The plight of an African-American musician in 1919 was a far cry from the glamorous journey to superstardom many performers now enjoy. Racism shuttered many doors and limited educational opportunities stunted the careers of performers who’d otherwise make powerful footprints on America’s musical fabric.
In 1919 a conglomerate of musical performers and teachers joined forces with a common mission: to become masters of their craft. They shared notes with musicians from around the nation, held workshops and discussed ways to enhance private music studios by hosting scholarship competitions for students. Their efforts evolved into the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM), the country’s oldest coalition dedicated to preserving all facets of Black American music.
NANM branches proliferated around the country, including the District, a city home to a crop of Black musicians like Duke Ellington, pianist Shirley Horn and saxophonist Frank Wess. However, the local branch dwindled and was inactive for many years until 2010 when former Cheyney University professor Damon Dandrige approached District-based singer/musician Patrick D. McCoy about the chapter’s revival. After informational meetings, the chapter was revived with the approval of NANM’s national organizers.
Now the branch’s president, McCoy said the new D.C. affiliates have developed their own distinct chapter with its own culture. “This is a new branch,” said McCoy, a freelancer, performer and columnist who currently serves as minister of music at Takoma Park Baptist Church in Northwest. “It is a revival of NANM in D.C., in the sense that we are present once again, but not in the sense that we are a continuation of the old branch that once existed. We pay homage to the work and respect the previously legacy, but at the same time this is a fresh branch bearing a new name.”
That new name, the Ben Holt Jr. Memorial Branch of NANM, was born out of memories of renowned operatic baritone and District native Ben Holt, who performed with esteemed organizations like the Virginia Opera, Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera. The celebrated singer also shared the spotlight with famed vocalists Kathleen Battle, Carmen Balthrop and Jessye Norman, inspiring career feats that sparked McCoy’s interest.
“When Damon Dandridge approached me with the charge of establishing a branch of NANM again in Washington, D.C., I was honored beyond words. I began immediately thinking of ideas and how I would reach out to the music community about this venture. As I thought more about it, I simply could not think of better way to inspire musical excellence in others, than to name the branch in memory of the late baritone Ben Holt,” said McCoy. “Like most people of in their own hometown, Mr. Holt to me is an ‘unsung musical giant.’ He performed all over the world in the greatest performances venues…Yet in his hometown of D.C., there is nothing that memorializes his greatness permanently. I wanted this branch to be that vehicle to do so…Although his career was cut short at the young age of 34, he accomplished more than a person that lived to be 90.”
To celebrate the chapter’s revival and Holt’s legacy, the organization will host a chartering celebration Oct. 17 at Asbury United Methodist Church in Northwest D.C. Performers will include Washington Opera bass vocalist Kenneth Kellogg, violinists Cleveland A. Chandler Jr. and Wayman C. McCoy III, sopranos Lisa Edwards-Burrs and Marlissa Hudson, concert pianist Dana Kristina-Joi Morgan, acclaimed concert organist Mickey Thomas Terry and District-based musicians Everett P. Williams Jr. and William Jones. Members of the Metropolitan Opera will be on hand for special tributes along with Holt’s mother, Mayme Wilkins Holt.
The celebration program takes place 3 p.m. Oct. 17 at Asbury United Methodist Church, 926 11th St. N.W., D.C. For more information about the organization, visit nanm.org.