The Early Days
Sam was an extraordinary musician, scholar, teacher, mentor, and friend. His mother, Theora, cultivated Sam’s interest in music from a very early age, hoping he would become a concert pianist. Yet, Sam’s love for percussion instruments and his ability to reproduce “street beats” and complex rhythms soon guided his educational trajectory. Sam earned a Bachelor of Science in Music at Florida A&M University (FAMU), and upon graduation in 1957, he was appointed to the position of Band Director at Smith-Brown High School in Arcadia, Florida.
Smith-Brown’s band was small, but mighty, and the students were dedicated musicians. Several of them, however, lived out in the country and would have struggled to get to rehearsals if “Mr. Floyd” hadn’t intervened. Years later, Sam is remembered for making sure each of the students had rides to and from rehearsals because he drove them himself!
Sam remained at Smith-Brown until 1962, when he was asked to return to his alma mater to serve as the Assistant Director of Bands. Sam always reflected fondly on his time at FAMU, as the school’s Department of Music was recognized nationally for its talented students, staff, and professors. One such member of the FAMU community, Johnnie V. Lee, encouraged him to pursue additional educational opportunities so that he could, ultimately, become a professor of music. “Mrs. Lee,” as she was known, ultimately mentored three generations of the Floyd family, and it is to her legacy that The Transformation of Black Music is dedicated. Mrs. Lee’s assessment of black music and music education can be found in Reflections on Afro-American Music, Black Music in the Undergraduate Curriculum.
With Mrs. Lee’s support, Sam entered Southern Illinois University (SIU) at Carbondale, Illinois, in 1964, and he completed a Master of Music Education (MME). He also established a percussion studio in the basement of his home, where he taught the techniques of the concert marimba. His passion for teaching young people prompted him to investigate the science and philosophy of education so that he could become a more dynamic and effective pedagogue. By the mid-1960s, SIU had begun to host a number of visiting professors, whose research was at the forefront of America’s overarching shift in educational strategies, and the university sought to build one of the nation’s most robust programs in education, complete with relevant archival collections and research centers. Curiosity led Sam to spend countless hours poring over the papers at the Center for Dewey Studies, whose namesake–John Dewey–had been a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Dewey’s pioneering work in experiential learning and pragmatism earned him the reputation of America’s premier scholar of education. His idea of the use of education to cure social ills immediately resonated with Sam. Sam enrolled in courses taught by George Counts and Theodore Brameld, who were striving to expand Dewey’s work and provide opportunities for new scholars to consider the application of Dewey’s educational philosophies to other subjects. Over the next few years, Sam worked toward a PhD in the philosophy of education and wrote his dissertation on Dewey’s notion of “appreciation” as applied to music, earning his degree in 1969.
Black Music Research
Sam was subsequently offered an assistant professorship at SIU, and he taught a variety of courses on music history and appreciation. Over the next few years, he and his wife, Barbara, raised their family in Carbondale; with the town’s proximity to important cities, especially Chicago and St. Louis, Sam began conducting musicological research throughout the Midwest. He stumbled across a number of unexpected findings, including musical compositions of a then-unknown African-American composer, Joseph Postelwaite. Despite Postelwaite’s compositional output and prowess as a nineteenth-century bandleader, he and the vast majority of black composers and musicians were typically omitted from standard musical curricula.
Sam was able to present his research before a motivated and receptive audience: the readers of Eileen Southern’s journal, The Black Perspective in Music. Southern’s series, which she had initiated in 1973, provided a new and much-needed platform for musical researchers and enthusiasts to publish their findings on black practitioners and musical traditions that were considered unsuitable for publication in mainstream venues. Indeed, she developed a solid readership throughout the African Diaspora and helped to legitimize the study of these practitioners and their music.
Excited by the prospects of his discoveries and emboldened by the reception of his research, Sam soon recognized what became his calling in life: the study of black music in the United States and throughout the Diaspora. After fourteen years in Carbondale, he and his family moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where Sam established the Institute for Research in Black American Music at Fisk University. A historically black university, Fisk University is home to the famed Fisk Jubilee Singers, a co-ed musical ensemble that traveled to Europe in the 1870s, bringing the music of black Americans before new audiences. Sam’s father, Sam Sr., had been a member of the Jubilee Singers at one time, and Fisk University provided a welcoming environment for the development of the Institute.
During his tenure at Fisk University, Sam was awarded several research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Newberry Library, and the Tennessee Arts Commission. These grants sponsored research, conferences, and a Black Music Seminar series, and collectively, these endeavors formed an important component of the Institute. In 1980, Sam launched the first issue of the Black Music Research Journal (BMRJ), which he dedicated to a father/son pair of Fisk University graduates, John Wesley Work II (author of Folk Songs of the American Negro ) and John Wesley Work III (author of American Negro Songs 1940]). The BMRJ, now in its thirty-sixth volume, includes articles about the philosophy, aesthetics, and criticism of black music and remains the only periodical of its kind in the world.
Chicago: Center for Black Music Research
As the Institute flourished, Sam’s accomplishments caught the attention of Mirron “Mike” Alexandroff, then president of Columbia College Chicago. At Alexandroff’s request, Sam came to Chicago in 1983 and founded the Center for Black Music Research, from which he retired in 2006.
During this time, Sam also founded four performance ensembles: Black Music Repertory Ensemble (1987) and the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble (1999), Ensemble Kalinda (1995) and Stop-time (1998). In addition, he organized and presented ten national and international conferences on the topic of black music research and amassed a world-renowned collection of music, scores, and unique archival materials currently held at the CBMR.
During his tenure at the CBMR, he co-authored two books (with Marsha Reisser [Heizer]) including Black Music in the United States: An Annotated Bibliography (Kraus International, 1983) and Black Music Biography: An Annotated Bibliography (Kraus International, 1987). He also edited Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance: A Collection of Essays (Greenwood Press, 1990), which received the Irving Lowens Book Award from the Society for American Music, and the International Dictionary of Black Composers (Fitzroy-Dearborn, 1999), which was named one of the Twenty Best Reference Books for the year 1999 from the New York Public Library and received an “Outstanding Reference Source” award from the American Library Association in 2000 in addition to a Choice Award as an Outstanding Academic Title.
In 1995, he published his groundbreaking monograph The Power of Black Music (Oxford University Press) and launched Lenox Avenue, a Journal of Interarts Inquiry, for which he served as editor. His articles have appeared in a variety of publications including 19th-Century Music, American Music, Black Music Research Journal, Black Perspective in Music, Chronicle of Higher Education, and the College Music Symposium, among others.