Bringing Classy Back: The African American Philharmonic Orchestra

By Kamille D. Whittaker

John T. Peek carries a folder that may very well have record of every classical musical event that occurred in Atlanta in the last 20 years, and he complements it with his mental vault of supporting detail and data. But it’s hardly a stretch for the esteemed conductor and founder of the African American Philharmonic Orchestra, who contends that “musicians are the sharpest people in the world.” In fact, to call him a music enthusiast would be a misnomer. After having jived with a veritable who’s who of jazz and Big Band greats, John, 79, is something like a music authority — and he has the papers to prove it.

One such paper depicts the orchestra’s first performance at the Atlanta Civic Center. “That was on February 24, 1990, when we sold out the Civic Center … 4000 seats,” John recalls. It was the first time that the Civic Center had swelled to capacity. Sixty-five prominent African Americans from all walks of life — university professors to elementary school music teachers — converged upon the center, playing everything from Gershwin to Gillespie.

The next one shows two young men playing musical instruments. “These are my two nephews, Avril and David Taylor. I taught both of them from scratch, and now, they are first chair trumpet and trombone in the orchestra.”

“Mr. Peek has always been invested in the teaching aspect of music, you know,” chimes in Carrie Peek proudly, who by all available appearances “runs things” in the Peek household — and John wouldn’t have it any other way — “she’s the boss,” he quips, adoringly gesturing toward her.

Together, they channel a contemporary Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis — steeped in the significance of their place in artistic history, and taking every opportunity to offer a brief lesson on the necessity of music.

Since 1989, the purpose of the African American Philharmonic Orchestra, which operates under the umbrella of Music South Corporation, was to offer Atlanta’s residents of color the same privilege musically, that they believed was largely taken for granted.

Now, with the orchestra on the brink of its 20th anniversary, and comprised of 37 members instead of 65, (the orchestra chorale is no longer a mainstay since it was largely made up of members of the Morris Brown College choir) the Peeks blend nostalgia with a unique vision for how they will continue to impact Atlanta’s musical landscape.

“Longevity in the music business is not that great from the standpoint of where it used to be,” says John, who, in his detail-laden narrative, frequently pays homage to the lasting impressions made by the music maestros of yore — Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Fletcher Henderson.

But the nostalgia doesn’t always drum up positive memories. John recalls a time when skin color superseded musical aptitude, making assemblies like the AAPO all the more necessary and relevant.

“I was on the road at a time when black bands had to live on the bus because they wouldn’t let us in the hotel. You had to go to a gig, get on the bus and go on to the next one,” he remembers.

“It’s history and it’s the truth, and we have to recognize it if we are going to navigate our way through the future,” offers Reggie Williams, president of Renaissance Events Inc., who partnered with the Peeks in 1990 to help promote their ambitious endeavor. Williams remembers when even landing a gig for the AAPO in Atlanta was met with skepticism.

“There are only one, two or three African Americans on any given orchestra nationwide, and it’s not because the rest aren’t qualified. Truth be told,” says John, lowering his voice to a whisper, “it’s because they know we know more than they do.”

“Times are changing, however …,” offers Carrie, promptly.

“But, we don’t even dress up anymore to go to functions, and it’s largely because they are trying to make art obsolete,” gripes John. “France budgets $33 a year per person for the arts; England devotes $30. And do you know how much the state of Georgia allots for arts? Forty-six cents!” “They’re even trying to cut the jazz program at Clark [Atlanta University].”

“Mr. Peek attended Clark [College], you know …,” says Carrie, interjecting again.

“See, the problem with contemporary music is that the focus is on how much money you can make from it,” John continues. “They never intended for their creation to be a historical fact and for it to sustain generations.”

Williams concurs: “A society is judged by the artifacts of its cultural aesthetic. How will we be judged?”

John lights up at the prospect of the orchestra — one of only eight African American orchestras nationwide — as being evidence of Atlanta’s musical progressiveness.

“I’m looking for someone to keep the orchestra and the music going five years from now,” declares John. Carrie nudges him endearingly in the arm: “Well now, John, you are going to keep the music going.” And then as if searching for reassurance, she questions, “Aren’t you?” “Well yes, Carrie,” John says, exhaling. “I suppose you’re right.”


Originally Published in Atlanta Tribune: The Magazine, November 2007

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