Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson was mainly known as a classical composer, but he was equally proficient in other musical genres, including blues, jazz, pop, and American folk music. He was born in Manhattan, New York, on June 14, 1932. He was named after Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875–1912), the renowned Black British composer and conductor—his mother, herself a piano teacher and an organist, was deeply involved in the theater, and perhaps hoped to endow him with the inspiration to attain similar heights.
Perkinson attended the High School of Music and Art in New York City and New York University before transferring to the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied composition with Vittorio Giannini and Charles Mills, and received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Later, at Princeton University, he was under the wing of Earl Kim and expanded his knowledge of music theory and composition.
From 1959 to 1962, Perkinson was on the faculty of Brooklyn College and studied conducting during the summer over this four-year period. In 1963, he went abroad to the Netherlands and was tutored by Franco Ferrara and Dean Dixon, an African American notable in classical music, to intensify his conducting skills. He also took lessons in the art of conducting at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. Two years later, he founded the Symphony of the New World in New York City. He would later become its director of music.
Jerome Robbins hired him to head his American Theater Lab, as well as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Among his compositions is one commissioned by Ailey’s group that Perkinson entitled “For Bird, With Love,” the “Bird” being jazz immortal Charles Parker. He also wrote arrangements for Marvin Gaye and Harry Belafonte.
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Perkinson had a brief tenure with drummer and composer Max Roach that was even more consequential, especially when he performed as a pianist with Roach’s quartet. One memorable date was in 1964 during one of Roach’s European tours. A session at a television station in Belgium featured Perkinson providing lush chords for Abbey Lincoln and exchanging percussive licks with Roach.
When he wasn’t hobnobbing in the jazz world, Perkinson was composing music for films such as “The McMasters” (1970); “Together for Days” (1972); “A Warm December” (1973), starring Sidney Poitier; “Thomasine & Bushrod” (1974); “The Education of Sonny Carson” (1974); “Amazing Grace” (1974); “Mean Johnny Barrows” (1976); and the documentary “Montgomery to Memphis” (1970. He also wrote incidental music for at least one episode of the U.S. television show “Room 222.”
Perkinson’s music has been described as a blend of baroque counterpoint and American Romanticism flavored with dashes of Black folk music, jazz, blues, and spirituals. This confection of sound often permeated the movie soundtracks he composed. He wrote several orchestra pieces, most notably “Worship: A Concert Overture” (2001).
His résumé features an extensive list of choral works—to list them here would exhaust the space. He composed some of these works for strings; some for piano and viola, flute, and cello; and several for violin and clarinet. One that was of particular importance was “Generations: Sinfonietta No.2 for String Orchestra, II.” “Alla Sarabande,” a tribute to Susan Loris, executive vice president of institutional advancement with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, featured a sweeping wave of melodic strings issuing from the orchestra, all of them wearing masks as the pandemic crippled the nation.
I wish there had been more of the interview that Perkinson did at Schomburg in 1993, where he began explaining some technical aspects of composition. When he died of cancer on March 9, 2004, in Chicago at 71, the New York Times published a commendable obituary. At that time, he was artistic director of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago.
An abundance of clips of his compositions can be found on YouTube.
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