Music was key to my family’s survival, according to stories I heard since childhood. Our music genes were inherited from my paternal grandmother, Madame Tempy (Stuart) Smith, (1884-1960) the family matriarch. She was born and raised on a dairy farm in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, two generations from slavery. Despite racism, lynchings, and segregation, Madame Tempy managed to acquire a college education at Straight College now known as Dillard University and the Boston Conservatory. She developed an exceptional reputation as a music teacher and performer in Ocean Springs and New Orleans, according to news clips and family stories.
After filing for a divorce, Madame Tempy (sometimes spelled Tempe) singlehandedly raised her large family of talented musicians, singers and dancers. An extremely independent, self-reliant and perceptive person, she recognized her family’s perilous living conditions. Like the Sound of Music’s Von Trapp family that escaped the Nazis, Madame Tempy turned her young, talented brood into a musical group and quietly escaped the South. The difference between my family and the Von Trapp’s was that they were not told that they were escaping or that they were part of America’s largest, historic migration! Driving a funny-looking, packed automobile, my family followed the legendary “Chitlin Circuit.” They performed in many venues both large and small from Mississippi all the way to Harlem.
Madame Tempy’s musical and business skills were fully realized when she joined others who were part of the Harlem Renaissance. A courageous person with a dictatorial personality, she became a real estate entrepreneur, sacred music composer, and legendary piano teacher. With every Harlem apartment building that she purchased a music school was set-up, and rehearsal studios and rooms were rented. She employed all of her children, nieces, nephews and many extended family members.
My aunts and uncles continued in show business and became teachers too. My Aunt Jeri Smith, who drove the getaway car, gave piano lessons when she was not leading her own orchestra, touring Europe or performing in Hollywood films. My Uncle Joe Smith, my father’s baby brother, was the star of the family’s traveling show. He was the Sammy Davis and the ‘Michael Jackson’ of the family act. A talented tap dancer, singer, and musician, Uncle Joe was called a five-year-old “wizard drummer,” in a New Orleans newspaper.
It was a tradition for the older cousins to tutor the younger ones. My older cousin Sonny Brigman mentored me on the nuances of Beethoven’s piano Sonata Pathetique. I also trained on the viola. My whole family was musical including my mother, father, sister and two brothers. We played piano, violin, guitar, percussion and wind instruments.
I wish the younger generation of nieces, nephews, and cousins could have met their elders. Because of segregation and racism, we were a tight-knit family. Thanks to racial integration, the family has spread out all over the world. I am still digging for musical genes in my family both past and present.
Do you have music genes in your family?