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Fine-Tuning a Legacy

The spirit of William Grant Still looms large at the arts center that bears his name in the Crenshaw district. Baton in hand, the pioneering composer and conductor is the focal point of an elaborate mural that covers an entire side of the 1929 firehouse that was dedicated as a community center in 1977. And if Joyce Maddox, the center’s new director, has anything to do with it, the place will be following in Still’s musical footsteps.

Maddox, who managed the Los Angeles Theatre Center for six years and who plays four instruments, is taking her cue from the artist known as the dean of African American composers. Maddox dreams of creating a neighborhood music conservatory at the center, starting with a permanent exhibit about Still in the lobby. “There should be a whole wall about him.” Make it a big wall.

Still, who lived in the Los Angeles area for almost half a century and died in 1978 at the age of 83, wrote symphonies, operas, ballet scores and other works, notably his blues and swing-flavored Afro-American Symphony. He is considered the first African American to conduct a leading American orchestra (the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936), and earlier this month the Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School of Performing Arts in downtown Los Angeles presented “An Evening of Grace & Style,” a program of scenes from Still operas.

When Maddox approached local residents for input after taking the director post last month, what she heard was the sound of music. “From the kids to seniors, everyone said that if we had a good music program, they’d take classes,” Maddox says. “You’ve got to bring these kids in here, because when they’re involved in something they don’t have time to do graffiti and other things.”

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The center, a facility of the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, will continue to offer programs such as its annual Black Doll Show and summer musical theater, along with exhibits such as the current “Queen Califia: California Black Heritage Confirmed Through Public Art” (through March 7). The show takes a closer look at the allegorical story of the legendary monarch for whom California was named by the Spanish. Though Califia has been associated with the state’s indigenous people, the exhibit’s curator, author John William Templeton, traces the story’s origins to mythic black Amazon warriors whose island realm appeared in the 1510 Spanish novel “The Exploits of Esplandian,” by Garci Ordonez de Montalvo. “Queen Califia was representative of works of literature from the 1300s to the 1500s where black women warriors were the protagonists,” Templeton says. “It calls into question what people think they know about California history.” The exhibit shows images of a black Califia in murals created by Maynard Dixon and Frank von Sloun for the 1926 opening of the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill in San Francisco, along with work by contemporary interpreters such as TheArthur Wright of Oakland.

Maddox, whose tempo is always upbeat, hopes that music lovers will help her in expanding the curriculum at the center. “The classes will be music appreciation, history through music and music instruction, starting with piano and moving on to other instruments,” she says. Donated saxophones, clarinets, anything, would let her tap local musicians to help pass along the neighborhood’s rich musical legacy. “I’ve always had the concept of an instrument in every hand. Instead of a gun, it would be nice to see kids with trumpets or trombones.”

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William Grant Still Arts Center, 2520 S. West View St., Los Angeles; (213) 847-1540 or (213) 734-1164.

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