published Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Elegant passion: Roland Carter's influence spans several decades, hundreds of people

Roland Carter is being honored with a gala concert on Friday night at First Baptist Church in Chattanooga.
Roland Carter is being honored with a gala concert on Friday night at First Baptist Church in Chattanooga.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

If You Go

* What: The Roland Carter Gala Concert.

* Featuring: Gayle Robinson-Oturu, Hampton University Concert Choir, Morehouse College Men's Glee Club, UTC Men's Chorus, Chattanooga Singers and Chamber Singers and the Chattanooga Choral Society for the Preservation of African-American Song.

* When: 7:30 p.m. Friday.

* Where: First Baptist Church, 401 Gateway Ave.

* Admission: $5 today, $10 at the door.

* Phone: 425-4269.

Selected awards, honors and commissions

• Executive producer -- "Treemonisha" in 2012

• Named The Ruth S. Holmberg Professor of American Music at UTC

• Honoree, keynote speaker and guest conductor, second annual Historically Black Colleges and University 105 Voice Choir, Howard University and Kennedy Center, 2009

• Tennessee Governor's Arts Award, distinguished artist, 2003

• Composition "Hold Fast to Dreams" and "You Must Have that True Religion," performed for President Bill Clinton's inauguration, 1997

Praise from colleagues

Compiled by staff writer Susan Pierce

"'Icon' is understated. The way Roland has such a personal and warm connection, it's easy to forget just how huge a figure he is on the national scene. He has no ego about him and is just as comfortable complimenting an 11-year-old boy on a solo as he is directing a national choir at a prestigious event."

-- Vic Oakes, director, Chattanooga Boys Choir

  • photo
    Dan Bowers, president of ArtsBuild.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
    enlarge photo

"He is probably as close to a living legend as we have in our community ... His influence extends not only across Tennessee but nationwide."

-- Dan Bowers, president of ArtsBuild

"Roland Carter has been one of the most prominent driving forces nationally and internationally for the preservation and promotion of artistic arrangements of African-American spirituals."

-- Kevin Ford, UTC director of choral activities

"I am most thankful that he expected nothing less than your best and truly challenged students to be better. Better musicians, better students, better people."

-- Sarah Marczynski, former UTC student

"My musical career was birthed by being exposed to two people -- the late Dr. Greer D. Wilson and Roland M. Carter. My understanding of quality choral music was shaped as a youngster by Dr. Carter. His drive for choral excellence has motivated me to motivate others to maintain the rich choral tradition that has existed at Hampton. He is the reason why I love choral conducting."

-- Omar Dickenson, director, University Choirs, Hampton University

  • photo
    Michael Mitchell, Jr., assistant director, Choral Society for the Preservation of African American Song.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

"Professor Carter taught me the importance of preserving and performing the African-American spiritual. He preached the significance of studying your music. He also showed me how to be generous to others.

-- Michael Mitchell Jr., assistant director, Choral Society for the Preservation of African American Song

"Roland Carter's life illustrates that the goals of access and excellence are not contradictory. His achievements in music made it possible for him to return to his hometown to lead the Music Department as department head and Holmberg Professor of Music. He has opened doors of opportunity for many students, but made it clear that each is responsible for his or her own journey."

-- Lee Harris, head, UTC Department of Music

The smile on Roland Carter's face is almost as wide as the bow tie he is wearing. He seems to always have both on him.

With his stoic demeanor, intense stare and deep voice, Carter can cut an intimidating figure, but the smile and the warm rumbling laugh immediately put people at ease. For several decades he has traveled the country, spreading the gospel of music, preaching the power of music and the importance of preserving it and learning from it.

He doesn't mind talking about the things he has seen and done, but only in a context that furthers his message. A one-time member of the Tennessee Arts Commission, he'll tell you how important the commission's work has been, for example, but offers a quick "not that I can claim any credit for it."

His smile seems a little bigger today, though, and maybe it's because, from this point forward, he will be devoting most, if not all, of his time to the things he loves doing: arranging and writing music, preserving African-American songs and fishing.

"I love to fish, and I am determined to go deep-sea fishing for the first time this spring," he says. "I went whitewater rafting for the first time at age 69. It was wonderful."

Carter had planned to retire from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Music Department after 23 years in May, but he taught his last class in December and officially retired Feb. 1. Friends and colleagues will be throwing a gala for him Friday night at First Baptist Church in Chattanooga.

During his career at UTC, Carter served as head of the Cadek Department of Music, director of the University

Chamber Singers, associate professor, was the Ruth S. Holmberg Professor of American Music and was awarded UC Foundation Chair.

He taught class, conducted choirs, accompanied recitals, arranged music, funded concerts, mentored and recruited, and he was integral in fostering interdepartmental productions, one of his proudest feats.

His resume -- listing awards, honors, commissions major performances and presentations -- is nine pages, single-spaced. The accolades include serving as guest conductor at performances from Alabama to Virginia. He was president of the National Association of Negro Musicians numerous times and was appointed to the Tennessee Arts Commission by then-Gov. Don Sunquist in 1998.

Carter describes himself as a "quiet activist" who likes being on boards and commissions, but only if he can actually participate and not merely be a name on a letterhead.

