In the finished basement of his quiet tri-level sits a timeworn Kimball in a dim lit corner, adorned in stacks of books and sheet music. Joshua explains he won a hotly contested toss-up with his twin brother Jared to lay claim to the childhood piano they shared. The book on the mantle was gifted by their eldest sister Jessica, a virtuoso in her own right that helped shape the musician he is today.
Joshua sits at the bench before the keys, raising his arms as if to conjure Harry Burleigh himself and lift the notes off the page, and begins to play with a familiar, conversational cadence. After all, music defies both place and time. The mesmerizing sounds he produces as his hands weave from one end to the other are otherworldly and yet firmly rooted beneath Joshua’s impeccable pedal work. His feet are just as talented as the span of his fingers stretched wide between octaves, and he only wears his signature socks while playing, whether at home or on stage.
The piece is titled The Frolic of From the Southland. It is the second movement of several, a name that carries far more than the music itself and may be why Joshua found Burleigh, or perhaps, it is the movement that found Joshua, knee-deep in an exploration of little-known black artists that was sparked by Black History Month over thirty years ago. An effort to highlight unsung black cultural innovators every February transformed into a journey to uncover answers to a question that manifested as a young piano and trumpet student. Where are the black classical composers? Joshua details what he calls listening tours:
Every day in the morning I woke up with a purpose and intent to find someone new and do my homework and look them up and their pieces. That was satisfying and fun and informative for me. And then I actually started listening to some of these pieces that resonated. I never heard that before and they were brilliant and gorgeous. I'm like, How come we don't hear about this? How come I can't find this music? Why do I have to pay $80.00 because it's out of print or it's on back order?
I had a couple pieces that I had under my fingers and I was trying to figure out how do I make this more than just a recital and make this something. And I just remember the people that I saw on stage that evening that I worked with, these people to my left, my right, in front, and behind me literally just asking. So I just put some stuff together and went to the people that I've always wanted to work with and just have a good creative relationship with in general. And I said, Hey we're going to link up and do some stuff!
It would be a mistake to believe that Joshua’s current musical iteration began in 2017 on stage at the Madame Walker Theatre. His why cannot be separated from his early childhood.
Joshua’s commitment to classical music began with a love for Saturday morning cartoons. The theme music and soundtracks for shows like Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry served as glimpse into the importance of music in every aspect of creative and cultural production. His parents were not musicians themselves, but offered their full support to their children’s aspirations. The twins followed the footsteps of Jessica and started piano lessons as five-year-olds.
A few years later, Joshua began playing classical trumpet, an instrument that came relatively easy to take up with a background in piano. Just before high school, he was invited to be a part of the New World Youth Symphony Orchestra as a trumpetist, joining the ranks of young prodigenous musicians from across the state. The high-level opportunity brought an intensity, self-discipline, and a sense of ownership to Joshua’s craft as a musician, a time he describes as a major turning point as an artist. Joshua recalls performing George Gershwin's Cuban Overture for the first time with the group:
From that first moment when the conductor lifted up her baton and that first note happened, it sounded exactly like what I heard on the recording. And for a minute I was like, Oh, shit! We are, these people sound amazing! For me, that was it and it was immediate. I'm in a room with musicians who are way better than I am and I have to work. I worked to get into this group but I've got to work to stay here. That's when I really just upped my game because it required it. When around me, I had to match that level.
Joshua has been that kind of dedicated student since listening intently to the backtracking of cartoons as a kindergartener.
For me it’s not enough to just play a piece of music.
He employs exegetical study of black composers and their music. He researches the structural elements of pieces and movements, the geographical and biographical background of the person and what culturally shaped their compositions. This information is not always readily available and can be just as difficult to find as archived sheet music, but social context is what reveals deeper meaning and motivation behind and in the classical works.
Further, the classical genre is highly regarded as foundational, traditional music and the most recognizable and celebrated composers are overwhelmingly white and wealthy. White supremacy has rendered classical music a literal Ivory Tower. As with most genres within and beyond music, black classical pioneers have been erased and excluded from canonical history and contemporary form.
I think especially with composers of African descent you can't get away from that.
A driving force of Joshua’s analysis and application is to reframe the canon and ensure black artists like Burleigh, Still, Bonds, and more are included and prominently featured in the larger narrative as they should have been already.
What it comes down to is we don't know what we don't know yet. So once it's presented to us we have that knowledge and then we have the responsibility to use it or not use it as we see fit.
Joshua’s work introduces new audiences to classical music. He enjoys playing vignettes of concertos, or, teasers of longer pieces, and often shares background information about the composers and pieces before and after playing. The entertainment of performance is not without political and cultural education. His hope is to illustrate how innovative classical music is and highlight the manifestations of classical elements in today’s popular sounds. Classical is expansive, is for and by black people, and should be accessible, approachable, and applicable beyond the genre.
There's another place we can go where we can see ourselves. There's another place we can go where we know we have our massive thumbprint.
Teaching is one more way of bridging the gap between the genre he loves and new students of the craft, whether that path leads to highly competitive performance spaces or other creative fields of practice.
There’s this idea that if you don't get first chair or if you don’t get into the school of music of your choice or if you don’t land with the symphony music orchestra of your choice then you’re automatically garbage and you have no place in music and that’s just not true. That’s just not true.
Teaching is a futurist practice to make blackness visible and valued in classical music, work toward the unseen here and now. It is why documenting and archiving blackness is a political project to preserve and shape black life, black culture. But Joshua offers a deeply related point:
Even highlighting that there are black composers out there, to be perfectly honest, is not exceptional. I only have to do it because they’re unknown. And again, with some of my works now, when I do my stuff, I don’t even say, if it’s relevant I’ll say they are composers of African descent, I just do it. Now y’all know what I do, so everything that you hear, yeah, I would take the bet that it’s black. Because there is a broader conversation to have, there’s a bigger conversation to have, like the surface conversation is blackness and relevance to classical music.
Joshua’s work showcases black composers and musicians as a starting point for further exploration rather than a means to an end. His long game is not one. It is a matter of doing what is necessary, while refraining from the urge to call what is necessary revolutionary. He is simply seeking to change narratives blackness has been erased from. And Joshua Thompson is composing otherwise ways of black being.