by JANET MANDELSTAM
When Tyron Cooper was named director of the Indiana University Archives of African American Music and Culture last year, he set a goal: “To bring our collection alive.”
For Cooper that means making this repository of music—from blues and gospel to R&B and hip-hop—more accessible by using technology like video and virtual reality. And by adding live performances. “We’re trying to tell the broadest story possible about black music,” he says.
Cooper, 47, is something of a musical polymath. Not only is he an archivist, he’s a musician, composer, arranger, scholar, and teacher.
As a composer, Cooper won his fourth Emmy Award in June for writing the music to accompany the public television documentary Eva: A7603, the story of Holocaust survivor Eva Kor. “For a documentary film, you’ve got to understand how music conveys the story,” Cooper says. For Eva, he says, “I used Negro spirituals to convey the sentiment of Eva’s traumatic experiences. She was enslaved in a concentration camp, and my great, great grandfather was a slave.”
He also received an Emmy nomination this year for The Music Makers of Gennett Records, a documentary about the pioneering Richmond, Indiana, recording company.
“Black music has been a defining force in my life,” Cooper says. He grew up in South Florida, one of six siblings. “We lived in an ethnically diverse neighborhood—Cubans, Haitians, Jamaicans—a real mix of cultural expressions, and music was a big part of that.”
His parents were gospel concert promoters. “One Easter Sunday when I was about 7, our family sang in church,” Cooper recounts. “Soon people started calling us to sing. We toured the Southeast Coast performing in churches, auditoriums, and as part of gospel concerts. This continued until I went off to college.”
After graduating from Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, Cooper came to IU, earning a master’s in jazz studies and a doctorate in ethnomusicology. In addition to directing the archives, he serves as an assistant professor of African American and African diaspora studies at IU.
It was in IU’s African American Choral Ensemble that Cooper met his wife, Joii, who works in development at the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art at IU. The Coopers live in the rural reaches of Bloomington, and together they have launched Art Salad Productions, a company that develops and supports multicultural arts education projects.