Opera League News & Articles

The Ballad of a Lifelong Educator

He joined his church choir at six. There was no looking back.

By Tom Lady

“The Hemmings Dinner was terrific! My wife and I really enjoyed it. It was such an honor for the Opera League to recognize AALAO [African Americans for LA Opera] as an integral part of the total organization of the Opera League, finally, after thirty years.”

Joel Graham joined the Opera League, and its chapter, African Americans for LA Opera (AALAO), in the mid-nineties, not long after AALAO was founded in 1994.

Indeed, it was thanks to AALAO co-founders Dr. Gwendolyn “Gwen” Wyatt and Eva Grant, the latter a League member since the League’s inception in 1981, that Joel got involved.

Joel and Dr. Wyatt had already been acquainted through the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM), the country’s oldest organization “dedicated to the preservation, encouragement, and advocacy of all genres of the music of Black Americans.” Since its 1919 founding, NAMN has been peopled with passionate volunteers like Joel to help “promote, preserve, and support all genres of music created or performed by African-Americans.”

“NAMN seeks out high school- and college-age musicians to compete for scholarships,” Joel explains. “Then we stay with them through college, providing them a platform to show off their skills. Because that’s the biggest thing, that’s the biggest problem. Students don’t have an outlet for people to recognize their talent.”

As it happens, our featured vocalist for this year’s Father’s Day Recital appeared on AALAO’s radar through NAMH.

“Cedric [Berry, bass-baritone] came through NANM as a high school student, and we followed him all the way through with AALAO,” Joel says. “AALAO would offer Cedric a platform to perform for different audiences.” Indeed, Cedric Berry has been AALAO’s featured vocalist at previous recitals, most recently the Black History Month Recital in February 2021.

Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, Joel enlisted in the U.S. Army out of high school and served for two and half years. From there he enrolled at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, where he majored in Vocal Music. After teaching sixth grade for seven years, Joel earned his Masters of Education from Case Western Reserve in Cleveland.

Just before getting ready to help his fellow AALAO volunteers prepare for the upcoming Father’s Day Recital (details on the back page calendar), Joel sat down with BRAVO so we could get to know him a little better.

BRAVO: By the time you went to college, you already knew you wanted to study music. How young were you when you caught the music bug?
Joel Graham: I guess about six years old. It started in the Church Sunshine Choir in my local church, the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Jackson. During junior high, I started singing in doo-wop groups with friends from school. We competed with other groups around Jackson. The singers who inspired me back then included Sam Cook, Clyde McPhatter with the Drifters, Etta Fitzgerald.

I sang in the choirs of all the institutions I attended, from grade school onward. I also sang in church choirs. During my seven years in Cleveland, during and after getting my masters, while working in education, I performed at the Karamu House Theatre, which is now the oldest Black theater in the U.S. [opened in 1915]. Karamu is where Langston Hughes developed and premiered his plays. Some of the productions I performed at Karamu were Oklahoma!, Golden Boy, Raisin in the Sun, A Soldier’s Story. Karamu did a lot of musicals, which was what attracted me.

BRAVO: And after those seven years in Cleveland, you relocated to L.A.?
Joel Graham: Yeah, I made the big jump to L.A. to try my hand at singing and acting. I kept working at it a couple years, because my wife, Jean, and daughter, Michelle, were back in Cleveland. I landed jobs as an extra, but it wasn’t enough to provide for my family, so I took a teaching job in Inglewood. Then my family joined me. That teaching job ended up being my job for the next 30 years. Eventually I became assistant principal at La Tajera Middle School, part of Inglewood’s public school system.

BRAVO: What do you love most about being a member of and volunteer for of the Opera League and AALAO? What sorts of volunteering have you done?
Joel Graham: What I love most is that it affords people of color to become more aware of opera, and I love that it gives students an opportunity to participate in LA Opera productions.

As for volunteer duties, I used to be a greeter at our recitals. I would also bring drinks. I became the de facto bartender, bringing the refreshments like wine and beer, soft drinks, tea, water. I would set up everything for that.

BRAVO: How do you envision AALAO moving forward? Is there anything AALAO could/should do differently to attract younger members?
Joel Graham: One of the main problems is exposure of our organization and what we do. When we produce programs, it's not advertised enough, it's not out there enough, in the media enough. So, if we could so something along those lines, that would be a help.

Also, if the Opera League itself could take it upon itself to pick two or three high school music departments, and invite them to a free opera.

As an assistant principal at La Tajera Middle School, I brought in operas. For example, the Opera League came in and helped organize a dinner concert where the kids performed in a student opera.

Now, if I hadn't been in AALAO, I wouldn't have known anything about that program.

Also, the kids need to be able to go backstage to see what goes on, so that they understand there are jobs in theater and opera behind the scenes. You don't have to be an opera singer to make a living at it.

BRAVO: Are you a member of other nonprofits?
Joel Graham: I’m a member of Operation Ceasefire. It’s a partnership between police and the community to stop gun violence in the community. Police officers are also members of Ceasefire. It’s organized through my church, Bethel AME [African Methodist Episcopal]. We meet once a month.

I’m also a member of Bethel AME’s community development center, working with the church’s food program. We give out food and clothing every week.

BRAVO: Do you have a favorite opera and opera singer?
Joel Graham: Favorite opera? Porgy and Bess, because it showcases our race, people of color.

As far as singer, it would be [bass-baritone] Paul Robeson. He was able to move between genres. Great voice. He could do it all.

BRAVO: Outside of music and opera, what are some of your other hobbies and interests?
Joel Graham: I’m a member and volunteer with the American Legion.

When I enlisted in the Army out of high school, I served two and a half years and achieved officer status as First Lieutenant, Airborne Infantry.

So, today I’m a member of the American Legion, specifically the Jackie Robinson Post, 252, as the sergeant-at-arms.

The Legion is a national organization for all military personnel. We take care of vets, their families, our communities. The Legion helps lobby congress to pass bills that would benefit veterans. That’s the Legion at the national level.

As for local posts, like the Jackie Robinson post I belong to, we focus on local community work, like helping vets find places to live, providing them with food, all the basics a person would need to live. We host clothing giveaways, golf clinics. Last November, for Veteran's Day, we hosted a dance, and we had VA [Veterans Affairs] workers onsite offering flu shots.

As sergeant-at-arms, my responsibility is that order is kept, rules, like parliamentary rules, and regulations are followed, order is maintained in the meetings.

Aside from the Legion, I enjoy sports. Lakers basketball, Raiders football. I like the theater, I like movies, I like card games and TV and Vegas. My favorite Vegas resort is Caesars Palace.

Maybe I should go back and put church in front of all that!

BRAVO: Any final words?
Joel Graham: Like I said before, we need to promote the Opera League more, especially AALAO, so that we have a stronger connection between singers of color and the opera world, like LA Opera. Let’s seek out ways to make that happen.

Want to meet the incomparable Joel in person? While experiencing world-class lyricism? Click here to book your spot at AALAO's annual Father's Day Recital at the historic Ebell of Los Angeles featuring bass-baritone Cedric Berry.

Author: Thomas Lady

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