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Monday, January 30, 2023



Nov. 28, 2001 – Alwyn "Lad" Richards playing "The Star Spangled Banner" and "The Virgin Islands March" on solo saxophone: This, said master of ceremonies Gilbert Sprauve at the program introducing the community to the Alton Augustus Adams Music Research Institute, is the epitome of "just what we're talking about — the Virgin Islands soundings of music and how to preserve it."
Adams is best remembered today as the composer of "The Virgin Islands March," sometimes referred to as "the Virgin Islands national anthem." He was a pioneer in music nationally — the first black bandmaster in the U.S. Navy and the leader of its first three black bands. He also was a community activist in other areas and — to the delight of those behind the creation of the institute — someone who saved everything he wrote and that was written to and about him.
In a day of academic papers presented and responded to, and an evening of speeches and musical interludes, Richards got the biggest applause from an appreciative audience. Hands clapped again as he joined James "Jamsie" Brewster and The Starlites band to combine text and melody in a rendition of "Ah plant a piece ah punkin right behind da doh" at the end of the evening.
The programs on Nov. 16 and a reception and banquet on Nov. 17 were billed as "celebratory events" for the new Adams Institute, just founded on St. Thomas as a branch of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago.
The institute "represents not only an anthropology and musicology of liberation in action but, most important, the preservation of the identity of a people, the identity of the people of the Virgin Islands expressed through their music," speaker Oliver N. Greene Jr. of Georgia State University said.
At the Friday research colloquium, three presenters discoursed on "Soundings: Black Music, Language and Geography." Other scholars, among them Sprauve, a humanities professor at the University of the Virgin Islands, offered responses.
The idea of integrating text and melody permeated presentations. A paper by Maureen Warner-Lewis of the University of the West Indies Mona campus that was read in her absence discoursed on the 1992 calypso "Dus in dey face" by David Rudder. Warner-Lewis pointed out how the word steelban was lengthened to four syllables to fit the melody in the line O gorm, was a man from a big steelban.
Richard A. Long of Emory University, who also was the banquet keynote speaker, pointed out that if a blues singer is asked about his "music," the response is usually about the "text."
Also prevalent was discussion of the triangulation theory of musical development: the idea that music did not derive from a single "other" place, but evolved through some or all geographic locations such as Africa, South America, the southern United States, London and the Caribbean.
Scholars emphasized the importance of research for comparison of musical techniques and styles, for the study of what colonization did to the structure ("call and response"), for music as a form of communication.
At the evening session, Rosita M. Sands, director designate of the Center for Black Music Research, thanked the V.I. Humanities Council, the V.I. Council on the Arts and the V.I. Cultural Heritage Institute for funding the celebratory events.
Institute housed in Adams family home
Friday's evening session, punctuated by musical demonstrations of quelbe and quadrille, included short presentations on how the idea for the institute came about, what its programs will encompass, and what its educational, cultural and historical significance to the Virgin Islands will be.
The facility will be housed at the Adams family homestead on Kongens Gade in Charlotte Amalie. It will open formally in January. The plan is to have scholars in residence, but local researchers and serious students will be welcome as well.
Samuel A. Floyd Jr., who first met Alton Adams Sr. in 1976, is the director of the Columbia College center. The institute, he said, will concentrate on the Virgin Islands but also "will include the smaller Caribbean islands which are in danger of losing their traditions." He noted, "Researcher flock to Cuba, Trinidad, Haiti — the larger islands — but ignore the small ones."
The institute is not only for the study of Adams and his music, Floyd said. It's focus will be on "Lad Richards, Wilbur LaMotta, Hugo Bornn — all Virgin Islands musicians."
He said an important function of the institute will be to offer "workshops to train persons who want to help save traditions in methods and ethics of oral history, and workshops in preservation modes and techniques."
