Regina Harris Baiocchi says that when she went to Roosevelt University in the mid-70s to study composition, “the instructor was not encouraging at all. He wanted all his students to write the white classical stuff.” But she was also in love with jazz and gospel, the music of her childhood. “I knew I wanted to compose since grammar school. I started out in vocal music because my mother was in a church choir. My father played bluegrass fiddle, and he introduced me to jazz. I wasn’t really aware of classical music until high school.” At Dunbar High she played French horn, trumpet, and guitar; she also arranged music for her school’s various bands and choirs. “I got interested in poetry and prose too. But I realized that I expressed myself best in all kinds of music. I’m not a purist.”
At a loss creatively after graduating from Roosevelt, Baiocchi turned to other pursuits. For much of the 80s she made a living as a math and science teacher. Most of her composing was for the churches where she’s still the choir director. “Very challenging. I had to come up with pieces on demand for liturgical occasions. Many were for children. Kids are tough customers. They ask hard questions, and they can get restless. But these days I take my time. You may laugh at this–I have an inner voice that dictates to me what to write.”
Baiocchi, who’s married to a systems engineer, still supports her artistic endeavors with a day job, as a flack for a Catholic seminary in Hyde Park. But her PR savvy comes in handy. “You must know how to package yourself. Most composers are either too shy or too stuck-up,” she says, holding out an elegant invitation she designed for an upcoming concert of chamber works by her and other noteworthy African American women composers, “Variations in Black.”
Her composition on the program, Sketches for Piano Trio, was commissioned two years ago by a church in Philadelphia. “They wanted a festive piece for the choir minister, who’s Puerto Rican and married to a Hawaiian. So after some research I put in a movement using Puerto Rican tunes. Another is based on the dominant ninth chord of jazz. And the whole thing comes off sounding Stravinsky-ish and a bit multicultural.”
Baiocchi describes the bulk of her recent output–from orchestral to vocal to rap–as centered in rhythm. “The writing is linear,” she says, “driven by a lot of melodies.” Janice Misurell-Mitchell, the DePaul professor who helped program this recital, says, “Regina’s music is mildly dissonant. She’s not so much concerned with formal experiments as with her own identity.” Baiocchi admits to liking Schoenberg and Webern, but identifies more readily with Florence B. Price and Margaret Bonds, two largely unheralded trailblazers. Price (1888-1953), who moved to Chicago in the 30s, was a prominent member of the black intellectual elite. Her folksily romantic Symphony no. 1 was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933 under the baton of Frederick Stock–the first major orchestral work by a woman to be so honored. Bonds (1913-1970), one of Price’s best students, got degrees from Northwestern and later taught there. Baiocchi says their music, including Bonds’s rambunctious Swing Mikado, was regularly played “on the chitlin circuit. They got a lot of rejections from white males–their music was often barred by the establishment. Things haven’t changed that much. People can still lock you out.”
Baiocchi no longer pays attention to contemporary white male composers. “I admire individual pieces by Shulamit Ran and Rami Levin, and some by William Dawson and Hale Smith, who are black men. And I hold the greatest respect for Betty Carter and church musicians.” Does she mind being pegged as an African American woman composer? “Oh, no,” she says. “As long as that label brings listeners to my concerts. Believe it or not, I want my music to have commercial value. I’d be very happy if people walk away whistling my tunes.”
The “Variations in Black” concert, organized by American Women Composers, includes pieces from three generations. Representing the first along with Price and Bonds is Irene Britton Smith, an 85-year-old south-side resident whose substantial oeuvre is being cataloged by Columbia College’s Center for Black Music Research. Dorothy Rudd Moore and Betty Jackson King are from the second generation, Baiocchi and Rita Warford from the third. Performers include mezzo-soprano Anita Berry, violinist Lori Ashikawa, and pianist Kit Bridges. The event starts at 2 PM on Saturday, February 26, at the Harold Washington Library auditorium, 400 S. State; admission is free. For more info call 907-2185.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.