The month of June is set aside to celebrate the contributions and influence of Black Americans in music.
The annual celebration began over 40 years ago. It was originally called Black Music Month when it was first recognized by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.
Thirty years later, in 2009, President Barack Obama renamed it African American Music Appreciation Month, but many still call it Black Music Month.
Brad Leali, professor of jazz saxophone at the University of North Texas, has played sax with Harry Connick Junior, the Count Basie Orchestra, and currently tours with Lyle Lovett and His Large Band.
Leali says people everywhere listen to and are moved by music influenced by black artists.
“They fundamentally influenced all musical genres or certainly had an imprint in all of them,” Leali explained while offering a brief music history lesson. “I mean, if you look at music history, if you look at, you know. One of my favorite songs from the Fleetwood Mac band. Right? When Fleetwood Mac started, they had a song that they were singing, it was called ‘I Need Your Love So Bad’, which was basically written by an African American artist by the name of Little Wille John, and so you see how they were influenced by him, and they incorporated it into their own style.
And Leali says you can go even further than that.
“Elvis Presley was definitely influenced by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ruth Brown and Fats Domino. Vanilla Ice, Ice Cube, NWA, Dr. Dre — If we want to think specifically about jazz, we think about Paul Whiteman, who had a great orchestra but was influenced by Duke Ellington, Sid Catlett, musicians of that caliber. The Beatles, right? They were undoubtedly influenced by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Arthur Alexander and even the Isley Brothers “, said Leali.
Leali began playing the saxophone early in life, earning her undergraduate degree at what was then North Texas State University, and then her master’s degree at Rutgers-New Brunswick.
He hit the road touring and performing to become one of New York’s top jazz musicians.
His desire to keep jazz alive led him to college where he was appointed director of jazz studies at Texas Tech University. In 2008, Leali joined the faculty of UNT as a jazz saxophone teacher, where he conducts small ensembles and teaches the fundamentals of jazz performance and jazz saxophone.
Leali is still performing, touring and recording. The jazz musician joined Lyle Lovett and his big band in 2013.
In his performances, Lovett credits the influences of the black musicians in his band. Lovett is often considered a country music artist, but his music easily blends folk, blues and jazz.
Jazz is Leali’s favorite genre and says that in this world, black musicians from Texas have made a name for themselves.
“Texas has such a rich history. You look at the Dallas-Fort Worth musicians, you have T. Bone Walker, Dewey Redman, a great saxophonist. We have Red Garland, a great pianist who played with Miles [Davis]. Ornette Coleman, a great saxophonist. Bud Johnson, another great saxophonist. John Handy. Cedar Walden, phenomenal pianist. James Clay. Newman Fathead Minnow. Kirk Franklin, gospel singer who is there now. Eryka Badu. Right? Hot Lips Page, Buster Smith, Marshall Ivory, Claude Johnson, Roger Boykins are still there. You have The Jazz Crusaders. They actually started in Houston, but that’s Texas, right? There was Wilton Felder, Stix Hooper. Even in North Texas with the One O’Clock Band, you had Billy Pierce who was one of the first African Americans in the band,” Leali said.
As the country once again celebrates the talents and influence of black musicians, Leali offers this:
“My advice is just to be open. My advice is just for people to be open to realize that African Americans have made a significant contribution to our culture, our arts. It can even go beyond, of course , but if we just talk specifically about music, just to be open and realize that the influences of African American music are limitless,” Leali said.