Q&A: Philip Glass On Black Music And African-American History

Every day this month, in conjunction with our Feb. 1 cover story "Philip Glass, An East Village Voice," Sound of the City will post excepts of interviews with Glass and his collaborators, as well as reviews of several concerts celebrating his 75th birthday.

Today we're publishing the portion of our interview with Glass where we talk about black music, African American history, and how he views his music interacting with both.

I wanted to ask you musically: I'm black (or, like the president, I'm mixed), and I write sometimes about black culture. There are two albums [baesd on your music] which I love. Glass Cuts, which I think your record label put together, and Glassbreaks, which I know is not officially sanctioned. But I really love the way they mix in with hip-hop and DJ-ing, and I wanted to ask you how you view your music in terms of the African American musical tradition?

Steven, that's an interesting question. Part of my own personal history has been my participation as a listener in other people's music. I lived in Chicago in the fifties. I went to school there, in Chicago in 1952. I heard Billie Holiday singing at the Cotton Club. I heard Ben Webster, and I was very young. I heard Bud Powell. I couldn't hear Charlie Parker because they wouldn't let me in. I was too small. [Laughs]

But when I came to New York, one of the first people that I met was Ornette Coleman. We've known each other for years.

So, I think for me, the experiences of creativity, and we have composers, Anthony Davis, from the African American community who were writing operas. And writing what we call "Serious music," as if other music isn't serious. [Laughs]

You know what I mean, right? "Art" music. And some people have been friendly, very friendly, some not so friendly. It's a question of temperament.

I grew up, if you want to talk about this kind of thing, I grew up in Baltimore, which was a totally segregated city. Washrooms, schools, swimming pools, golf course, the whole works. The whole works. Movie houses, restaurants.

Your father owned a record store, right?

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Was it segregated? Or did people come from both sides?

Oh yeah. In fact, my brother and I, we were kids, we were 15 or 16, we had an R&B record shop in the other part of town, and we used to listen to the music, and I think my father sent us there because it was the summer time and he didn't know what to do with us. So he put opened up a storefront, and we had a record player and a Coke machine, and a lot of people came and listened to music. I don't think we sold any records.

But I got to hear a lot of music. So I grew up. The city may have been segregated, but my taste in music wasn't segregated. I understood that very quickly, and when I was in Chicago at the age of 15, I was out listening to music. So I have real friends in that world, and a real connection to that music.

Sponsor Content

Now Trending

New York Concert Tickets

From the Vault