By Erick Johnson
All hail the Queen!
She was given the crown of this column 17 years ago and during her magnificent reign, the Chicago Crusader’s Barbara Wright-Pryor graced the presence of some of the biggest names that performed in Chicago: Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle and Renee Fleming, to name a few.
For over a decade, Wright-Pryor gave us the scoop on Chicago’s classical music scene in a column that is still a rarity in many Black newspapers in America. A classical music scholar in her own right, during her time on the throne, Wright-Pryor has become a beloved figure in the hallowed halls of the Symphony Center and the Lyric Opera. In her lifetime, these landmarks have become her palace and she their Queen. Now, after numerous columns and deadlines, Her Majesty is retiring. She will remain a fixture among many of her subjects at operas and symphonies, but her glorious reign at the Chicago Crusader has come to an end. A search for a successor will be a long one considering the big shoes Wright-Pryor leaves us to fill.
Last weekend was a fitting ending to Wright-Pryor’s reign as she held court and absorbed the sounds and elegance of two legendary artists of jazz nobility: Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
It happened inside Orchestra Hall at the Symphony Center, where acclaimed jazz legend Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz Lincoln Center Orchestra wrapped up a two-day feast on Ellington with The Battle Royale. The evening on Saturday was a two-hour duel between two world- renowned orchestras, Marsalis’ JLCO and Scotty Barnhart’s leadership of the Count Basie Orchestra.
For two hours, both orchestras wowed the audiences with an impressive repertoire of two of the greatest jazz artists in American history. The JLCO thrilled the crowds with Ellington’s 1938 masterpiece, “Braggin in Brass” while The Basie organization responded with a tamed but exuberant “Basie” by Ernie Wilkins. In a stunning reversal, The Basie orchestra thrilled the crowds with Ellington’s theme song, Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train.” But rather than stage a rivalry, the two organizations displayed affection for one another and closed out the concert with an explosive and rousing joint performance of Count Basie’s signature piece, “One O’Clock Jump.”
The evening culminated Marsalis’ and the JLCO’s two-day residency at the Symphony Center. On Friday, the organization gave a two-hour performance entitled “Jazz in the Key of Life.” It was a soothing and refreshing trip down memory lane as the organization performed the works of Stevie Wonder, Chicago native Donny Hathaway and other artists.
But Ellington remains a big influence on Marsalis. Many of Ellington’s works are a major part of the JLCO repertory. At a Saturday matinee, “Jazz for Young People,” Marsalis explained to hundreds of children Ellington’s global influence on jazz and his unique use of various objects including a toilet plunger to produce warm, subtle tones from a trumpet and trombone.
The weekend was divine and it provided the perfect royal ending to Wright-Pryor’s career with the Crusader. On Friday, we went backstage and met Marsalis, whose band now heads to Asia for a long tour.
The most enjoyable part of my time with Wright-Pryor is watching her many friends and colleagues approach her with jokes, hugs and expressions of affection. In the eyes of many, she truly is a Queen. And in spite of the overwhelming presence of Marsalis and many talented musicians, Pryor somehow was the biggest guest of them all. For her contributions, she deserves praise and accolades for years of service and dedication to Blacks in the world of classical music. There are not many crusaders in this genre and like Ellington and Basie, Wright-Pryor is special. While she may have thought I came to hear Ellington’s works, the real reason was to learn more about this regal person. For years, this column had been about events, but this one will simply be about her. This cultural blue blood has earned it.
After the matinee Saturday, I treated Her Majesty to a two-hour farewell lunch at tesori, a restaurant frequented by the musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I had swordfish and the Queen had of all foods, a hamburger. We had fun. The food was good, but Wright-Pryor whet my appetite with her vast first-hand knowledge of famous singers and classical music. I was amazed and sad. Wright-Pryor’s 17 years with the Crusader has come to an end. While I recognized the name of this amazing woman for eight months, I was just getting to know her as she wrapped up her illustrious career with this newspaper.
As it turned out, Pryor’s career with the Crusader was supposed to last for only three months. When Wright-Pryor temporarily filled in after her predecessor, Theodore Charles Stone died in 1998, Crusader Editor and Publisher Dorothy R. Leavell asked her to take over the column while she searched for a permanent columnist.
“Let’s just say I was duped,” Wright-Pryor joked. “She said, just put in this press release and mention this performance and put in some pictures and that was that.”
A perfectionist, Wright-Pryor’s column went beyond the press release. It reflected her passion for the arts and her love for diversity in classical music.
The Chicago Crusader honored Wright-Pryor at its 75th Anniversary Gala last June at The Loews Hotel in Chicago. Wright-Pryor, who sold the paper when she was very young, received the Crusading Pioneering award. The Crusader was surprised by Wright-Pryor’s impending retirement but the newspaper thanks her for introducing classical music through journalism.
Farewell to a Queen for her years of uncompromising service and thanks to a Duke and Count for a great weekend.