Five Quick Questions with Terrance McKnight

Posted by: yetheart, May 6, 2016 2:16 pm
Blog Image: 
Terrance McKnight by Marco Antonio

On Monday, May 9, we’re celebrating the poetry and music of famed African-American author, poet, and social activist Langston Hughes with a live musical adaption of Terrance McKnight’s radio documentary I, Too, Sing America: Music in the Life of Langston Hughes. This unique live performance will feature soprano Janinah Burnett, pianist Christopher Cooley, and TV/film/stage actor Gabriel Lawrence.

In addition to being the weekday evening host for WQXR 105.9 FM, New York’s only all-classical music station, Terrance McKnight is also the host and producer of the station's audio documentaries on Langston Hughes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Hazel Scott, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, and Florence Beatrice Price. In 2010, his weekly radio show All Ears with Terrance McKnight was honored with an ASCAP Deems Taylor Radio Broadcast Award. As a speaker, McKnight has worked with Chamber Music America, the Mellon Foundation, American Opera Projects, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), among others.

Terrance was gracious enough to answer some quick questions for us before his upcoming event.

What role did libraries play in your life growing up?
The public library on the corner of my street was integral to my childhood. I walked past it every day on my way to school. If my parents weren't home to answer the door after school, I waited in the library. That library was also my first theater; neighborhood children participated in small plays there. In high school, I began going to larger libraries to research my homework assignments and expand my learning.

Tell us more about the creation of Music in the Life of Langston Hughes. What inspired you to produce this documentary?
Langston Hughes was a hometown hero for many young people growing up in Cleveland. He attended Cleveland public schools. When I went to college, I was hired to perform Margaret Bonds’ Ballad of the Brown King, a cantata for chorus and piano. I was surprised to discover its libretto was by Langston Hughes! When I began working at New York Public Radio, I wanted to create a body of work that looked at American heroes and the music that was important to them. I started with Martin Luther King, Jr., and then after moving to Harlem I began researching Hazel Scott and Langston Hughes. In reading about Hughes, I discovered his deep involvement with various genres of music and I wanted to expose that aspect of his career.

We’re excited to see you and your talented performers in action on May 9! Were there any challenges adapting a radio documentary into a live performance for our audience?
Because Hughes composed pop songs, gospel songs, and opera librettos, finding a vocalist who could convincingly sing all those styles was the biggest challenge. Janinah is an incredible singer and I’m looking forward to a wonderful performance from her as well as Christopher and Gabriel.

Can you share some details about your show All Ears with Terrance McKnight? We heard that it examined a wide range of musical genres during its four-year run.
All Ears is a show about musical discovery. It allows the listener to experience human emotions and experiences through music without consideration of genre or culture. 

What books would you suggest for people who want to learn more about Langston Hughes? And what are some of your favorite books about music?
Arnold Rampersad wrote extensively about Langston Hughes. His two volumes on Hughes’ life are comprehensive and essential. I would also recommend The Big Sea by Langston Hughes himself. My go-to reference is The Music of Black Americans by Eileen Southern, and these days I'm reading all things Leonard Bernstein.

Photo of Terrance McKnight by Marco Antonio.