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Herald-Times articles

April 24, 2006

Bridge to the chorus one last time; Director of IU's African American Choral Ensemble, James Mumford, retires after 23 years
by Nicole Kauffman
Hoosier Times
April 23, 2006

BLOOMINGTON -- James Mumford could have been many things.

When he tried his hand at growing Bonsai trees, the Japanese plants that are notoriously difficult to cultivate, he took home 11 first-place prizes from a Philadelphia Bonsai convention.

When he wrote a letter to Dog World magazine about observations he made of his beloved Shih Tzu, a dog he bred, he became a regular columnist for the publication.

"Most things I get involved with, I get really involved with," he said.

For many years, Mumford planned to be an opera singer. He even proudly turned down Joseph Papp when the founder of New York City's Public Theater invited him - in person - to join Shakespeare in the Park. Former participants include Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, Marcia Gay Harden and Morgan Freeman.

"I could have been famous," Mumford said.

But the 70-year-old director of the Indiana University African American Choral Ensemble has no regrets. He believes wherever he is, that's where he's supposed to be.

Come next week, Mumford will be a Bloomington retiree. He has threatened to retire every year for the past decade, and this time, he means it.

"Everybody in my age group retired six, seven, eight years ago. They say, 'You still workin'?' So, I'm going, like, 'Yeah?'" he said, laughing.

The quiet, spiritually guided voice he relies on for big life decisions told him it was time.

"I'm obedient to that voice, to that god-source in me," he said. "And plus, I'm in my 52nd year (of teaching)."

Leaving a legacy

No longer will Mumford's presence at the African American Arts Institute be announced on weekdays by his powerful singing voice. No longer will his storytelling be part of students' days.

But, Mumford will leave a formidable legacy; he will be remembered as someone who contributed greatly to students' lives, and to IU's mission to recruit-retain-graduate.

"He has helped a number of young people feel comfortable here at IU, particularly students who are African American and need to identify within this large university, having a sense of their culture being a part (of it)," said Charles Sykes, director of the African American Arts Institute. "I've heard students say, 'If it wasn't for (the choral ensemble), I wouldn't have stayed at IU.'"

Mumford's students will probably chuckle when they think of his quirks.

Without so much as a flinch, the professor says things like, "My Dobermans - I had two - could actually read my mind." He's known for forgetting students' names, but he just renames them with names he can remember.

"And they let me," he said.

Sykes, a graduate student at IU when Mumford was both a graduate student and associate instructor with the IU Soul Revue, recalls taking long bus trips to concerts - and laughing the whole way there.

"By the time you arrive, you have a pain in your side from laughing so hard. He'll have you rolling in the aisles," Sykes said.

Mumford sees his choral ensemble as a big family, one in which he's the father figure. His old-fashioned attitude commands respect: No student dares to curse or smoke in front of him.

"It proves to me that students want boundaries," he said.

What makes him most proud is bridging the gaps between different levels of talent in the ensemble, while demonstrating that individuals' journeys toward knowledge are as important as knowledge itself.

"I've got doctoral students, and students who don't know what a C clef is," he said. "I want students to not measure themselves against other people, but to measure themselves against themselves."

Singing pretty

Shortly before his final choral ensemble concert at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater in early April, Mumford stood -- for the last time -- in front of his singers in room 201 of the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center.

A student was practicing her solo, singing, "I want to die easy."

"I don't want you to sing pretty. Make a ugly face," Mumford tells her, as giggles go through the ensemble.

The significance of the song to the slaves who sang it was that they wanted to die with dignity, he explains. They knew they could die at the hands of slave masters, so the song was a kind of prayer.

The singer tries again.

""Get mad! Push it. Come on. Find what your voice can do in your heart," Mumford coaches.

It's moments like these Mumford will miss most, showing a student what he or she can do, bringing out the best in each singer under his wing.

"I think he's an incredible teacher, in the sense that he's able to discover in a student - and help that student discover things - that they didn't know they had. He has a way of showing them to believe in themselves," Sykes said.

The music stops, and students applaud the singer's willingness to put herself out there, vulnerable, exposing raw emotion.

They start shuffling their books and back packs, and Mumford looks surprised.

"Is it 2:05 already?"

Staying busy

Mumford plans to keep in touch with his students when he leaves; that's nothing new. Some of the first students he had at IU now have teenagers of their own, whom Mumford considers his grandchildren.

He also will stay busy working on various projects, such as the opera and several books he's writing.

He will take to the theatrical stage again, too, participating in the first-ever New Musical Development Workshop at IU, which will premiere a musical on campus in August.

And, Mumford will finally get to spend more time with his latest dogs, miniature pinchers - or "minpins," one of whom is named Miss Pookie May Johnson - taking them for nice, long walks from his East Second Street home.

He won't be in the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center every day, but he won't be far. He's definitely staying in Bloomington.

"I never thought that I could love it here," he said, recalling how slow he thought the pace was when he first arrived. "I thought I'd get my doctorate and get out of Dodge before sundown. Bloomington just kind of grows on you."

James Mumford

• Was a school teacher in New Jersey before pursuing his doctorate.

• Prefers to be called Jim.

• Received his Ph.D. from IU in 1981.

• Is associate professor of Afro-American Studies.

• Has been director of the African American Choral Ensemble since 1983.

• Created and taught the Groups Theatre Project.

• Has directed many student productions, including "Cats," "West Side Story" and "The Wiz."

• Has directed his original musicals, including "Lift Every Voice" and "1 More River 2 Cross."

• Has premiered many of his compositions, including "Black Nativity," "Ebon-One" and "ST-Sojourner Truth: Choral Portraits," with the choral ensemble.

• Has received the Presidents Award; a Who's Who in American Education acknowledgement; a Faculty Colloquium on Excellence in Teaching award; and the Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award, from the city of Bloomington.

• Was voted Distinguished African American Professor by Black Student Union and Delta Sigma Theta.

• Was honored with a proclamation from Mayor Mark Kruzan celebrating April 8, 2006, as Dr. James Earl Mumford Day in Bloomington.

About the African American Choral Ensemble:

Herman Hudson, founder of the IU department of Afro-American Studies (not the current department of African American and African Diaspora Studies), created the African American Arts Institute in 1974, an arts program based in African American performance traditions.

The African American Choral Ensemble was founded in 1975 by Michael Gordon, and Mumford is one of his former students. It is one of three institute ensembles -- the choral ensemble, the IU Soul Revue, and the African American Dance Co.

Admission into the ensembles is open to all IU students through audition.