Breda’s musical gifts helped Xavier singers soar

“He was a tough teacher, but a good one,” Dr. Wilfred Delphin said about his former Xavier University of Louisiana professor and colleague Dr. Malcolm Breda as he was awarded the top African-American educator by the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM) at the recent national convention in New Orleans.

Breda’s devotion to Xavier University for 45 years in the department of music as a teacher, choral conductor and department head contributed to the honor, Delphin said. Delphin is member of the local convention host committee – the 100-year-old “B Sharp Music Club” – that unanimously nominated Breda.

“Dr. Breda received the award in education, but he really is a very fine performer and has written (books and articles) extensively about African-American musicians,” said Delphin, internationally known as half of the piano duo Delphin and Romaine and a current Xavier artist-in-residence. “He wrote his doctoral dissertation on African-American composer Hale Smith, and it was published in book form and used to teach in the classroom. For years, it was the definitive study of Hale Smith.”

Delphin said Breda has published articles in the “International Dictionary of Black Composers,” a resource for researchers of African-American composers, and has a reputation as a talented pipe organist and an accompanist for many, including soprano Leontyne Price during her performances in New Orleans.

As his colleague, Delphin became aware of Breda’s great sense of humor.

“For as grumpy as he could appear on the surface, he has a big heart,” Delphin said. “He was a very kind man but very exacting as a teacher. He was getting us ready to compete as we went on to graduate school or professional careers. Those are very competitive fields, and you had to know how to be prepared. He was trying to teach us you can’t get by on surface knowledge of anything. You’ve got to know what you are talking about.”

Talent noticed early

Breda was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, and was deeply influenced by the Blessed Sacrament nuns. They saw musical promise in the young Breda and got him a scholarship to attend Xavier University, where he graduated in 1956.

“He was born with a gift just like Amadeus Mozart,” said Cynthia Cheri-Woolridge, a former student and choir member.

He proceeded to teach at various universities and earned his master’s degree at Indiana University in Bloomington and a Ph.D. in music at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1975. During his tenure at Xavier, he attracted top musicians Danny Baker and Ellis Marsalis to teach, and Xavier became fully accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music.

He also is a Fulbright Scholar, an organist-in-residence at Father Flanagan’s Home for Boys at Boys Town, Nebraska, and has held membership in professional music organizations such as Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the National Association of Negro Musicians, American Guild of Organists and Center for Black Music Research.

Helped integrate choir

For all his accomplishments, Breda’s hiring as an organist and choir director at St. Dominic Church in Lakeview to integrate the choir was ground-breaking. Dominican Father Neal McDermott hired him for the job after meeting Breda while serving as chaplain at Loyola University New Orleans.

“He presented himself as a very capable man,” Father McDermott said. “I already had a young people’s choir, but Dr. Breda wanted to direct an adult choir. I said, ‘Why not?’ You couldn’t have asked for a nicer gentleman.

“It went very smoothly. … I saw the parish become more diverse, and people he directed were pleased.”

To assist him at St. Dominic, Breda invited Dr. John Ware as a tenor; Earlin Vincent as a soprano; and Cheri-Woolridge as mezzo soprano. Cheri-Woolridge, a long-time local organist who now plays at St. Augustine Church, was mesmerized by his pipe organ mastery.

“He had an outstanding choir and brought us in to sing to help out with those sections when needed,” she said. “Father McDermott got the best when he got him. … I was never more proud when Dr. Breda asked me to sing in the choir at St. Dominic.”

Upon introducing Breda at the awards banquet, Delphin said Breda freely shared his many talents and influenced countless musicians.

“It’s been large because he has taught so many of us who have gone out and pursued professional careers performing or teaching,” Delphin said. “I don’t know if anyone has ever sat down and came up with a number. He’s taught a lot of different people.”

Breda directed “The Gleemen,” glee club while teaching at St. John Vianney Prep and counts current Auxiliary Bishop Fernand Cheri and his brother Richard among his students. He also performed background music in 1987 for a private meeting St. Pope John Paul II had in at the Superdome during his New Orleans visit and brought the Xavier University Choir to Rome in 2000 for St. Katharine Drexel’s canonization.

Breda-trained pupils with storied careers include Gail Gilmore, an opera singer and now with her own studio in Germany; Clarence Carter, an opera singer in Europe who performs in opera and musical theater; and Ware, a National Association of Negro Musicians choral master and music department chair at Xavier University for many years.

“The fruits of Dr. Breda’s giving, sharing, mentoring have paid off and lives on in the many lives he taught,” Delphin said. “We are indebted and forever grateful.”

Christine Bordelon can be  reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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