By Ramsey Khalifeh
Boston University News Service
With a violin in hand and a laptop resting on a stool, Dr. Brian Kellum, 43, prepared himself for the first solo piece of the night. He stood upright on stage in the Tsai Performance Center at Boston University, and the crowd waited for the recital to begin. All Dr. Kellum had to do was hit play on his laptop, where a backing track was loaded up, and let the music start.
Recently, Kellum, a BU music professor of color, performed a faculty recital for the BU School of Music, showcasing his music skills in a program honoring Black History Month. His goal with each piece was to highlight a Black artist in history, while giving a spotlight on his own roots and the music family that raised him.
Kellum’s performance was a testament to Black artists who pushed the boundaries of music in the United States, according to Dr. Leland Clarke, a BU professor of ethnomusicology.
“We grew up understanding that when you talk about Black music, it covers every genre,” said Clarke. “That was the richness.”
“The [Black] artist was willing, the artist was brave enough, the artist was committed enough to showcase and to celebrate” their cultural history, said Clarke. He emphasized that many institutions don’t encourage that.
In the show, Kellum included friends and BU colleagues Blessing Martin, Dr. Jackie Pickett, Dr. Peter Kenagy, and Dr. Gareth Dylan Smith to perform.
The first half of Kellum’s program featured a selection of classical works by Black composers and the second, a selection of jazz.
“That’s me as a musician saying, ‘I grew up as a classical violinist, but I struggle with that because classical music is not exactly the vogue thing in my community,’” said Kellum.
At a young age in St. Louis, Kellum joined a youth orchestra in his hometown of Overland, dedicated for Black students in classical music with the goal to encourage more people who looked like him to enter the field.
Kellum’s first job focused on the next generation of Black musicians, teaching elementary and middle school music in the Ritenour and Parkway public school districts in St. Louis.
“I felt that calling to serve in that way,” said Kellum.
Kellum later migrated to Massachusetts to teach at BU from Pennsylvania, likening his story to that of Martin Luther King Jr. Both left the southern parts of the country to study in a predominately white institution.
“Those experiences shape us. In some ways they jade us, but in other ways they propel and inspire us,” Kellum said.
Dr. Smith, Kellum’s colleague and friend, shares an office with Kellum and the two converse on jazz and contemporary music often. Smith jumped at the chance to play with Kellum when asked to perform at the recital.
“It was personal. I’m very happy to play with him and for him, and it always means more than work,” Smith said. “Kellum is creative, humble, curious, interesting, and deeply musical.”
Kellum found a way to express himself and his origins in this recital while also keeping African American music history in mind, he said.
Elma Lewis, an American arts educator and activist who was based in Boston, was one woman who strengthened the Black community through teaching music, according to Clarke. Lewis died in 2004.
In the 1950s, Lewis wanted to merge the elements of Boston Public Schools, the church, and the home for Black students in the city. As a result, the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts was formed in Roxbury.
“Let’s bring them into a space where we can take all of those components as a community and enrich them through the arts, and so she did,” said Clarke. Clarke also said that Lewis brought unity that neither the church nor BPS could do.
Kellum said the faculty recital reflected everything he believes in regarding music, education, and family. In the audience was his father, Arthur C. Kellum, 74, whom he acknowledged and dedicated an Oscar Peterson song to.
Kellum listened to the tune, titled ‘Hymn to Freedom’, when he participated in the March on Washington with his dad in 1990. His father was also present in the original March on Washington in 1963, where MLK recited his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
Some of Kellum’s students were also in attendance.
“[I] just wanted to come support Dr. Kellum with what he does,” said Megan Van Wie, a violin student in the BU School of Music. “He supports us every day with all of our classes and with his passion for music.”
Kellum’s work in St. Louis also revolved around the community and non-profit space. He was the Artistic Director for the Cameron Youth Chamber Orchestra and the founder of the St. Louis Youth Chamber Ensemble.
For Kellum, his journey in preparing the show became a personal pursuit of identity and the African American experience.
“I hope that people, first of all, enjoy the music,” Kellum said. “But second, maybe reflect on their own identity through music and how their own families supported them, because no one gets here by themselves.”