Music School Celebrates Late Founder's 100th Birthday

By Paul DeBenedetto on March 26, 2014 8:59am 

 A memorial for L. Elsie Cumberbatch in the school she founded, the Brooklyn chapter of the National Association of Negro Musicians.
A memorial for L. Elsie Cumberbatch in the school she founded, the Brooklyn chapter of the National Association of Negro Musicians.
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Facebook/Patricia F. Robinson

BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — A Bed-Stuy music school honored the legacy of its founding teacher on what would have been the late performer's 100th birthday.

The Brooklyn chapter of the National Association of Negro Musicians celebrated the life of L. Elsie Graham, a longtime Bed-Stuy resident who founded the school as a high school student in 1930.

The school started as a way to share Graham's abilities with others, her daughter Patricia F. Robinson said.

"She played for churches and taught students and she performed her whole life," Robinson said. "Her life was full with music."

Born in Philadelphia in 1914, Graham moved to her family's home country of Barbados at the age of two, only to move back during high school and settle with an aunt in Bed-Stuy.

While attending Girls High School, Graham began taking music lessons but was so talented that her teacher recommended she start her own school, Robinson said.

Cumberbatch opened the Stuyvesant School of Music — now known as the Patricia F. Robinson Music Studio at 590 Madison St. — in 1930, teaching voice and organ to adults and children.

She also started three choirs out of the space a children's choir, a men's choir and an adult men and women's choir.

"She was there 24-7, and her door was open to everybody, whether you had an appointment or not," Robinson said.

Graham continued running the school for years before handing the reins over to her daughter who, following in her mother's footsteps, also began teaching in the school at a young age.

"I loved her so much that I knew all along that I would be continuing the school," Robinson said.

Graham passed away in 1999.

On March 23, former students came to honor the late teacher's legacy, with singers from every decade of the school's existence performing for a standing-room only crowd, including a videotaped performance by the oldest living member of the 1930s class.

Students who went on to study at Juilliard and perform at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem remembered how Graham helped them grow, what the school meant to them and personal memories of their time learning from her, Robinson said.

The outpouring of respect demonstrated the impact she made on peoples' lives, Robinson said.

"It was wonderful to see how the music and my mom affected their lives," Robinson said. "The legend lives on."

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