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New Black Music Degree Program and Center At U Of A

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New Black Music Degree Program and Center At U Of A


The University of Arkansas in Fayetteville (U of A) is now home to the new Arkansas Center for Black Music (ACBM) and the only Master of Music in Black Sacred Music degree in the U.S. 

Thanks to a gift of more than $848,000 from the Alice L. Walton Foundation, the state’s flagship university in Fayetteville will be able to cover start-up costs for the center and degree program. The funds will also be used to recruit and retain top teaching talent and prospective students, led by Grammy Award-winning educator Jeffrey Allen Murdock, the university’s director of choral activities.

 “Black sacred music has influenced the lives of Black Arkansans for centuries. But historically, the performance of most music of African origin hasn’t been deemed eligible for quality academic study,” said Murdock, also an associate professor of music and conductor of the campus’s renowned Inspirational Chorale. “I’m thrilled and so appreciative of the Alice L. Walton Foundation for helping us to amplify this and to celebrate the study of this musical tradition through the new degree and to ensure its future through the activities of the new center.” 

Murdock said the university and foundation chose this particular focus because of U of A’s already existing world class resources in Black sacred music and commitment to leveraging these resources to expand access to the arts, which “is essential to building better futures in society.” 

“Through both the center and degree, we aim to support students in Arkansas, and beyond, who may come to the university through untraditional paths. We want to honor their unique trajectories and ensure their capacity to thrive by improving access to graduate music programs,” said U of A Chancellor Charles Robinson. 

Rev. Curtiss Smith, pastor of the historic St. James Missionary Baptist Church near the U of A campus, lauded the center and degree’s creation. 

“Most forms of authentic American music are rooted in Black music of some kind, and Black sacred music in particular is linked to many of the social and cultural movements in Arkansas,” he said. “These initiatives are groundbreaking here in Arkansas and in the U.S., and I’m thrilled our very own Fayetteville will be at the epicenter.” 

The projects are also a collaboration between the Department of Music and the African and African American Studies Program, which are both part of the U of A’s Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. The mission of the Black music center is to advance the development and dissemination of Black music; the growth of leaders and scholars in this field; and the elevation of Black music in academic, professional and community music spaces.

 According to the National Core Arts Standards, music educators must teach music relative to history and culture, noting that singing and playing instruments should encompass a varied repertoire of music. 

“The Arkansas Center for Black Music will allow our Department of Music to have these tenants at its core,” Murdock said. “In modern music programs, there is a growing trend among educators to work toward including all genres of music in the educational setting.” 

The center will also host events like the annual Black Music Symposium, the UARK Jazz Festival and the Jazz Signature Series and performances by Inspirational Chorale and other campus groups, said Jake Hertzog, assistant professor of music, head of the U of A’s jazz program and associate director of the center. 

Herzog said the new center will tremendously elevate the department’s profile, especially for the jazz program. “We are so thrilled (U of A) will be a home for the next generation of artists and scholars in Black music in all its forms, from jazz to rock to gospel to hip-hop and beyond,” he said. “Through its artistic, research and service work, the center will nurture Arkansas musicians and researchers while attracting incredible talent from around the world. “ 

The new three-year, summer-only master’s level Black Sacred Music program will build on the center’s focus by delving into the study of Black sacred music, officials said, which is a unique and under-served academic and professional field with growing need. 

“Our program, which also provides scholarship support to select students, offers a pathway toward a wide range of careers in the field of Black sacred music,” said Murdock. “With our three-summer model, we have the unique opportunity to attract working professionals in the field and prepare students for top music positions in Black sacred music and sacred music in general.” 

Graduates in the new Black music decree program also be well prepared for a vast number of roles within the contemporary music industry, including but not limited to the following professions: church musicians; worship directors; choir directors; gospel music performers; gospel songwriters; gospel recording artists; producers of gospel and related music like hip-hop, soul and R&B; teachers of Black sacred music in churches, K-12 and higher education; performers, arrangers and composers of popular and contemporary music like jazz, pop and hip-hop; and composers for film, TV, video games, apps and other media. 

The Department of Music and the M.M. degree are accredited through the National Association of Schools of Music. National Support for the Center and Degree 

Colleagues and practitioners throughout the U.S. have also voiced their support of both the U of A’s new Arkansas Center for Black Music and new Master of Music in Black Sacred Music degree.

 “I have noticed a marked demand in Black sacred music course design that explores history, music analysis, repertoire, music industry and practicing,” said Alisha Lola Jones, Ph.D., university lecturer in music in contemporary societies at the University of Cambridge.

 “This is the moment where the University of Arkansas can lead from the future by cultivating the rising tide of undergraduate and non-traditional practitioners and scholars seeking formal training in Black sacred music,” she added.

 Rev. R. Janae Pitts-Murdock, senior pastor of the Light of the World Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Indianapolis, Indiana, added that the center and degree will both “support the continued development of skilled musicians capable of leading a well-rounded and genre-diverse Black sacred music program needed in congregations like mine across the country.” 

“As a pastor of a historic Black congregation recently in need of a music minister, I have experienced first-hand the dearth of qualified practitioners,” she said. “I look forward to the great things that will come from this program and to my music staff participating.”

 Likewise, Ryan Fisher, Ph.D., professor of music education and associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Communication and Fine Arts at the University of Memphis, said he “strongly believes this new program will attract numerous graduate students of color to the University of Arkansas and make the Department of Music the primary training ground for future church musicians and music leaders in predominantly Black churches.” 

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