Lomax Speaks on the History of Blues

Dr. Mark Lomax, a composer, drummer, and activist, addressed the Lawrenceville community this past Thursday at school meeting.

Dr. Mark Lomax, a composer, drummer, and activist, addressed the Lawrenceville community this past Thursday at school meeting. While he was the resident artist at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, Lomax created 400: An Afrikan Epic, a collection of 12 albums that tells the story of Africa and its diaspora from pre-colonial African history to 400 years in the future. The 12 albums are split into three sections—Alkebulan: The Beginning of Us, Ma’afa: Great Tragedy, and Afro-Futurism: The Return to Uhuru—with each section focusing on a different part of African history.

To begin his address, Lomax introduced his quartet group, the Mark Lomax Quartet (MLQ), which was created in 2001. Joined by Edwin Bayard on the tenor saxophone, William Menefield on the piano, and Dean Hulett on the bass, the group performs a variety of original compositions. At school meeting, the quartet performed a blues selection from the album “Straight, No Chaser,” composed by jazz musician Thelonius Monk.

After his performance, he recounted his past and what led him to become interested in music. After becoming a professional musician at the age of 12, he always got in trouble for playing drums at church because it was considered “too weird.” Ultimately, it was Bayard who inspired Lomax’s discovery of music created by black musicians.

According to Lomax, “[Bayard] really helped me understand what black art music, which some people call jazz, is, and why it was important. Through that introduction, I started to do my own research and study and I came across artists such as Duke Ellington and Mary Lou Williams.”

Lomax recounted how in the earlier days of American history, race records existed, alongside the belief that only people of African descent should listen to music by people of African descent. However, Lomax emphasized the universality of music and how history has influenced different musical genres, particularly the blues: a musical genre which originated in the South around the 1870s with roots in African musical traditions and spirituals.

“Blues is a musical language that comes from the experience of Africans in America, particularly those who have slave roots in their history, and it is a way to communicate. It is the culture that came out of slavery. We might be able to express things through the blues that we might not be able to say aloud,” he said.

From there, Lomax described the history of Africans in America, illustrating how their struggles led to the eventual creation of the blues genre. Starting from the horrible journey on the ships from Africa and continuing with the practice of convict leasing in the late 19th century and lynching in the 20th century, Lomax recounted the struggles that African-Americans endured.

“When Africans were brought to America to become slaves, they were still culturally African… As these folks were sold further into bondage and broken up from their families, something happened, something that happens when you don’t have any control over your destiny or your life,” he said. For Lomax, it was necessary to share this history in a way that could bring people together. As a result, he composed 400: An Afrikan Epic, to tell the story of Africans in America and to celebrate their resilience and brilliance. “Out of all that tragedy and trauma, some beauty was created—the blues. The spirituals are a part of the blues, hip-hop is a part of the blues, everything is a part of the blues. It tells our story; our ‘blues culture’ and our ‘blues history comes from this history. It’s not just an African-American story, it’s a human story.”

Lomax then asked Menefield and Hulett to play a song using a blues scale and a normal major scale, asking the audience to decide which sounded better. He used the blues scale to illustrate some key concepts of blues, including a tri-tone commonly referred to as the “devil’s interval.” Next, using Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic” as an example, Menefield demonstrated how many modern pop songs use the pentatonic or blues scale.

Reflecting on Lomax’s speech, Cherie Fernandes ’21 said, “I really liked how we were able to contextualize a style of music with history and culture; it made the whole experience more vibrant and enjoyable. The extent of the influence of the blues genre into modern-day music is something I had never considered before.”

In regards to Lomax’s accomplishments, Chair of Performing Arts Keith Roeckle said, “I particularly like how future-oriented he is. He’s looking to bring a positive future for artists of African descent and to celebrate their work in art, and I think that’s really special.”

Lomax also performed selections from each of his 12 albums in 400: An Afrikan Epic on Thursday night at 7:00 PM in the Edith Memorial Chapel. One of his selections featured a song he composed at the age of 18 which expressed the message he wanted to send. Lawrentians were offered an Exploration Credit for attending the performance.