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Raising the Baton: How Dr. Joyce Brown Became a Pioneering Broadway Maestra

by Lisa Nicole Wilkerson
originally published in ESPN in June, 2017

The role of musical conductor requires a high level of physical conditioning. The maestro must energetically direct an orchestra and actors with nothing more than a skinny stick.

With the 71st annual Tony Awards airing Sunday, we are reminded of musical prodigy Dr. Joyce Brown, who went on to become Broadway’s first African-American female musical conductor of a show beginning its opening night.

The production was “Purlie,” which debuted in 1970, explored the life of traveling preacher Purlie Victorious Judson set in the Jim Crow era. The play was nominated for Tony’s Best Musical award that year. This was quite the feat for Brown, as conducting was and remains a highly male-dominated profession.

When asked how she felt about making history with “Purlie,” Brown — who played piano, violin, cello, trumpet, saxophone and organ — told the International Musician Magazine in 1970, “I would have gotten the job anyhow because the competency is there.” She also declared in the New York Daily News in ’70: “I’m a member of [the American Federation of Musicians] Local 802 [Union] in good standing. I’ve worked hard. And I’m reliable. I was picked for the job.”

 


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