Interview with Violinist Randall Goosby: 'Roots' and African-American Music

June 30, 2021, 5:32 PM · When violinist Randall Goosby plays "It Ain't Necessarily So" from the opera "Porgy and Bess," it doesn't sound like he's just playing one of those favorite virtuoso violin arrangements by Heifetz.

It sounds like he is singing, and he knows the words by heart.

"It comes from an opera, so a big part of my focus in terms of sound production was the singing," said Goosby, 24, speaking with me over Zoom in an interview several weeks ago. "Often times, if I'm playing a piece and I'm not exactly sure what I want to do with the phrasing, I'll sing it and try and figure out how it most naturally comes out of me, and that will influence how I approach it on the violin."

"It Ain't Necessarily So" is just one of the pieces on Goosby's debut album, Roots, a celebration of African-American music and African-American musical influence. It includes works by Florence Price, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (arranged by Maud Powell), Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, George Gershwin (arranged by Jascha Heifetz), William Grant Still, Antonín Dvorák and Xavier Dubois Foley.

Connecting with the voice is something he said he picked up from his longtime teacher and mentor, Itzhak Perlman, with whom he has studied for more than 10 years. Attending the Perlman Music Program also for a decade, Goosby has sat in on many of Perlman's "Youtube nights," where the maestro shares a playlist of his favorite recordings. "Some of them will be chamber music, some will be violin music - but every single time there is a handful of recordings in there by opera singers or people like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole," Goosby said.

At age 24, Goosby already has a long list of accomplishments. He has played as a soloist with top orchestras, including Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and the New World Symphony Orchestra; and he's given recitals at venues including the Kennedy Center, Kaufman Center and Wigmore Hall. He's scheduled to perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in August, and -- close to my own heart and home -- with the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra in October. When he was just 14, he appeared on National Public Radio’s From the Top, and in 2018 was a prize winner at the Young Concert Artists International Auditions. He has been honored as a Rising Star by the Stradivari Society, which has loaned him the use of the 1735 "Sennhauser" del Gesù violin.

Randall Goosby
Violinist Randall Goosby. Photo © Kaupo Kikkas.

Goosby was born in San Diego, and the family shortly thereafter moved to Philadelphia, and then to Jacksonville, Fla. When Goosby was six, his mother, who is of Korean descent but grew up in Japan, told her three children, "I'm going to make you play an instrument, but I'll let you choose which instrument you play."

"Having grown up Japan, she was aware of the discrepancy in the value of arts education between the rest of the world and the U.S.," said Goosby, whose father is African-American. "It's kind of a toss-up, whether you'll find a music education program in a school in the U.S. So she wanted to be sure that we had the ability and the option to express ourselves with music on an instrument."

His younger brother and sister chose piano. "Me -- I was the odd one out, and I randomly chose violin," he said. "I don't know why - I imagine I probably saw it on T.V. or heard it on the radio."

When they went to a general music store to inquire about a violin, "the gentleman at the counter looked down at me, looked back up at my mom, and he said, 'Your son, he's a little small, he's got small hands. He might find violin quite difficult. A lot of kids who come in here and try to pick up the violin at a young age end up quitting after a short time because they realize how difficult it is.'"

"His wife taught piano at the time, so he sort of urged us to go the piano route," Goosby said. "We didn't know any better, so we went with it and I started on piano." After several months, his self-confidence started to wane.

"My teacher brought sour patch kids (candy) for me every lesson, no matter how badly I played, so that I guess kept me in it for a month longer than I would have been," he said. "But eventually I told my mom, "Okay, I gave it a try, please can we find a violin, can we find a violin teacher?' So as moms do, she figured it out." He started with a Suzuki program in Jacksonville, Fla. at age seven, and "it's all history from there."

It did not take him long to get good at violin, and by age 13, Goosby found himself the youngest-ever winner of the Sphinx Competition in Detroit. That is where he met Xavier Foley, who also was competing, but on the stringed bass.

"We met for the first time in 2010 in Detroit, for the Sphinx Competition, and we were friendly with each other, but it was a competition and so I think we were both more inwardly-focused," Goosby said. "Luckily the following year, 2011, we both attended the Perlman Music Program on Shelter Island. We were there on the same campus for six weeks, eating meals together and playing in orchestra together and all that, so we had a chance to get to know each other. I realized very quickly just how incredibly skilled and talented he was and is on the bass."

