Gratz details history of black music
Posted Feb. 22, 2008
Lauren Pollar
Covering 30 years of music in 30 minutes, Reed Gratz, professor of music, shared with students the history and transition of black music throughout the decades on Feb. 14 as a part of Black History Month. Gratz described the history of black music dating back from the songs of the slaves. He also described the many forms of music that have been influenced by these early songs including blues, country, rock and roll, gospel and hip hop.

Maria J. Velasco
Staff Writer

Music professor Reed Gratz entertained a group of about 20 students with a PowerPoint presentation and a small lecture on black music and its influences on today’s culture.

On Feb. 14 the African American Student Alliance and Campus Activities Board presented, “Black Music Past and Present.”

Music for African Amer­ican slaves was not something they learned or went out to enjoy; everybody knew music, everybody did music, it was part of them, Gratz said.

“The presentation was a good appreciation of black music,” sophomore Justin Jerry said.

“For many generations music was the only way to find a breath of freedom,” Gratz said.
The slaves’ musical talents were even praised by the slave owners and others.

There are letters that speak of the way slaves used music and their talents.

Black music through history has been well documented.
“The history of this music is connected to motion, human motion,” Gratz said.

Characteristics of black music are improvisation, rhythm, call and response, interactive participation and connection to motion and dance.

One is expected to participate in black music.

From the colonial period through the Civil War slave culture was identified through two music types: secular and sacred.

Secular music included the songs slaves sang during work and at social dances.

For this music they used the banjo, tambourine, gourds, washboards, kitchenware and body drum.

During the slavery period, drums were banned in the South because the plantation owners believed the slaves could use the drums to communicate to other slaves.

“Spiritual songs most definitely had double meaning,” Gratz said.
The slaves used the spiritual songs to send each other messages and to spread news.

Black music had its greatest impact on society in the 1900s.
Two of the major music types that caused great impact were ragtime and the blues.

Ragtime was distributed widely through writing and music sheets, while the blues were distributed orally.

The blues are highly personalized, using moans, cries and vocal ornamentation with simple accompaniment: guitar, harmonica and fiddle.
The blues was based on new topics post war to blacks: love, travel and money.

African Americans had a new love for freedom, for the first time they had the ability and the freedom to travel, and for the first time ever they had to worry about monetary issues.

“The 1920s were the jazz age even though jazz was condemned because of its origins,” Gratz said.

The influence of African American music was felt beyond the United States, for example in Germany where jazz was banned.

“Hitler called this music negro/Jew music,” Gratz said.

African American music had its direct influence on 20th and 21st century music including country, bluegrass, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul music, gospel, funk, rap, hip hop and every other sub category invented by record industry.

For Gratz this type of music is very important to him.

“It’s a subject I’ve been fascinated with since my early youth,” he said.

“My heroes were black musicians.

“The event was well put together,” Ryan Figgs, senior business major said.

“There was a lot of information. I learned a lot from this speech.”

Maria J. Velasco can be reached at

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