Francis Johnson Innovation Fellowships

The 2022 Francis Johnson Innovation Fellowships invite contemporary responses to a major work in the Library Company’s collection: a ca. 1820 manuscript of musical compositions by the noted 19th-century African American composer and bandleader Francis (Frank) Johnson (1792–1844)—one of the leading American musicians of the pre-Civil War era.

The Library Company’s Johnson manuscript (on public display until October 14, 2022) is the most substantive extant handwritten record of the composer’s work. It contains some seventy pages of compositions, including marches and dance tunes, arranged for piano. It was a gift from Johnson to the Philadelphia socialite Phoebe Ann Ridgway Rush (1799–1857) in 1820, just after her marriage to Dr. James Rush. The manuscript was acquired by the Library Company as part a major collection of Rush family papers included in the 1869 bequest of James Rush. A fully digitized version is available here.

Dr. Uchenna Ngwe and Brent White, the Library Company’s 2022 Francis Johnson Innovation Fellows, are both musicians, performers, scholars, and educators—one British, one American, one working in the classical tradition, the other in the jazz tradition. They bring new and complementary perspectives to the Johnson manuscript and to Johnson’s life and larger body of work.

Dr. Uchenna Ngwe (Trinity Laban / Royal Academy of Music) is a London-based oboist and researcher. Her academic explorations into creative practice investigate the lives and work of historical Black classical musicians in Britain from the perspective of a performer-curator-activist. In addition to being a busy freelance musician and educator, Uchenna has been a contributor and presenter on BBC Radio 3 and is artistic director of Decus Ensemble, a flexible, mixed-instrumental group dedicated to performing lesser-known and underexplored works for classical chamber ensemble.

She is the writer and host of the new audio documentary Frank Johnson, Queen Victoria, and the Black Brass Band, an Overcoat Media production for BBC Radio 3, produced by Steven Rajam. The program airs on October 3, 2022, and will be available for streaming online shortly after broadcast.

Ngwe’s fellowship project places Johnson’s creative and cultural contributions in the context of Black diasporic classical music-making across the Atlantic. She is developing learning resources based on her fellowship findings and will make them available on her web platform, the plainsightSOUND project, which uncovers and shares hidden stories of historical Black classical musicians in Europe.

Photograph by Richard Duebel.

Uchenna Ngwe, a recipient of the 2021 Francis Johnson Fellowship

Brent White is a lifelong Philadelphian, trombonist, composer, and Assistant Teaching Professor of Music at Drexel University. He has toured nationally and internationally and taught in many capacities throughout Philadelphia, creating outreach programming for Philadelphia students through the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and teaching jazz in the Philadelphia Prison System and with the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts.

White’s fellowship project explores how Johnson and his band would have engaged in musical “code-switching”—performing the same compositions differently before Black and white audiences. Because there are of course no contemporary recordings of performances by Johnson, who lived only into the 1840s, White engaged in creative reimagining of the dance tunes, marches, and other musical compositions for which Johnson was widely celebrated in his day. White partnered with Philadelphia guitarist Matt Davis to create new free-form jazz arrangements that reimagine the influence of Afro-Caribbean rhythms on Johnson’s music.

White’s new album, code-switching (2022), the result of his fellowship explorations, will be released soon on streaming platforms. It features his new arrangements of two compositions that are present in the Library Company’s Francis Johnson manuscript (“Battle of N’Orleans” and “Adagio in D Minor”) as well as several that survive in published sheet music, including “Recognition March of the Independence of Hayti,” “Bingham’s Cotillion,” and “The Grave of the Slave.” A celebratory celebratory album launch concert featuring White and musical guests was held at Philadelphia’s historic Mother Bethel AME Church on September 23, 2022.

Brent White, a recipient of the 2021 Francis Johnson Fellowship

The Innovation Fellowship Program is made possible by the generosity of our Founding Sponsor Randall M. Miller and Sustaining Sponsors Louise M. and Peter J. Kelly, John C. and Christine K. Van Horne, and a donor who wishes to remain anonymous.