Foley is the youngest composer represented on Goosby's new album, in a piece inspired by their friendship called "Shelter Island."

"Putting this album together, we wanted to start in the past and move forward through history to where we are now, in terms of the voices we wanted to include on this album." When it came to representing today's era, "my first thought was Xavier. I've always thought that Xavier has such a unique artistic voice as a composer, and I'd been really chomping at the bit to work with him over the past 10 years. Thankfully, he was willing and able to be a part of this project."

"'Shelter Island' is a clear homage to our time together at the Perlman Music Program," Goosby said. "There are some musical influences from popular music back in the day, as well as a little bit of bluegrass, solo Bach - it's almost a melting pot of musical influences and traditions."

Wait, popular music back in the day?

"Well there's a song called the 'Cupid Shuffle' that pretty much every middle school kid knew about when we were that age," Goosby said, laughing. "That song is sort of reminiscent of the melody of the piece. I'm 24 now, but that was almost 10 years ago now. So that was one of those influences from 'back in the day.' "

"It was so inspiring to work with (Xavier) and get a sense of his process, not only in composing but also in putting the piece together," Goosby said. "Rhythm was a big part of the piece, but we were also very tuned into each other's spontaneous decisions in any given section of the piece, and I think that's one of the most fun things about it, how we sort of bounce off each other. There's so much interplay between the two instruments throughout the piece and it's just a perfect way to celebrate his voice and our friendship on this album."

It was the Perlman Music Camp that brought Goosby and Foley together, and Perlman himself has played a huge role in Goosby's development as a musician, having been part of Perlman's studio at The Juilliard School, where Goosby earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees, as a Kovner Fellowship recipient, and is currently pursuing an Artist Diploma.

"It's been incredible. We've been working together for more than 10 years now, and I feel a very close, personal connection with Mr. Perlman," Goosby said. "At this point I'm almost out of school, and I've been studying with him for so long, it almost feels like we're friends now. But obviously it's such an incredible privilege to tap into his wisdom and his knowledge and his experience, being the violin icon that he is."

Goosby started studying with Perlman at age 14, and at the time he was focused on learning the big concertos. "So a large part of my focus was technically-oriented - I wanted to get all the bow strokes right and make sure I was playing perfectly in tune," Goosby said. "Perlman was always there to say, 'You've got to play in tune, but it's not all about that.' It's about how you hear the harmonies and how they affect you, what they make you feel. Because if you don't tap into that side of what we do, then it's really difficult for us as performers to communicate with the audience in a meaningful way, to connect."

"I feel really lucky to be able to tap into all of that experience, knowledge and wisdom that he's built up over the years," Goosby said. "We're generations apart, but it's kind of cool for me to think that at some point he was working on the same things I'm working on. He's always been a reassuring mentor figure for me, and I feel blessed and grateful to have been able to spend the amount of time with him that I have. It's been a fantastic relationship."

For Goosby's new recording "Roots," he also tapped into the wisdom of another mentor, violinist Sanford Allen. Allen was the first African-American violinist to become a regular member of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He also was the dedicatee for Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson piece “Blue/s Forms," which Goosby included in his new recording.

"The 'Blue/s Forms' has been with me for quite a while, since my early days with Sphinx," Goosby said. Back in about 2014, Goosby performed the last movement, "Jettin’ Blue/s" as a part of the Sphinx Virtuosi's annual performance tour that culminated in a concert at Carnegie Hall.

"That was the first time I met Mr. Allen," Goosby said. "I had a chance to actually play this piece for him in person, and he gave me some great feedback about the feel and the vibe of the piece. It's quite a challenging piece, and it was really inspiring to work with him, and to now know his story, being the first Black violinist in the New York Philharmonic and the part of the first class of YCA artists as well. It made me think back to how different the times were, when he was growing up and trying to make a career for himself."

"People are sensitive now, for the most part, to the different manifestations of systemic racism and prejudice and bias, and that just wasn't the case 40-50 years ago, when he was growing up and making a career for himself," Goosby said. "I can only imagine how challenging it must have been to try and navigate this field. I would imagine he felt very much like the token Black person wherever he went. I can't speak for him, that's just what I imagine the experience to have been like, at least in some regard. But to know that that experience is somehow reflected and channeled into this music is really inspiring for me."

