April 27, 2015
Today I taught my very last class at Xavier University of Louisiana. I am pulling up my proverbial stakes and heading back up north, where I look forward to spending more time with my wife and family and more time writing music.
I don’t need to tell you that living in New Orleans has been a real adventure for a kid from suburban Pennsylvania. I was a witness to my very first shooting here, I had a knife pulled on me outside my apartment, and I was almost—almost!—the victim of a carjacking. But I accepted this as the price I had to pay for the privilege of living in one of the most magical cities in the world, a city which also showered me with a tremendous amount of love. You let me march in a Mardi Gras parade leading a drumline. You and your mayor cheered me on during my very first road race, the UNCF 5K, despite my utterly abysmal time (38:20, just ten seconds faster than the winning speedwalker). You have played and sung my music all over the city, including performances at French Quarter Fest, at Bach Around the Clock, on the breathtaking grounds of Longue Vue House and Gardens, at Roussel Hall, and at the astonishing new Marigny Opera House, where Dave Hurlbert presented me with one of my most prized possessions, my very own set of keys. Those of you in the press and media have been unbelievably kind and generous to me, and I thank all of you not only for me, but also for my mother, who has read your reviews, interviews, and articles aloud to everyone in Allentown. One week I actually made the New Orleans Times-Picayune three times: once in a feature article by Chris Waddington, once in Nell Nolan’s society pages (!), and once in the police blotter for having had my phone and wallet stolen.
I will miss most of all my students at Xavier, who have taught me so much more about life than I could ever teach them about music. You are some of the warmest, brightest, funniest, most unflinchingly honest, and most enormously talented young men and women I have ever known, and certainly the best group of students any teacher anywhere could ever hope to have in a classroom. In one of our last classes, some of you remarked that you had never once seen me get angry in all of my years of teaching. But the truth is, I enjoyed having you in class and in rehearsal too much to ever get angry at you for anything. Besides, I needed to save my anger for my daily commute on the I-10.
And of course I will miss just as much those of you who collaborated with me on Freedom Ride, including the quintessential gentleman Wilfred Delphin, who has the uncanny gift of always doing and saying the absolute right thing at the right place and the right time, and my dear friend Dara Rahming, my favorite soprano in a world of favorite sopranos, one of the world’s most truly beautiful people, who has been the heart and soul of this project and without whom I would have left the city of New Orleans many years ago.
Although An Embarrassing Position will forever remain my love letter to the old New Orleans, Freedom Ride is my true love letter to the people living in the Crescent City today. So many of you have supported and encouraged this opera from the very beginning, and I still would like to premiere it here—somehow, some way!— in the near future. It is an opera about New Orleans, set in New Orleans, based on historical events that took place in New Orleans, with characters from New Orleans, featuring the music and language of New Orleans, and of course written in New Orleans. So if any of you has any brilliant fundraising ideas, please let me know. And of course if I miraculously win the lottery, I will let YOU know.
My deepest regret is that Xavier is not hiring a replacement for me, which means the already overworked music department faculty will have to find some way to cover the twelve or thirteen courses I teach each year and the nine or ten students on average that I accompany for performances and juries. This, I fear, is only the first step in the eventual elimination of the music department, something I have worried about ever since the academic restructuring of the university. Xavier has been training young African American singers and presenting opera to the New Orleans community for eighty years. It has been an honor to help keep that distinguished tradition alive, and I am sorry to see that it is in such imminent peril. You are a city that prides itself on its music and culture, and you deserve a university that values music and culture as well. I can only hope that the arrival of a new president and a new provost in the fall will signal a revival of the school’s original mission and St. Katharine Drexel’s original commitment to the arts and humanities.
Thank you to all of you, and please do keep in touch! I’ll be here for another week and a half, long enough to see one last class of seniors graduate, and barely long enough for one last walk along the Mississippi, one last burrito at Felipe’s, one last run through City Park, one last plate of red beans and rice at Napoleon House, one last browse through Crescent City Books, and one last time hearing someone playing “Second Line” on the trumpet as I order one last café au lait at Café du Monde. Then, like the wandering musician I have always been, I will toss my suitcase in my car, drive one last time over Lake Pontchartrain, and finally, after all these years, know what it means to miss New Orleans.
Best wishes, and thank you all again,