Poster Fort Smith Symphony
John Jeter and the Fort Smith Symphony release an album featuring the music of Native American composer, performer and educator Louis Wayne Ballard.
New Classical Tracks®

John Jeter and Fort Smith Symphony honor composer Louis Wayne Ballard

New Classical Tracks (Extended Interview) - John Jeter
New Classical Tracks - John Jeter
New Classical Tracks - January 10, 2024

John Jeter and Fort Smith Symphony – Louis Wayne Ballard (Naxos)

“When I first started looking at his music, I didn't know it at all,” conductor John Jeter says. “So this project was done through discovery. But then as you're working on the music you think, ‘Wow, I thought this would be great, but it's 10 times better and I'm having 10 times more fun than I even thought I would.’ And that was certainly the case with this music.”

Jeter is the music director of the Fort Smith Symphony in Arkansas, and his enthusiasm for the music of Louis Wayne Ballard is infectious. On Jeter’s latest recording with the orchestra, they continued exploring composers of their region. This time, they did a deep dive into the works of Ballard.

Ballard is recognized as the first Native American concert composer. What does that mean?

“He was a Quapaw Cherokee composer. He was born in Miami, Oklahoma, and had training as a composer at the University of Tulsa. He’s the first Native American composer to have a career as a concert composer. He was a pianist, percussionist, performer and composer, and he was hugely involved in music education. In fact, his work as an educator is as right up there in importance alongside his work as a composer.”

Soon after completing his degree at the University of Tulsa in 1962, he was hired as performing arts director at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That became an important center of Indigenous education and culture, and that's also when he realized that not many of the young Indigenous North American students knew the songs of their own tribes. What did that inspire him to do?

“He started collecting them, sort of in the tradition of [Béla] Bartók, and he began analyzing these tribal songs and teaching them to his students. Years later, he came up with a wonderful curriculum. I've got a copy of it sitting here on my bookcase. It’s kind of like Kodály musical education for kids, but it’s all with Indigenous music.”

Ballard incorporated a lot of unusual percussion instruments and instrumentation that reflected his Native American heritage. How were you able to pull what we might call an “authentic” sound out of your orchestra as you were playing his music?

“We're right on the border with Oklahoma, and we have a wonderful connection with musicians at the University of Oklahoma. They happen to have a wonderful collection of Indigenous percussion instruments, so we could go right to the source to get exactly what we needed.

“For example, in the first work on the recording, Devil's Promenade, you do hear a lot of percussion. And in fact, the first thing you hear is a really high pitched sound. That's an eagle bone whistle, which is a very unique sound.”

You mentioned that Ballard was a really good dancer. One of the things on this recording is Four Moons Ballet. It's unique in that it also featured four Oklahoma ballerinas of Indigenous North American descent. Can you tell us more about that?

In the 1940s through the 1960s, there were a group of dancers, ballerinas, that all had an Indigenous background in Oklahoma. The idea was for Ballard to compose a ballet for all five of them. By the time he got around to it, Maria Tallchief, one of the five, had retired. So the five moons became the four moons.

“This is pretty tame music for Ballard. It's very tonal. It’s very different than the first two pieces on the recording. One of the things that the recording does really well, I think, is that it shows that Ballard was an incredible musical chameleon.”


John Jeter and Fort Smith Symphony – Louis Wayne Ballard (Amazon)

John Jeter and Fort Smith Symphony – Louis Wayne Ballard (Naxos)

Fort Smith Symphony (official site)

Love the music?

Donate by phone

Show your support by making a gift to YourClassical.

Each day, we’re here for you with thoughtful streams that set the tone for your day – not to mention the stories and programs that inspire you to new discovery and help you explore the music you love.

YourClassical is available for free, because we are listener-supported public media. Take a moment to make your gift today.

More Ways to Give

Your Donation


Latest New Classical Tracks® Episodes


Latest New Classical Tracks® Episodes


About New Classical Tracks®

Host Julie Amacher provides an in-depth exploration of a new classical music release each week.

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Radio Public, or RSS.

About New Classical Tracks®