I begin this entry in a reflective state. The idea to write something morphed out of a conversation about meaningful ways to engage our community during Black History Month and beyond. The topic of Black excellence, achievement, contribution, influence, and innovation deserves its time in the sun. Moreover, it warrants it.
But who am I?
My name is Nicole Jordan. I am a Philadelphian, born and raised. I’m a proud Girls High girl and Temple alum. I am passionate about sports and fluent in trash talk. I am also a musician in The Philadelphia Orchestra. I am the first Black person, male or female, to hold a Principal Librarian position at a major orchestra. I am the first Black woman musician in The Philadelphia Orchestra. I am also tenured in this role. I am Black History.
So, what does any of that mean to you and why should you care? That’s a question only you can answer, but for me, my little script in the volumes upon volumes of Black History comes with much more responsibility than it does celebration. It comes with using my voice in ways to elevate and educate. It comes with using my position to influence thought and change. It comes with honoring a suggestion that I write a blog post on something that I am passionate about for you to read.
Nicole Jordan, Principal Librarian of The Philadelphia Orchestra
My place and my position keep me honest and intentional about making sure I am sending the elevator back down for others to join me. Or in this case, doing my part to showcase someone who rode this elevator long before I did, and whose shoulders I stand upon. So, after that long exposition I am here to use my voice to share with you a bit about Florence Price and a project that is near and dear to my heart.
For me, as a Black woman in the classical music field, to be a part of contributing to the already amazing legacy of Ms. Florence Price is indescribable. I am going to say that thing that needs to be said: we don't see enough of ourselves, male or female, reflected in the headlines and history books of classical music, even though our influences can be heard in so many of the mainstream works that many love and celebrate today… and it's time for that to change.
For those of you who don't know, Florence Price was a teacher, organist, and composer. She is credited as the first Black woman recognized as a symphonic composer and is the first to have had her music played by a major American orchestra (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra). She had a very promising career; however, due to her race and her gender, it never really took off as it should have and, more importantly, as she deserved. Florence worked so hard her entire life to get people to play and hear her music, even writing to Serge Koussevitzky (conductor of the Boston Symphony at the time), asking him to consider programming her music. She wrote specifically, "I have two handicaps. I am a woman, and I have Negro blood in my veins."
Florence passed away in 1953 and, while her music was still championed and performed by Black musicians who may have had access to it, her music was largely, and sadly, overlooked by the mainstream classical world. Many of her manuscripts were thought to be lost until one day in 2009, a large collection of them, alongside her writings, were found in an attic in an old, dilapidated house. Nearly a decade later, a major publisher, G Schirmer & Wise Musical Classical, acquired exclusive access to represent her catalogue!
Since her works are new to us due to this recent unearthing, they have not benefitted from the same interest and scholarship that they so rightfully deserve, like we've seen with composers such as Beethoven and Mozart and Mahler and Brahms. How many urtext editions and scholarly editions have we seen for the aforementioned? I’m a librarian with a degree in Music History, and let me tell you, I’ve lost count. How many exist for Florence Price? Or Samuel Coleridge-Taylor? Or Undine Smith Moore? Or Willam Grant Still? Or Margaret Bonds? Or [insert name from the myriad of talented Black composers, male and female, here]? I’ll wait.
From Left to Right: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Undine Smith Moore, William Grant Still, and Margaret Bonds
When the Orchestra’s recording project was being floated months before we actualized it, I felt a deep responsibility (that I put on myself) to use my abilities from my position as a performance librarian to prepare the materials well and to support Florence’s musical voice as best I could. With the blessings and full support of Yannick Nézet-Séguin and colleagues both on and off the stage, I reached out to her publisher, G. Schirmer, to talk through this project and see if we could work together to dive into the printed materials for editing/correcting so that whatever we recorded was as true to Florence Price as it could be.
Peter Martin, Director of Production at G. Schirmer/Associated Music Press, not only agreed to this, but also pledged his direct help in this massive endeavor as their goals were the same as ours: Florence Price’s music as part of the canon with materials that reflect the massive talent she was. With Peter and his team, myself, Yannick, and my dear eagle-eyed theory maven Lina Gonzalez-Granados, we dove straight in, and thus team #FloPri was born!
Students of the Kauffman Music Center in New York City, who co-authored a book together entitled "Who Is Florence Price?" had the opportunity to meet with Nicole Jordan, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and Lina Gonzalez-Granados during a field trip to Philadelphia where they also saw the Orchestra perform Price's work.
Many sleepless nights, emails at the most random of times/days, conversations about Florence Price’s unique compositional and tonal language, debates about notes/rhythms/tempi, tears of exhaustion (mine at least), and laughs were poured into this amazing recording and the preparation of the materials, and it is an experience that I will treasure for a lifetime. Did we catch everything? No. Did we create a nice slate for other orchestras to dive into and perform their best without the materials getting in the way? Yes. I am so grateful to team #FloPri and to all my colleagues at The Philadelphia Orchestra for all of the work, love, and energy spent on this project. This was a collective effort by everyone. I'm humbled to have played such a small part in something that I feel is so very big. And moreover, I am just so proud!
And now, this very project has been nominated for a GRAMMY Award for “Best Orchestral Performance.” I am, of course, excited for us as an organization, but more than anything I am excited for Florence Price, her legacy, and her descendants. She spent much of her life trying to get mainstream classical music organizations and conductors to take a chance on her and her music, and nearly 70 years later that work and genius is up for a GRAMMY Award (recorded and distributed by a major classical label, Deustche Grammophon, at that). Just… I have no words. I want that win for Florence. She has earned it.
I hope that you will listen to our recording and love it and enjoy it as much as we do! And I challenge you to, when you hear it, not think/say it sounds like Dvořák . Or Gershwin. Or Brahms. Florence Price sounds like Florence Price and that is how it should be.
Want to learn more about Nicole? Hear more in 6ABC's Visions, a half-hour special where she was featured in alongisde her work about Florence Price in honor of Black History Month.