Tufts University

Thomas Jefferson (T.J.) Anderson

Composer and conductor
Austin Fletcher Professor of Music Emeritus, Tufts University

[ Biography | Honorary Degree ]

Commencement 2007

Thomas Jefferson (T.J.) Anderson has composed opera, symphonic music, chamber works, pieces for band, and other compositions for voice and a variety of instruments. One graduate student at Indiana University devoted his entire doctoral dissertation to an analysis of Anderson's work. Yet when asked what musical success is, Anderson once said, "I'm not sure that success for a musician always means performing with the Boston Symphony … It can also mean passing the torch by teaching in a high school, or conducting a community chorus, or just pursuing the love of music as a hobby. It always comes back to the same thing—making the music."

Anderson has been making the music for most of his life. He was born on August 17, 1928, in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. As a teenager, he played jazz trumpet with Tate Wilburn's Cincinnati band, traveling by bus all night to the next performance and sprinkling white powder on his shirt to make it look clean the next day. In addition to the trumpet, he studied violin with Louis Von Jones at Howard University, as well as piano, saxophone, French horn, and bassoon. Intending to be a band director, he majored in music education at West Virginia State College and started an experimental jazz band. He earned a master's degree from Pennsylvania State University and a Ph.D. in composition from the University of Iowa in 1958. He has taught at Langston University, Tennessee State University, and Morehouse College.

In 1968, the noted choral conductor Robert Shaw chose him as composer-in-residence with the Atlanta Symphony, and later, Anderson orchestrated the first complete performance of African-American ragtime composer Scott Joplin's opera Treemonisha, which was premiered by Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony to great acclaim. In 1982, Indiana University commissioned him to write an opera, Soldier Boy, Soldier, the story of the effect of the Vietnam War on an inner-city black community.

Anderson began a nearly 20-year career at Tufts University in 1972, chairing the Department of Music until 1980. He was appointed Austin Fletcher Professor of Music in 1978, and in 1985 received the university's Lillian and Joseph Leibner Award for Distinguished Teaching and Advising. He retired from Tufts in 1990, when he was appointed Fletcher Professor of Music Emeritus.

Among his other works are Spiritual, commissioned by the Union United Methodist Church in Boston; Thomas Jefferson's Minstrels for solo baritone, male glee club, and jazz band, which premiered at Tufts in 1983; Songs of Illumination, performed at his retirement from Tufts; and Slavery Documents, commissioned and performed by the Cantata Singers of Boston. In 2006, the University of Iowa School of Music commissioned and premiered his Fragments, a J.S. Bach-T.S. Monk fantasy for improvised piano and orchestra.

Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians describes Anderson's work this way: "His own style of composition is audaciously modern, while preserving a deeply felt lyricism in melodic patterns; his harmonies are taut and intense, without abandoning the basic tonal frame…"

Among his many awards are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, and the National Center for the Humanities, which chose him as its first and only composer. He was a scholar-in-residence at the Rockefeller Center for Creative Arts in Bellagio, Italy, and received a distinguished achievement award from the National Association of Negro Musicians. In 1997, Anderson was honored with a concert of his own music in recognition of his being a founder and first president of the National Black Music Caucus. He was the only composer elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2005.

In his retirement, he has served as a lecturer, consultant, and visiting composer in the United States, Europe, and South America.

A man who has always valued the dignity and worth of his fellow man, Anderson said in a 1987 magazine interview, "It is my belief that music is an extension of human beings and human culture, and I work to instill the essence of this humanness in what I create. To me this human spirit means more than spirituality in the strict church sense; it means all the elements that comprise the pathos of being alive and being human—joy, sadness, the full compass."

In the same interview he talked about what he thought of being called a black American composer. "I not only don't mind it, but it is something of which I am terribly proud," he said. "I think it was James Farmer, the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, who observed that 90 percent of American music is black. It is simply the most important force in the history of American music, having given us so much of gospel, jazz, rhythm, and blues…" Tufts will award Anderson an honorary Doctor of Music degree.

This story originally ran on May 20, 2007.