"If I'm going to be here, I've got to be involved," he says. "I have no illusion about my importance, but I get involved. I like to see things happen."

David Morrow was a student of Carter's at Morehouse College and is now a professor and director of the Morehouse Glee Club. Morrow says Carter's passion for music left an impression on him and other students.

"Roland's personal elegance and his passion for music has affected all musicians who come in contact with him," says Morrow. "He may not know that our conversations about music, choral directing and sharing music have been extremely helpful to me.

"From his work as choral director at Hampton University and as director of the choral guild of the Hampton Minister's Conference," Morrow says, "to the creation of his own publishing company Mar-Vel, which specializes in publishing music by African-American composers, to the creation of a CD, 'NANM Sings Spirituals,' while he was president of the National Association of Negro Musicians Inc., to The Chattanooga Choral Society for the Preservation of African American Song, to his numerous arrangements of spirituals for chorus and solo voice, to his passion for sharing information about this music, he has yet to stop contributing to its preservation."

Early years

Carter was one of five children born to Willie Mae and Horace Carter Sr. She was a domestic and he worked for U.S. Pipe & Foundry. But music was always part of Carter's life, primarily thanks to his aunt, Anne Smith, who was part of a traveling music group called the Wings Over Dixie.

"She played the piano and she could play everything from ragtime to stride piano," Carter recalls. "There was always an instrument in the house." He says he took piano lessons as a child, but it was at Howard High School that his future became mapped out. Doing the cartography was Edmonia Simmons, the school's music director. She saw something in Carter and decided that he would attend Hampton University in Virginia, he recalls.

"She took me in her '59 Mercury and deposited me."

Carter also credits a music competition -- which he did not win -- with having a big influence on his life. While still at Howard, he entered a scholarship music competition run by the Cotton Ball Association and met local philanthropist Hugh Maclellan, who would be an advocate and mentor throughout his career, at the event.

"I got far more than the $1,000 or whatever the amount was over the years," Carter says.

Early in his career at Hampton, Carter thought he would eventually be a world-renowned pianist, but that dream ended when a professor asked him what he wanted to be.

"I told him 'I want to be a great concert pianist,'" Carter says. "He rared back his head and laughed. It hurt my feelings. He said, 'You don't decide that. God does. Your job is to be the best you can be and that takes a lot of work.'"

That same professor made Carter the student director of the university chapel choir, where he learned to conduct, arrange and write music. Carter also began to seriously collect African-American recordings and sheet music there.

"My whole life opened up at Hampton," he says.

While he was serving as director of the choir there, Carter had a similar influence on Omar J. Dickenson, currently the director of university choirs and assistant professor of music at Hampton, though he served his inspiration without the derisive laughter that Carter had received from his professor.

"One of my favorite memories happened when I served as his accompanist for a choral workshop," Dickenson says. "Without any warning, Roland sent me to teach and conduct his (classical musical piece) 'In Bright Mansions.'

"I was nervous. I could see the people wondering how could this young kid attempt to conduct Carter's music with Carter right there," Dickenson recalls. "I made it through the rehearsal and he says nothing. At this point I didn't know what to think and I was afraid to ask due to the fact that he may answer me. Prior to the performance he told me to just enjoy the moment. I had never been so at ease. Right after the performance of the song he put his hand on my shoulder, smiled and said, 'Well done.'

"It was then I knew that conducting was my passion."

After graduating from Hampton, Carter continued his education at New York University, but returned to Hampton to serve as the director of choral music and assistant professor of music from 1965 to 1988. He also served three years there as chairman of the Department of Music.

The opportunity to return to Chattanooga to be near his ailing parents meant a great deal to Carter in 1989, but being offered the post at UTC where, almost 30 years earlier, he was not allowed to enter because of his race almost, was even greater, he says.

"To come back 29 years later as department head was an affirmation of how far we've come, but also how far we had to go," he says.

Accepting the position was one of the best decisions of his life, he says. The other was adopting his son, Dante Roland Carter almost 30 years ago. Married briefly after college, Carter says he realized music would dominate his life, but later in life he felt he had something to give to a child, so he adopted Dante 29 years ago, when the young boy was 5 years old.

"I always wanted kids and it was a wonderful decision," Carter says. "He is a fine young man and the joy of my life."

A bridge

While at UTC, he's always seen his role as that of a bridge between various communities. One of his proudest achievements, he says, was helping to bring about staging Scott Joplin's opera "Treemonisha." It was a collaborative effort between various arts groups on campus, the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera and the Chattanooga Choral Society for Preservation of African American Song.

"The partnership with the drama departments and the music departments was something we had talked about for 24 years and it had not been done."

Even though he's no longer an employee at the school, he hopes to continue to foster such partnerships at UTC and within the community.

He also wants to find a permanent home for the thousands of pieces of sheet music, recordings and documents that make up Choral Society's preservation project. Those pieces are currently stored in his home, old office at UTC and in storage. They are used as a resource for musicians and arrangers around the world.

"I have plenty to do and many things I want to accomplish."

Contact staff writer Barry Courter at bcourter@times freepress.com or at 423-757-6354.

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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