I'm reading Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music, a collection of lecture/essays from the Experience Music Project's annual Pop Conference in Seattle. It's the second such volume that Eric Weisbard, longtime organizer of the conference, has edited. I looked at Jason King's essay "The Sound of Velvet Melting: The Power of 'Vibe' in the Music of Roberta Flack," and was very struck by the following passage, which reminded me of the stories of Will Marion Cook and of other would-be African-American classical composers whom I mention in the fourth chapter of my book:
Like Nina Simone before her, Flack straddled an interest in classical music and gospel. Flack spent her Arlington, Virginia, youth in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church where she "grew up playing piano for the choir — Handel, Bach, Verdi, Mozart, and all those great, wonderful, intricately written Negro spirituals." She would then sneak into the Baptist church down the street to get her fix of 'the raunchy, wide-open, free, spontaneous, full-of-life thing" performed by gospel luminaries like Sam Cooke, Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, the Five Blind Boys, and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. She won a statewide, segregated classical piano competition at thirteen; preternaturally gifted, she enrolled in Howard University on a full music scholarship at the unusually young age of fifteen. After earning a master's in music education, Flack began her career teaching math and English in a small high school in Farmville, North Carolina, before returning to DC to teach in public schools. She earned money on the side accompanying opera singers at the Tivoli Club, where she discovered her ability to draw audiences with her singing voice.
Like Miles Davis, whose cool minimalism was rooted in his European classical training to lyrically hold notes as well as his own recognition of his limited technical virtuosity, Flack's restrained, economical style stems from her fusion of classical and gospel techniques. Her distinctively spare arrangements, predilection for spaciousness, and cool reflective tone are the result of her favorite composers like Liszt and Bach. For instance, her minimalist piano accompaniment to Donny Hathaway's devastating 1972 reading of "For All We Know," which appears on Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, alters the harmonic structure of the jazz standard and is clearly inspired by classical counterpoint.
Yet that minimalist approach also seems to be a personal sensibility as much as it is a result of formal training. In a 1977 radio interview, Flack is asked to explain what she learned from classical training. She responds that she likes to "stay involved in the structure of music" in a "scientific and soulful way." When asked about the softness of her music, she claims that she likes to represent that kind of "atmosphere, down into the basement, turn on soft lights." She goes on: "everybody has that thing in them, that little quiet space. And I think fortunately that is probably my forte when it comes to performing popular music and that it's a blessing because there's a need for people to be able to play music that addresses itself to that little space too...."
King notes that Flack paid a price for the "classical" sensitivity of her singing and songs: pop critics dismissed her as too "cold," too "detached," too "soft," and, alas, too "white." King's essay amounts to an important revisionist history of her music; it's very much worth reading. As is the whole book.