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Portraits of Reginald James at Crisp Studios in Fayetteville, Ark., on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. James is a musician and founder of a music education nonprofit names Music Moves. Photos by Beth Hall

‘Music Is A Language of Understanding’

May 27, 2021
Reginald James
In Northwest Arkansas, Music Moves brings the history of Black music and art into the present

In music, just like community, what you do matters to the bigger picture. Each individual musician – whether percussion, horns or vocalist – perfects not only their instrument, but contributes to turning sound into art.

Collaboration means harmony, in every sense of the word.

Growing up in the South, and in particular Black churches in the South, I learned that lesson early. My family moved frequently, from Mississippi to Louisiana to Tennessee to Northwest Arkansas, but the church remained a constant for us, its lessons and songs reflecting the struggle and joy in our own lives, and of the Black experience in America.

I initially moved to the Northwest Arkansas Area in 1992 to attend the University of Arkansas. I stayed for 10 years and moved to Memphis for 5 years and then moved back in 2007. One thing I noticed was despite the indelible mark African Americans have had on American music, there weren’t enough spaces in the region that made Black music and culture accessible. As a working musician, I told myself I would change this reality if I got the opportunity. In 2019, my colleague Anthony Ball and I founded Music Moves to do just that.

Reginald James shares a laugh with fellow musicians Anthony Ball and Garrett Jones at Crisp Studios in Fayetteville, Arkansas. James and Ball co-founded Music Moves, a music education nonprofit in Northwest Arkansas.

Music Moves develops K-12 curriculum, programs and performances to share the stories of Black musicians and their influence on American culture. Our mission is to make Black music accessible to students and communities through performance and education.

My own music education began in the church. Banging on the back of the pews at age four, my parents saw the promise in me early, beginning with piano lessons and then, the organ. Black churches, especially in the rural South, allow their musicians to develop at a very young age. All that’s required is talent, joy and a thick skin – because they will tell you if it’s not right – but they also give you space to grow and improvise.

At the St. James Missionary Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Pastor J. Aaron Hawkins gave me that space. He was a mentor to many, and the importance he placed on both education and music set a course for my life’s work.

Pastor J. Aaron Hawkins

At just 18, he appointed me minister of music for the church, and each week I oversaw band rehearsal and the arrangement of each instrument and vocal part. For a young kid, it was quite the undertaking. At times he had to fight off the wolves, allowing me to learn and make mistakes, which is such an important part of growth. Pastor Hawkins saw promise in me, and my training at St. James gave me a safe space to explore not only music, but particularly Black sacred music.

If Pastor Hawkins gave me confidence to perform before my congregation, Dr. Eddie Jones made the whole south region of the country a stage. An associate professor of music at the University of Arkansas, he also served as director of the University of Arkansas Concert Choir and the University of Arkansas Inspirational Chorale.

An accomplished composer and gospel music researcher, Dr. Jones laid the foundation for Black musical excellence at the University of Arkansas, a predominantly white school.

Dr. Eddie Jones

When I first joined the Inspirational Chorale, the U of A wasn’t known as a hub for gospel music. But as the program evolved, we began travelling the state with Chancellor John White, giving performances and serving as an unofficial recruiting tool for students of color. This group included students from all over the world along with white students who wanted to be part of a diverse musical program.

My voice—my contribution—made a difference. My voice let other Black students know the University of Arkansas was a place that would welcome them, too.

That sentiment rings true in my work today. I am proud to have been part of Dr. Jones’ incredible legacy of musical excellence, which since his passing has developed into one of the most respected musical institutions in the South. His successor as director of the chorale group, Jeffrey Allen Murdock, recently won the 2021 Grammy Music Educator Award.

Reginald James credits his mentors for giving him the confidence to play music and opening doors for him to perform.

As part of our educational programming, Music Moves partnered with Dr. Murdock to create a nine-week lesson plan and on-site presentations to educate K-12 students on the history of Black music in America, and how it relates to the discourse today.

This is critical for a state that holds such a remarkable musical legacy. From gospel and blues to jazz and rockabilly, we know bringing people together to play and enjoy Black musical performances opens the door to understanding the history behind this music.

Through our performances, we are creating new spaces for Black musicians to play in person and virtually, to tell their stories and connect with neighbors.

Through Music Moves, Reginald James is educating students about the history of Black music and creating new spaces for Black musicians to perform in Northwest Arkansas.

In many ways, the performances we support today are historical timestamps for where we are now as a community, and where we head next. At the end of the day, even if I don’t agree with you, listening and studying music can start a conversion that could lead to understandings about history and culture.

Pastor Hawkins and Dr. Jones understood this, and I am proud that I can continue their legacy of bringing more dialogue concerning Black history and culture to aid i our pursuit of seeing Black people as part of humanity and bringing us closer to a harmonious society.

Music Moves is a Walton Family Foundation grantee.

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