Since its origin as Black Music Month 39 years ago, Americans have used June to honor the work of African-American musicians by hosting activities and presentations that showcase their music.
Cities across the country are celebrating. For example, New York City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus honored Lil Kim last week as part of the observance, and California's annual Salute to Black Music awards dinner is Tuesday.
In a search to find how Dallas was celebrating what President Barack Obama renamed in 2009 as African-American Music Appreciation Month, it became clear that the observance was being underrepresented in relation to other celebrations this month.
Understandably, June has a bigger focus on Juneteenth, which celebrates the abolition of slavery in Texas. And although neither observance is better than the other, it seems as though the significance of African-American Music Appreciation Month in Dallas has depreciated as a result of less exposure.
In fact, some Dallas musicians are probably unaware that it even exists. Who’s to blame them, when in the middle of June there are barely three events in Dallas that fully dedicate themselves to the occasion: the fifth annual Harlem Renaissance Extravaganza presented by Verb Kulture and Shelley Carrol; Kathleen Battle performing at the Winspear Opera House; and A Black Music Month Celebration hosted by the African-American Employee Resource Group from the Dr Pepper Snapple Group.
One Dallas musician who hadn’t even heard of the celebration is Martha Burks, an African-American singer performing at a Juneteenth event called Jazz at the Muse. Burks, whose musical career spans many years of jazz, blues and R&B, believes that African-American Music Appreciation Month should gain more recognition.
“I got to be honest,” Burks says. “I did not even know that there was an appreciation month. I think it needs to be put out there that it’s even happening. I don’t think a lot of people even know about it. There should be some awareness for it.”
Burks blames the lack of celebrations to a lack of venues offering African-American music, especially jazz. She thinks many jazz musicians have been pushed out of the city into sparse clubs to make space for other genres.
“There aren’t enough events, and there aren’t enough venues for the music," she says. "It’s not represented. I don’t know why that is. We’ve got to have venues. Sandaga, The Balcony Club — I really don’t know any others that are playing jazz. Now you can go and hear other music, but they put us in a position where I even have to do different genres of music in order to stay afloat, so to speak.”
Tony Blaine, keyboardist and vocalist for smooth jazz act Natural Change Band, agrees with Burks in that there aren’t many venues in Dallas supporting jazz music. Even though Blaine’s band is performing at the upcoming event A Black Music Month Celebration, he understands that opportunities like this don’t come too often.
“Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of venues out there that open up for African-Americans to really play — to really get that music out there as much as you would like your Top 40 clubs,” Blaine says. “Mostly, we’re relegated to being on the southern center of the city of the few handfuls of clubs that actually do highlight bands. If you compare Top 40 clubs to your typical African-American club where we play, it’s like 10 to one. There’s just nowhere for them to play. When they did away with the Caravan of Dreams, that pretty much killed it.”
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Venues in Dallas present Top 40 artists monthly and while not many African-American musicians from Dallas have been in the Top 40, this city has produced numerous influential musicians in its history, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, the D.O.C, Erykah Badu, Bobby Sessions, Usher and Leon Bridges.
For Blaine, applauding their successes during African-American Music Appreciation Month is important, but it shouldn’t just happen one month per year.
“So many people that have come straight out of Dallas that have made waves in music, and it’s great to honor them,” he says. “I think it’s great to highlight them often, and you recognize the achievements that African-Americans have done well in music and have made a difference. I have nothing against that, but it’s like a 50-50 thing. Yeah, you’re recognizing that, but it’s so much more than just this month to me.”