WSU music professor performs on White House lawn during Juneteenth, Black Music Month celebration
Brandon Waddles remembers where he was when he got the call.
“I happened to be in California,” said the Wayne State University Department of Music assistant professor in teaching, choral conducting and music education. “Ledisi’s management reached out that President Biden wanted to put on a Juneteenth and Black Music Month celebration and asked if I wanted to help prepare a performance.”
The request didn’t come from out of the blue. Waddles and the Grammy Award-winning recording artist Ledisi’s musical relationship goes back to summer 2019. Shortly before he came to teach at Wayne State, Ledisi brought him in as a music director for some of her Nina Simone-flavored shows, “Nina & Me,” in which she paid tribute to the legendary singer-songwriter. Since then, the pair have worked on numerous symphonic collaborations and smaller band dates, with Waddles serving as the music director.
Which is why it wasn’t a surprise that she chose Waddles to perform with her at the White House with other talented performers such as Jennifer Hudson, Audra McDonald, Method Man, the Tennessee State University Marching Band, Step Afrika!, Hampton University Concert Choir and more. “You had a little bit of everybody there,” Waddles said. “It was wonderful to see and a beautiful celebration.”
The first-ever Juneteenth concert — held June 13 on the White House’s South Lawn — also celebrated the official proclamation by the Biden-Harris Administration for Black Music Month, to be celebrated every June to uplift art forms that sing to the soul of the American experience.
But first, Waddles and Ledisi had to not only find a song but also create the arrangement — in less than two weeks. After mulling over a few choices, they selected Tina Turner’s cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” to pay tribute to the former’s recent passing.
“We figured that would be a wonderful conjunction of tribute and universalism in Black culture. So, we came up with this arrangement to make that happen,” Waddles said. “Thankfully, we also had the collaboration of Hampton University’s choir, which was directed by my dear friend, Omar Dickenson.”
In a serendipitous moment a week before the event, the two friends ran into each other at a convention, both soon realizing they had been asked to be at the White House with their respective ensemble artists.
“I’ve known him for years, so it was good to be able to send over a vocal part that our dear friend Sarah Williams put together,” Waddles said. “Part of my job is to be in communication with both ends, making sure the arrangement is working for both sides and serve as point of rehearsal with the U.S. Marine Band, even before Miss Ledisi arrives to make sure her vision is brought to fruition. There's a lot of moving parts. It is a process and a labor of love.”
Watch and listen to a clip of the rehearsal with Waddles on piano.
In addition to Ledisi, Waddles has worked with a diverse array of artists. At the heart of his work is an unwavering passion for Black sacred music, instilled within him at a very young age by his father, Alvin Waddles, one of Detroit’s most beloved musicians. His areas of research focus are on Negro spirituals, the evolution of contemporary gospel music, and the life and work of Thomas Whitfield.
As a composer, conductor, educator and music director, Waddles continues to enjoy a multifaceted career spanning the musical gamut. His choral compositions and arrangements have been published and performed by choral ensembles around the world, including the Morehouse College and University of Michigan Glee Clubs, among others.
“And I’ve been very fortunate to have gone a little bit of everywhere with Miss Ledisi — from the Hollywood Bowl to Carnegie Hall to concert houses in Stockholm and the Kennedy Center,” Waddles said. “But the White House is a different level. I’ve been to DC many times. When I get there, I like to bike around places such as the National Mall or the monuments. But never have I been to the White House. And never like that.”
And while he didn’t have time to take a tour of the presidential residence, Waddles still soaked in the momentous occasion.
“By the time we got out for the performance, it was dark. I couldn’t see anything but what was on stage. And it's funny, as people are recording the performance from the audience, I can then see that President Biden was literally on the side where I was playing,” Waddles said. “To see it from that vantage point, even though I couldn't tell who was out there, is quite something. I’m just very grateful for the opportunity. I don’t take it lightly.”