When Melanie Zeck entered Indiana State in 1995 as a double major in music and chemistry, her idea of “doing music” meant playing in an orchestra and teaching in a studio.
But her post-graduation move to Chicago proved that the life of a performing musician was more challenging than expected.
“I was having a crisis and about to quit music altogether at one point,” she said. “I was at an audition, and there were 69 bassoonists vying for two $5,000-a-year positions with an orchestra in Chicago. I knew that I couldn’t keep practicing, making reeds and working on the side when there were 68 other people doing the exact same thing — and only a couple of positions were available.”
As she started to fear that “doing music” simply wasn’t going to work out, serendipity intervened.
Zeck, who also has a library science degree from Dominican University, signed on with a library temp agency. She was placed at a public library serving the suburbs of Harwood Heights and Norridge on Chicago’s northwest side, home to two of the largest Polish communities in the world.
It was behind the reference desk where Zeck saw firsthand the inconsistent services provided by state and municipal governments to immigrants, prompting people to gravitate toward a public service with an open-door policy — the library.
“My grandma always said, ‘When you feel bad for somebody, that means they actually need love or resources,’” Zeck said. “What I realized was that resources were key. One of my colleagues was masterful at getting people from point A to point B; however, that was defined in their personal lives, and I was captivated by her ability to talk to anybody, anytime, without judgment.”
The new gig may not have been lucrative, but it inspired Zeck to obtain bilingual signage for the library, run an after-school homework program for middle-schoolers, and — most importantly — shift her focus from music to psychology, with an emphasis on social work.
“I enrolled in psychology classes at the University of Chicago, and it was a transformative experience,” she said.
After the academic interlude, Zeck decided to regroup. While she continued to temp at the library, Indiana State professors Ann Rider and Don Jennermann encouraged her to teach a once-a-week research class in Indiana State’s Honors program (now Honors College), tapping the skills and knowledge acquired at the University of Chicago and through her work as a librarian.
Zeck was settling into this double life traveling between Terre Haute and Chicago when, in January 2005, the library temp agency called again. This time, Zeck was asked if she could read music because a research center in downtown Chicago had a two-week position for a librarian with that skill.
But, when Zeck arrived at the Center for Black Music Research on a snowy Thursday morning, she didn’t have the faintest idea what black music research entailed.
“By this time, I had three degrees in music, plus my library degree, but no background in any of what I was seeing there. I couldn’t even pronounce some of the words in the center’s book titles,” she said. “My initial foray and subsequent immersion into black music research was intense, to say the least. I was exposed to songs in languages from Aluku to Zulu and asked to investigate musical traditions from far-flung locales over the course of 1,300 years. Every time I turned around, I was learning something new and doing musical research for the first time in a way that I hadn’t known existed.”
After her first two weeks, Zeck agreed to stay for another, and then another, until she was asked to join the center full-time as a research assistant, working with its founder Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., to produce a book about the history of African musical practices.
Today, Zeck is responsible for fielding research inquiries in consultation with the center’s 100-plus archival collections, 12,000 sound recordings and 8,000 books — each of which deals with some aspect of music-making in Africa or its diaspora. In 2017, she was selected as the musicologist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s African-American Network, for which she presents a lecture series each season.
“I interact with people from all over the world who are interested in black musics — historical and contemporary — which could be anything from drum languages, to the spirituals, to jazz, to Ladysmith Black Mambazo,” she said. “At the CBMR, we do research on sonic and cultural traditions throughout the African continent and examine the musical practices of Afro-descendent practitioners living in Europe, the Americas and the circum-Caribbean.”
The Center for Black Music Research is not where Zeck expected to land. Yet, in a way, she has come full circle to her time at Indiana State, where she had been employed at the Listening Library, under the guidance of Carol DeFrance.
“During my first few days at the CBMR, an inherent spark in me was re-ignited, and I realized that I was not going to lose my musical life after all,” Zeck said. “I connect people with the musical resources they need, using the research and linguistic skills that I started building at Indiana State. Through writing, teaching and lecturing, I can help change the way society thinks about the humanities and liberal arts education and their impact on daily life.”