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National Museum of African American Music includes classical in its musical history tour

After years of operating as a "museum without walls," the National Museum of African American Music opened its doors on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. NMAAM

Downtown Nashville has a new tourist attraction dedicated to music among the honky-tonks of its entertainment district. The National Museum of African American Music is a treasure trove that holds the stories of more than 50 genres of music influenced by the African diaspora and its descendants — including classical music.

After years of operation as a "museum without walls" the $60 million venue opened to the public on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Guests begin the experience awash in sound. The combination of marimba, udu, kora and vocal music could be an art installation on their own, but the listening experience is an introduction to the museum, just like these West African sounds are the first step of the journey of African American music.

After years of operating as a "museum without walls," the National Museum of African American Music opened its doors on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. NMAAM

CEO H. Beecher Hicks pointed out that while the museum was originally planned for all of African American music, art and culture, narrowing the focus to music had many advantages. Not only did it better suit the city's branding as "Music City," making it more likely to draw tourists already here, but music draws a clear path through African American history. As guests move from room to room in the museum, these ties drive a narrative for the experience.

"Political movements and changes — of that is reflected in the music we're listening to at the time," Hicks said.

After years of operating as a "museum without walls," the National Museum of African American Music opened its doors on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. NMAAM

Curator Steven Lewis points out that classical music fans will enjoy artifacts such as a signed program from a 1946 performance by Marian Anderson, and vintage sheet music scores by Harry T. Burleigh, Undine Smith Moore and William Grant Still. An upcoming exhibit dedicated to the Fisk Jubilee Singers is being created in partnership with the Fisk University Special Collections Library.

While Nashville's Fisk Jubilee Singers are known for their fundraising tours in the 1870s and '80s, which brought Negro Spirituals across the world, the choir's work continues today. The exhibition will span the choir's roots in the experience of slavery and emancipation through the singers' 2007 trip to Ghana and beyond. With the choir's upcoming sesquicentennial, this is a welcome focus on a continuing story.

After years of operating as a "museum without walls," the National Museum of African American Music opened its doors on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. NMAAM

Every room of the museum is highly hands-on and interactive. Guests sing along with a gospel choir led by Bobby Jones and build a jazz improvisation with an application developed in partnership with New York-based jazz saxophonist Loren Schoenberg. From hip-hop loops to blues lyrics, each interactive display was built with the collaboration of working musicians. A swipe of a "smart wristband" allows guests to take home each of their musical creations, as well as playlists of every artist they read about.

While the two decades leading up to the venue's opening gave time for interactive technology to become possible, the museum has always focused on guest participation. In recent years, the museum operated community programming at schools and for corporate groups who had supported the institution. In 2020, these programs moved online due to COVID-19. The side effect of that move is interviews with luminaries such as jazz icon Dee Dee Bridgewater and Mary Wilson of the Supremes are archived for years to come.

Music students and educators in particular can make use of the museum's series From Nothing to Something, documenting the ingenuity of African American instruments. Now that it's online, you, too, can learn to play the spoons with Lucius Talley.

The National Museum of African American Music is open to the public on weekends, and community programming continues online. Find out more at NMAAM.org.

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