The Life of John Curtis


This week I found a newspaper article, listed as being released in 1829, advertising a concert to be performed in New York City. Not only does it advertise as was expected, it outlines the life story of the leading musician, a story that shed some light on the experience of a free Black man in the time of slavery who also happens to be a touring violinist accompanied by his adolescent children. They are also touring violinists.

Link to the original document:

The article describes the experience of Curtis from being blinding by his wife’s slaver, to purchasing his kids from bondage with money he earned performing music, to finally teaching them how to play violin as well. At first I was surprised at the sympathetic tone this article sported while telling the story, then remembered that the article is from an African American publication, one that would likely empathize quite a bit more than their white counterparts with the plight of a struggling black man. 

There isn’t much to be said about John Curtis. A pointed google search of the violinist followed by the publication year and the publication’s location in New York showed me very little. As the article very concisely summarizes the artist’s life up to the point of the concert, it reveals the concert’s exact location. It’s then that I searched up Laurent street, the street where John Curtis and his two children played the violin, and found that it was once referred to as “Rotten Row”, by a less than scholarly blog from 2011. 

Check it out:

While the source had some less than charitable things to say about the Laurent street that once was, it is very clear that John Curtis’ conditions for performance were less than ideal. Not only was he, a blind, black man in the time of slavery, a working musician. He was touring with two children, both taught in the art of the violin, both taught by a father who had never laid eyes on them. The opportunities for performance were, as we’ve studied, events for slavers and for run down concert halls in poor neighborhoods. 

With all our conversations about the origins of “American Music” and defining the term for ourselves, our conversations cannot understate the importance of black music to the overall scope of American music, undefined as it may be. Performers like John Curtis, and the stories that they leave behind, will likely go unstudied and their personal stamp on the world of classical music, in particular, will likely remain undiscovered. The tragedy of music history is the lack of information available to further recognize this man’s contribution to the world of music. 

(There isn’t much to say, I just wish that there was a movie about this guy)

Music History and the Importance of “History”

From Bach to Beethoven to Mozart to Haydn, we learn many of music’s prominent historical figures in our music history courses. At the same time, we don’t hear some names such as Beach, Farrenc, or Lateef. In fact, some probably don’t know who any of the names I just mentioned are! It’s blatantly obvious that in learning about music history, there are many composers and musicians that we don’t touch on, and even more that we just don’t have the opportunity to learn about. It’s important to always expand on the knowledge we gain, and realize that there are infinite topics to cover, even if we don’t hear about them in a textbook.

One example would be instruments. One instrument that we don’t hear about today, but that is still fascinating is the Ocarina. More specifically, it’s ancestor the Xun. In this recording, the airy instrument we hear is the Xun, played by Yusef Lateef.1 The Xun is an aerophone that was created in China approximately seven thousand years ago. It is similar to the ocarina, without the flippant mouthpiece.2

This instrument is similar to the more well known relationship between the flute and the piccolo for example. While one instrument may seem more normal or be more well known, the other is just as important and still within the family of the first instrument. It’s fascinating to study both of them, and an example of something worth studying.

In Yusef Lateef’s autobiography, he touches on the importance of listening to multiple accounts regarding the origins of instruments and music itself. When discussing the origins of some jazz music and a group of white musicians, he states that “because they were among the first to be recorded it followed that they would be considered the inventors of the music. Nothing could be farther from the truth.”3

Yusef himself was an accomplished musician, and someone that we don’t learn about today. In newspaper articles, people referred to him as an “outstanding multi-reed man”4 with an “amazing certainty as a bass soloist.”5 They said his performances “take you on a specialized trip.”6 He was an extremely accomplished musician who was known to many, but not known by all.

It’s inconceivable that everyone learn everything about music history, but these are a couple examples of the broad world that is encompassed by music. The Xun is a beautiful sounding instrument, especially when played by such a talented and accomplished musician such as Yusef Lateef. For most of us, this instrument and performer were beforehand unknown to us, but with some time and research, fascinating and new things can be learned, and our knowledge can be broadened.

1 Yusef Lateef: Eastern Sounds, composed by Yusef Lateef, 1920-; performed by Yusef Lateef, 1920-, Barry Harris, 1929-, Ernie Farrow and Lex Humphries, 1936-1994 (Prestige, 1991), 40 mins, 9 page(s) 


3 Yusef Lateef, “The Gentle Giant: The Autobiography of Yusef Lateef.” (Irvington, NJ. Morton Books Inc. 2006. Pages 2-3. 

4 “The Diverse Yusef Lateef.” Soul, April 6, 1970. 

5 “Music Whirl.” Tone, October 1, 1960. 

6 “Yusef Lateef’s Detroit.” Soul, June 30, 1969. 

“Music Whirl.” Tone, October 1, 1960.

“The Diverse Yusef Lateef.” Soul, April 6, 1970.

“Yusef Lateef’s Detroit.” Soul, June 30, 1969.

Yusef Lateef: Eastern Sounds, composed by Yusef Lateef, 1920-; performed by Yusef Lateef, 1920-, Barry Harris, 1929-, Ernie Farrow and Lex Humphries, 1936-1994 (Prestige, 1991), 40 mins, 9 page(s)

Yusef Lateef, “The Gentle Giant: The Autobiography of Yusef Lateef.” (Irvington, NJ. Morton Books Inc. 2006. Pages 2-3.