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Courtney Bryan, Black composer, marches to the beat of her own drum

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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.?

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