EBCP Winner Jonathan Bingham's Next Project: Spotlighting an Overlooked Black Composer

Jonathan Bingham and Mark Fax

Jonathan Bingham and Mark Fax.

Bingham's new label, Cool Story Records, will release a recording of Fax's music made at SFCM.

By Alex Heigl

For a man with such a prestigious CV—degrees from Syracuse and Eastman, two separate Julius Rosenwald Fellowships—and a long career as a teacher, having taught at Paine College, Black Mountain College and Howard University, Mark Fax was in danger of being lost.

Not long after Fax died in 1974, his office at Howard was being cleaned out and a custodian tossed a pile of papers into a garbage bin. Fortunately, then-Department Chair George Winfield realized they were Fax's scores and retrieved them, which is how Jonathan Bingham heard them almost 40 years later.

"It was 2010, I believe, at a concert," Bingham, a new SFCM faculty member in both Technology and Applied Composition (TAC) and Professional Development, said. "A string quartet came to Howard, where I was studying at the time, and they were going to be playing student works, Bartok, Bach and some solo works from the professors. And also during that concert, they threw in a Mark Fax string quartet, or the Mark Fax string quartet, I should say, because there's only one."

"And I remember hearing it for the first time. I thought that it was every bit as good as any other that I had heard in the classical medium." Though Bingham said he was "relatively new to classical music at the time," he remembers being struck by the feeling that "this was worthy of an audience."

Bingham made a recording of the quartet on his laptop, which he eventually found out was the only recording of the piece in existence, which brought him to his next project: Cool Story Records, a label Bingham is founding to record and release the complete three-movement string quartet of Fax, other works the composer wrote for other instruments and voice, as well as an as-yet-unheard work from one of Fax’s students: Dorothy Rudd Moore, who died in March 2022.

While Fax was, for most of his career, focused on being an educator, Bingham says there's a more complicated explanation than that for why his work has been overlooked for so long: "Being Black in almost any profession, you have to be twice as good to receive half as much. So, you know, in classical music, it didn't seem that audiences were enthusiastic about hearing the music of Black composers until more recently, when it started to be a priority, and if you did hear the music, it was likely only due to Black History Month or Black Music Appreciation Month. But every other day throughout the year, it would go to either a white male or a dead white male."

Bingham wants to continue the work he's begun with Fax. He's working with Dr. Mickey Thomas Terry, who teaches organ at Howard and who "has a list of composers that no one has ever heard of and he has access to their music, so I definitely wanna give a shout-out to him."

"I would also like to say thanks to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music because they supplied one of the largest donations for this project, and that is the use of their recording studio," added Bingham, who was one of the 2021 winners of the Emerging Black Composers Project, a joint commitment by SFCM and the San Francisco Symphony to spotlight early-career Black American composers and their music.

As for the long-term goal of Cool Story Records, Bingham said, "I certainly see it as a wide-ranging project. I know that there are other composers out there who may not have had a chance to get their music out there, and without someone coming along and picking it up their music is likely just going to stay where it is."

Applications are still open for the third annual Emerging Black Composers Project. To further identify and highlight young artists and support their careers, this year’s competition will invite applications only from composers under the age of 35.