Johann Buis, coordinator of international initiatives at the Chicago center, said the workshops will cover such matter as "data gathering, fieldwork, interview techniques with tradition bearers, oral history techniques and ethics." He urged attendees at the celebration events to "spread the word" so there will be workshop applicants from St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix.
Another function will be to support scholars conducting research throughout the Caribbean, working with the "triangular theory" that unifies music yet keeps it unique. Floyd and speaker Martin Lamkin, a UVI music faculty member, mentioned plans eventually to develop the workshops as a UVI course offering.
A project six years in the making
Center for Black Music Research staff members have worked since 1995 to make the institute a reality. Center librarian Suzanne Flandreau and Jerry Kyle, then-archivist at the V.I. Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums, "spent days in the attic unpacking, sorting and repacking" materials which then were processed by center staff, Flandreau related.
A lengthy project of scanning documents was undertaken, and the results are "finding aids" and a catalog of Adams' papers that are now available on CD-ROMs and soon will be posted on a web site. "He saved every scrap," Gwendolen Adams recalled of her father. However, she said, "Most of his manuscripts were lost in a 1933 fire."
The documentation includes extensivs press clippings and programs from Adams' early stateside tours. However, Flandreau said no papers have been found from Adams' early days in government schools or his American Red Cross affiliation, and it is suspected those were lost in the fire, as well.
The materials that have been preserved will be invaluable not only to music researchers, but also to those interested in Virgin Islands social history. Alton Adams Sr. was involved in everything from the Red Cross and an early subscription library to the idea of tourism and the origin of the V.I. Hotel Association, and at meetings he often was the taker of minutes, all of which he kept.
An eager correspondent, he seemingly kept all of the letters he received. Although his handwriting is somewhat difficult to decipher, the CD-ROM scans clearly show that he corresponded with W.E.B. duBois, Philippa Schuyler, W.C. Handy, John Philip Sousa, William Franko Goldman … The list is endless and will keep both archivists and researchers busy for a long time.
He was a journalistic correspondent — what is now called a "stringer" — for the Associated Press, the Overseas Press Club and Life and Sports Illustrated magazines, among other media. And, again, he kept every dispatch he sent — documents now to be preserved as a chronology of important times in the Virgin Islands.
Work under way on multi-volume memoirs
Adams, who was born in 1889 and died in 1987, is well remembered in the Virgin Islands as a composer and bandmaster. In an article in the journal MUSA: Music of the United States of America, Mark Clague, who is working on a multi-volume biography of Adams, details how
the musician as a man of color negotiated a diplomatic pathway into the nation's military establishment. Politically and socially savvy, he maneuvered his local bands and his music to move up in the Navy as the first black of rank — and to bring the Virgin Islands to the world's attention, Clague wrote.
Recognizing the unparalleled opportunity presented by the Navy's presence in the Virgin Islands after the transfer of the Danish West Indies to the United States in 1917, Adams capitalized on the popularity and musicianship of his local bands and of his compositions patterned after those of John Philip Sousa to gain admission where no black had been.
"Adams' three bands were the first black ensembles in the United States Navy, and the only ones until World War II," Clague wrote. Adams was the first black to become a U.S. Navy bandmaster and most likely the first to be a chief petty officer, and most of the bandsmen attained the ranks of musicians first class, musicians second class or petty officer second class.
In his journal article, Clague described the bands' stateside tours, Adams' battles to build acceptance for his person and his music, and his participation in the Harlem Renaissance. The bands performed mostly traditional band music in concerts, Clague said, but they frequently played Adams' more Caribbean-toned compositions as encores.
Despite his accomplishments, Adams remained almost anonymous in the annals of black music until Floyd published an article in the journal The Black Perspective in Music in 1974 — two years before he met Adams. Out of that knowledge and that meeting, Floyd would go on to build an enduring framework that has culminated in the establishment of the institute on St. Thomas.
Clague, working with the Adams papers and many other local resources on the planned Adams memoir, already has demonstrated the breadth and depth of the materials that are now available to the eyes and minds of researchers.

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