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LEIMERT PARK : Giving Black Music Its Due

October 18, 1992|ERIN J. AUBRY

Bette Cox recalled Sam Brown, who, in 1936, became the Los Angeles Unified School District's first black secondary school music teacher. Cox and her organization, the BEEM Foundation, honored the 83-year-old former Jefferson High School teacher at a scholarship luncheon last year.

"He came up to me afterward with tears in his eyes and said: 'This is the happiest day of my life,' " said Cox. "He died just a few weeks later. I was so happy to have recognized him, and have other people realize his contributions, before that happened."

Preserving and publicizing the musical achievements of African-Americans is why Cox began the BEEM Foundation (The Black Experience as Expressed Through Music) out of her Leimert Park home. Cox, a member of the city's Cultural Affairs Commission and a former music adviser for the school district, said the foundation was an outgrowth of a series of black music workshops she gave for teachers.

"When that ended 10 years ago, I felt the information just had to continue," said Cox. "So many great people go unnoticed by history. And black music isn't all jazz and blues--there have been some great performers and composers of classical and opera music as well."

Granted nonprofit status in 1982 and funded by various organizations and corporations, BEEM consists of 17 musicologists and educators who research black music history, award music scholarships to competition winners at an annual luncheon and concert, and prepare educational films and videos.

Their most visible film project has been a PBS special, "Blind Tom: The Story of Thomas Bethune," a 1987 Emmy Award-winning documentary on the life of a little-known slave and musician that was also seen at Los Angeles schools. Cox is amassing interviews and material for her Los Angeles Renaissance project, a historical take on a wealth of virtually unknown composers that populated the Central Avenue jazz scene of the '30s and '40s.

"This research covers everything, not just the nightclubs," Cox said. "I got started doing this about 20 years ago, and now I've got to have everybody's stories, the oral things that were never documented. I'm consumed with a history that's never been told."

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