NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA– The items and objects we use in our lives carry our story long after we pass on. New Orleans’ Roosevelt Hotel is renowned for it’s grandeur. One artifact in the hotel has a backstory like none other, thanks to the remarkable musician who once owned it.
Upon a recent visit to the Roosevelt, my eyes rested on the splendor of a Gaveau Paris grand piano. Etienne Tardy is the Director of Sales and Marketing for the Roosevelt. He painted a beautiful story of the piano saying, “it’s a rosewood piano with intricate detail. If you look at the sculpted portion where the music sits. It’s just an incredible museum piece.”
There is much more to the piano and I suspect most of the patrons who stroll through the lobby are oblivious to it’s importance in music history. The piano was once owned by Basile Bares, a virtuoso of music, believed to be the first African American to have copyrighted music. What is incredible, is that he was enslaved when his first piece of music was published.
“He was with a family called the Pierre family who owned a music store and was fortunate enough to befriend the father who taught him music. At the age of 16, he wrote a song called, the Grande Poka Des Chasseurs a Pied de la Louisiane, which translates to Louisiana Infantry Men Polka,” says Tardy.
At 20 he was the talk of New Orleans society, performing dance music in every major venue following the Civil War. He would travel around the country and then dazzle audiences overseas in France.
I was curious as to how the piano ended up at the Roosevelt in the first place. Tardy’s story continued by saying, “Basile went to France with the Gaveaux family who built this piano in the 1850’s. Basile then, came back and worked with the Grunwalds. The tie-in with the hotel is special, in that Grunwalds had a music hall that they expanded into a hotel. That hotel became the Roosevelt!”
It’s great to know people. Fortunately, on my pilgrimage back through time, a friend of mine by the name of DeAndre M. Tate, Esq accompanied me during my visit. Tate is an accomplished pianist and music educator and knew one of Basile’s compositions by the name of “Basile’s Galop Pour Piano no. 9. We received special permission and DeAndre resurrected the genius of Basile Bares, as he played to the delight of the hotel’s patrons.
“Just to know that there’s someone that was black that was doing this. Someone besides Chopin, Bach and Beethoven, who had copyrighted music, especially gaining the copyright when he was enslaved is overwhelming. It’s not the easiest piece to play because of the accuracy of your left hand. The right hand is simple but the left hand is more challenging,” said Tate.
My favorite part of discovering Basile, was seeing the photographs and music of Basile Bares in Xavier University’s archives, with the assistance of Nancy Hampton the Head of Collection Resources at Xavier University of Louisiana.
Bares’ compositions were new measures in the overall narrative of black music ownership in America. It is a beautiful prelude to a timeline that included everyone that would come after him, from Jay Z’s groundbreaking Tidal to the over three thousand songs written by Duke Ellington.
Basile Bares shattered expectations before a divided country could unionize.
To find out more about Basile Bares, click here.