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Courtney Bryan, Black composer, marches to the beat of her own drum.

8/31/2011, 4:54 p.m.
Courtney Bryan, Black composer, marches to the beat of her own drum.

"Musicians make decisions. They either support the status quo or break down barriers," says Courtney Bryan, a composer, pianist, academic and organist at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., who prefers the latter.

Born in New Orleans, Bryan soaked up the music of her Caribbean- and West African-based Anglican church and her piano lessons in the European classical tradition. She immersed herself in her marching band and explored firsthand every which way of jazz: New Orleans styles, straight-ahead jazz and avant-garde improvisation. She now resides in Washington Heights.

She prefers the title Black composer. "I've cathected the world of Black classical musicians, but jazz is definitely part of my world."

"I remember my parents saying, 'Don't define yourself by what you do.' In New Orleans, I had wonderful professors and classmates who were very supportive of me as a person, but it's about accepting yourself. I'm managing the contradiction of being a woman in jazz and classical, being a performer in academia. It's like loneliness and freedom together," she said.

She's been writing music since she was 5. By 7 years old, she had a collection of cassette tapes loaded with her piano compositions. "I kept thinking I would transcribe those things I had left at my parents' house," but in 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed that plan. Already a graduate of Oberlin Conservatory (bachelor of music, composition), Bryan was earning her master's degree at Rutgers in jazz performance when the storm hit. "We lost the house and a lot of our art. My sister, an artist, lost everything. We're all religious, but Katrina was a test of our faith."

"Trying to stay resilient, we'd talk about how to live in the moment," she said. "Spirituals helped me to do that."

With the emotional strain of Katrina's aftermath draining her creative flow, she went for a second master's degree from Columbia University. "I still wanted to learn more about music," she explains, "and people were always telling me I should work with George Lewis." Now Bryan is a PhD candidate and teaching fellow at Columbia University. Lewis is her mentor.

"He asked me about my faith," she said. "He asked if I had musically ever dealt with Katrina and all those feelings. 'It's important to hear your voice,' he said, and he meant it literally-like if there were things I needed to say, then I should say them."

So her 2011 composition, "Tea for Two Sopranos and Tape," inspired by the Mexican singer Chavela Vargas' "La Llorrona," plants the speeches of Malcolm X alongside Abbey Lincoln's "Laugh Clown Laugh" and the whistling of "Dixie."

Her last album, "This Little Light of Mine," is a unique take on the Negro spirituals that saw her family through some tough times. Available at CDBaby.com, it's the evidence of conversations with her sisters Amy Bryan and Alma Bryan Powell, both visual artists and New Orleans residents.

CDBaby recommends the record to people who like Alice Coltrane, Charles Ives and Mahalia Jackson. Yes, the blazing ferocity of skill and relevant political energy exploding forth from Coltrane's beautiful, expressive work on harp, organ and piano finds a new outlet in the young Bryan.

Quirky technical mechanics and exacting harmonic interplay are equally embraced by Ives and Bryan, as is a love of folk life. The sweet honey of Jackson's instrument-the singular and firm rootedness known especially to divas of the Southern states-also sings out. The album art is by her sisters.

As Bryan testified recently, "Sometimes, in church, I get lost in a world of healing sounds: a combination of the affirmations and sighs of the congregation, the full volume and vibrato of the choir, the improvisation of the piano, the intensity of the soloist...and I direct what would normally be tears...into a low, resounding bass pedal on the organ. With the wash of overtones, I enter into that realm of higher consciousness." Buy this album and you will, too.

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