoone invited Adkins to bring the exhibit to Syracuse. Adkins will tour it further along a route that replicates Bessie Smith’s road shows through Georgia, Texas, Chicago and the Midwest.
Adkins began exhibiting as a visual artist in 1980, adding music in 1984 while touring Europe. He calls this ever-revolving group – himself and invited local musicians – the Lone Wolf Recital Corps.
Last week, sitting in his Sims Hall office at Syracuse University’s Department of African American Studies, where he’ll become chair for a two-year term in the fall, Bill Cole recalled, “I’ve just talked with Terry Adkins once about this, but I’m an improvisational performer.”
In 1992 Cole founded the Untempered Trio – which became the Untempered Ensemble as it grew to seven. Since 2000, they’ve released four CDs – most recently “Seasoning the Greens” – for Boxholder Records. They’ve performed in New York City’s Town Hall and Symphony Space. Earlier this year Cole and the group performed a new commissioned work at the Brecht Forum.
The ethnomusicologist, composer and musician is an expert on African and other non-Western instruments and music. In his office, Cole picked up a wooden instrument from Ghana that looks like a xylophone atop a wooden frame ,with round gourds beneath its keys – a balaphone – which is played by striking its keys with a soft-edged mallet, producing a subtle resonance in the gourds. He said he’d just had it repaired and is taking it to Beauchamp Library.
Cole lives in New Rochelle near New York City. He’s commuted for three years now – he’s in town Tuesday to Friday – driving because he found the train unreliable. He’ll be here more once he’s chair and his wife, an attorney for Time-Warner, is exploring how she can do some of her work from Syracuse. Cole said he’s “surprised” he was asked to chair the department after only three years here.
“Also, because I’m an ethnomusicologist and that’s unusual. The department was here for 36 years before it hired an ethnomusicologist. But African American Studies is still embryonic – really only since 1968 or so. So we’re still feeling our way.”
Syracuse has been a good fit for Cole, who left academia in 1990, resigning his post at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. On that faculty since 1974, he was department chair in 1983 when the conservative off-campus weekly “The Dartmouth Review” began criticizing his teaching methods and his classroom discussions of race.
“They wrote about blacks, Jews, women,” he said last week. “In 1988 there was another article and they wanted me to respond. Four of them came to my classroom and I had to call the police.”
Cole was interviewed by “Sixty Minutes,” “20/20,” and “Frontline,” and finally in the summer of 1990 resigned, a turn of events that received national press coverage. An editorial in the “Boston Globe” called this “sordid affair” an example of higher education’s “increasing dilemma: how to maintain free speech and freedom of the press while trying to inoculate college life from the off-campus viruses of bigotry and discrimination.”
“I found out I was black-balled,” recalled Cole last week. “I couldn’t work in the university. I figured that out when a colleague who’d asked me to apply at his school never got back to me. I followed up and he said, ‘Oh my department decided the chemistry wasn’t right for us.’”
Cole – already the author of acclaimed biographies of jazz greats Miles Davis and John Coltrane, a scholar of note who also wrote for “Down Beat,” “Saxophone Journal,” and “Coda,” a regular jazz commentator on Vermont Public Radio, a composer whose works were performed at Town Hall and Public Theater in New York City, a musician who played with Julius Hemphill, Sam Rivers, Fela Sowande, Sun Ra and McCoy Tyner, and the founder of Shadrack, Inc., which performs and promotes the work of artists of color – stayed out of academia until the poet Jayne Cortez encouraged him to apply for an opening at SU.
Besides teaching and performing, Cole continues to compose. Since the 1980s he’s been creating music for a collection of 500 proverbs from the Yoruba people in Nigeria that the musician Fela Sowande gave him, a growing body entitled “Yoruba Proverbs.” And now that he’ll be in Syracuse more, Cole said, “I’d like to build an improv ensemble here. We’ll have to find a space.”
Next Friday, that would be the Warehouse Gallery.

the skinny:
“Songs of Hearth and Valor, Recital in 8 Dominions, After Bessie Smith”
The Warehouse Gallery thru June 7
350 W. Fayette St., Armory Square
Tuesday to Saturday noon to 6 p.m.
Closing performance of Lone Wolf Recital Corps
With Bill Cole: Friday May 30, 6 p.m.

Rating: 2.1/5 (10 votes cast)

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