By Alicia Hall Moran
Musicians make decisions. They either support the status quo or break down barriers," says Courtney Bryan, a composer, pianist, academic and organist at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., who prefers the latter.
Born in New Orleans, Bryan soaked up the music of her Caribbean- and West African-based Anglican church and her piano lessons in the European classical tradition. She immersed herself in her marching band and explored firsthand every which way of jazz: New Orleans styles, straight-ahead jazz and avant-garde improvisation. She now resides in Washington Heights.
She prefers the title Black composer. I've cathected the world of Black classical musicians, but jazz is definitely part of my world."
I remember my parents saying, 'Don't define yourself by what you do.' In New Orleans, I had wonderful professors and classmates who were very supportive of me as a person, but it's about accepting yourself. I'm managing the contradiction of being a woman in jazz and classical, being a performer in academia. It's like loneliness and freedom together," she said.
She's been writing music since she was 5. By 7 years old, she had a collection of cassette tapes loaded with her piano compositions. I kept thinking I would transcribe those things I had left at my parents' house," but in 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed that plan. Already a graduate of Oberlin Conservatory (bachelor of music, composition), Bryan was earning her master's degree at Rutgers in jazz performance when the storm hit. We lost the house and a lot of our art. My sister, an artist, lost everything. We're all religious, but Katrina was a test of our faith."
Trying to stay resilient, we'd talk about how to live in the moment," she said. Spirituals helped me to do that.?