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Dayton Funk Symposium

Dayton has given the world the cash register, electric car starter and pop-top can, among other innovations. The city also helped fuel the 1970s funk music boom, with nearly a dozen Dayton bands on major record labels during the latter half of that decade, including the Ohio Players, Lakeside and Heatwave.

The University of Dayton will host a Dayton Funk Symposium and Dance Party from Wednesday, Sept. 12, to Friday, Sept. 14, on campus. The symposium brings together scholars, teachers, students and performing artists to explore the rhythmic groove-based genre that put Dayton on the musical map. It also will include guided tours of the newly opened Funk Music Hall of Fame & Exhibition Center and the “Land of Funk” murals in downtown Dayton.

All events are free and open to the public. Space is limited. The Funk Dance Party at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, in the Kennedy Union ballroom, is sold out.

The event’s organizer — Sharon Davis Gratto, professor of music and Graul Chair in the Arts and Languages — has funk music bona fides. As a contract musician, she backed funk and soul great Isaac Hayes, playing flute in live orchestras during his performances in the Washington, D.C. area.

“I went to college in the ’60s,” Gratto said. “That’s my music.”

Gratto said the symposium connects to the “power and vulnerability” theme of the University’s 2018-19 First-Year Arts Immersion, which is designed to help first-year students connect their Humanities Commons course material to an overarching topic selected to encourage integrated learning.

Dayton’s funk music boom paralleled the rise and fall of the city’s manufacturing economy. When the economy was strong, Dayton’s large industrial working-class community had disposable income to pay for musical instruments and lessons. Many successful recording artists lived in Dayton and mentored young musicians.

“The working class is the engine of a lot of creativity,” said Scot Brown, an associate professor of African-American studies and history at the University of California, Los Angeles. Brown is writing a book exploring Dayton as a 1970s musical hotbed of funk and soul bands, and will give the symposium keynote address at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 12, in the Jesse Philips Humanities Center’s Sears Recital Hall.

“At that time, working-class folks could come right out of high school and go into job situations where one income, from one person working at a company, could support an entire family. The proportion that people would spend on housing was more reasonable compared to what they made. All these factors were a big part of that context for funk music to really thrive through the 1970s,” Brown said.

Gratto said funk laid the foundation for go-go, hip-hop, rap and subsequent genres, and influenced the outrageous stage costumes worn today by Lady Gaga and others.

“Young people need to know about funk music — that’s important,” said David Webb, The Funk Music Hall of Fame & Exhibition Center president and chief executive. “That’s why we are partnering with the University of Dayton, the Graul Chair and the Department of Music. This combination is a great fit for the Dayton community. It’s all about educating our public’s knowledge of the history of funk music.”

Located at 113 East Third St., the Funk Center features musical instruments, recording equipment, stage costumes and other memorabilia from a host of Dayton luminaries, who also include Slave, Zapp, Roger, Sun and Platypus.

Webb will be part of an introductory panel discussion about the city’s funk music history at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 12, in the Sears Recital Hall. He will be joined by Keith Harrison and Clarence “Chet” Willis of the Ohio Players, which scored No. 1 hits with Fire in 1975 and Love Rollercoaster in 1976.

Willis, a 1972 University alumnus, still tours with the Ohio Players and will be honored following Brown’s keynote address.

Symposium highlights also include Jesse Rae, a self-styled “funk warrior” from Scotland who collaborated with a number of American funk musicians during the 1970s and ’80s, and who performs in full Scottish clan dress with armor.

Speakers also include Dayton visual artists Willis “Bing” Davis and Morris Howard, as well as faculty from Duke University, University of Michigan, Tulane University, University of Kansas and the California College of the Arts, among other institutions.

For the full schedule of events, including Funk Dance Party ticket information, please visit the symposium website.

For more information about the Funk Center, please visit its website.

- Dave Larsen, communication coordinator, College of Arts and Sciences

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