Black Musicians Strike a Chord in the Month of June

For more than 40 years, June has been dedicated to celebrating the influences of African Americans in music

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The month of June is set aside to celebrate the contributions and influence of Black Americans in music.

The annual observance started more than 40 years ago. It was originally called Black Music Month when it was first recognized by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.

Thirty years later in 2009, President Barack Obama renamed it African American Music Appreciation Month but many still refer to it as Black Music Month.

Brad Leali, professor of jazz saxophone at the University of North Texas, has played sax with Harry Connick Junior, the Count Basie Orchestra, and currently tours with Lyle Lovett and His Large Band.

Leali says people everywhere listen to and are touched by music influenced by Black artists.

"They have basically influenced all musical genres or certainly have had an imprint in all of those," Leali explained while offering a brief music history lesson. "I mean, if we look at the history of music, if we look at, you know. One of the songs I love of the group Fleetwood Mac. Right? Early Fleetwood Mac, they had a song they were singing it was entitled 'I Need Your Love So Bad,' which was basically written by an African American artist by the name of Little Wille John. And so, you see how they were influenced by him, and they incorporated that into their own style."

And Leali says you can go even further than that.

"Elvis Presley was certainly influenced by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ruth Brown and Fats Domino. Vanilla Ice, Ice Cube, N.W.A, Dr. Dre -- If we want to think about jazz specifically, we think about Paul Whiteman, who had a great orchestra but was influenced by Duke Ellington, Sid Catlett; musicians of this caliber. The Beatles, right? They were without question influenced by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Arthur Alexander even the Isley Brothers," Leali said.

Leali started playing the saxophone early in his life, got his undergraduate degree at what was then North Texas State University, then his master's degree at Rutgers-New Brunswick.

He hit the road touring and playing to become one of the top jazz musicians in New York.

His desire to keep jazz alive led him to academia where he was appointed as Director of Jazz Studies at Texas Tech University. In 2008, Leali joined the UNT faculty as a professor of Jazz Saxophone, where he directs small group ensembles and teaches jazz performance fundamentals and jazz saxophone.

Leali still performs, tours and records. The jazz musician joined Lyle Lovett and His Large Band in 2013.

In his performances, Lovett credits the influences of the Black musicians in his band. Lovett is often considered a country music artist but his music easily blends folk, blues and jazz.

Jazz is Leali's preferred genre and says in that world, Black musicians from Texas have made a name for themselves.

"Texas has such a rich history. You look at musicians from Dallas-Fort Worth, you have T. Bone Walker, Dewey Redman, a great saxophonist. We have Red Garland, a great piano player that played with Miles [Davis]. Ornette Coleman, a great saxophone player. Bud Johnson, another great saxophone player. John Handy. Cedar Walden, phenomenal pianist. James Clay. Fathead Newman. Kirk Franklin, gospel singer who's out there now. Eryka Badu. Right? Hot Lips Page, Buster Smith, Marshall Ivory, Claude Johnson, Roger Boykins whose still around. You have the group, The Jazz Crusaders. They actually started in Houston, but that's Texas, right? There was Wilton Felder, Stix Hooper. Even at North Texas with the One O'Clock Band, you had Billy Pierce who was one of the first African Americans in the band," Leali said.

As the country once again celebrates the talents and influence of Black musicians, Leali offers this:

"My advice is just to be open. My advice is just for people to be open to realize that African Americans have made significant contributions to our culture, our arts. It can even go past that, of course, but if we're speaking just specifically about music, just to be open and realizing that the influences of African-American music is boundless," Leali said.

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