Before recording "Blue/s Forms" for Goosby's new album, "I had a chance to work again with him on this piece in its entirety," Goosby said. "Unfortunately we had to do it over Zoom because we were in the middle of a pandemic. But it was wonderful just hearing from him about his interpretation of the piece: the focuses that he had, in terms of the rhythm and the swing and the vibe that these incredibly unique and expressive harmonies bring out."

"He told me that he had commissioned Perkinson to write the piece, and he had already received the music for the first two movements, but he was pressing him, 'Hey man, I have a week until this concert, I know there's one more movement, can I see it?' That was humbling in itself, to know that he picked it up and a week later got on stage and performed it!" Goosby said.

While Goosby's new recording is a tribute to African-American music, not all the works on the album are by Black composers.

"'Roots' has a number of different meanings -- personal roots for me, cultural roots in terms of American music, and in terms of classical music as a whole," Goosby said. "It's the roots of where we begin the American side of things."

The album includes two works by non-Black composers, Dvorak and Gershwin. Dvorak "is often associated with this "American" kind of sound," Goosby said, "and of course Gershwin was also heavily influenced by the blues and jazz, and that finds its way into almost all of his music."

Dvorak served for a time as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, one of the few institutions just before the turn of the 20th century that admitted both women and African-Americans. During his tenure there he was quoted as saying something that, at the time, was quite radical: "The future music in this country must be founded upon what are called negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States...These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are American."

For Goosby this has the ring of truth. "The negro spiritual was one of the genesis points of African-American music, that found its way into the blues and jazz, and that found its way into rock 'n' roll. Everything, in my mind, dispersed from there. So in terms of the name 'Roots,' that was my thought process."

Goosby was making plans with Decca for the album right at the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, Goosby said. "I've been happy to see that we haven't lost too much momentum...that a large focus still remains respecting and appreciating Black people and what they've brought to this community and to this society. It's still growing, and people are still learning."

"I wanted to be a part of that process - opening people's eyes to the fact that there are Black composers of classical music in the past," Goosby said. "Obviously there are a great number of Black composers now, and they are getting a lot of good attention. But in terms of the influences on what we know to be classical music, we don't know a whole lot about the history of composers who weren't European and white."

"So the point of including these non-Black composers on the album is to say that hey, these people were directly influenced by the other music that's on this album and this style and this culture of music," Goosby said. "Those sorts of influences and connections, going even farther back in history, are parts of our musical education that we missed. I have yet to meet a musician who has said that they were taught about Black composers or non-traditional European composers in their music education, myself included."

"So for me, it's the first small step in a long journey of piecing together a much more cohesive and inclusive history and tradition of classical music," Goosby said. "I hope that people enjoy listening to the music and that they get from it a sense of inspiration and curiosity. I hope they start looking for more of these connections throughout history and going all the way up to today. I have such a great time exploring the very small piece of history that we can find on these album, but like I said, it's the first of many small steps."

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Replies

July 1, 2021 at 01:44 AM · LOL, now walk it by yourself.

Did I hear a nod to the Final Fantasy 7 title screen music, as well?

I really like Goosby's tone and phrasing. I'll have to keep an ear out.

July 1, 2021 at 03:39 AM · Beautiful tone! Sounds like a great album!!

July 1, 2021 at 07:13 AM · I wonder if Perlman (and now Goosby) got the idea of singing a piece from Dorothy DeLay. My violin teacher also studied with DeLay and he’s always trying to get me to sing the pieces I’m working on.

I’ve been listening to Roots since I first learned of him here. He is an up and comer!

July 1, 2021 at 06:29 PM · there's a book called From Dvorak to Duke Ellington by Maurice Peress, published by Oxford University Press, that explores the American music scene in the later 1800s and the 1900s. Very interesting read!

July 3, 2021 at 05:32 PM · Thanks Laurie for this great article! I appreciate your bringing me awareness and insight into artists I wouldn't otherwise know to explore. On the strength of this account of Randall Goosby's remarkable journey already-so-young, I just ordered his "Roots" CD from Amazon and look forward to listening to it next week! Also thanks to Tom Bop for recommending the Maurice Peress book "From Dvorak to Duke Ellington," which I also just ordered and look forward to reading!

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