Musicians of African descent have made enormous contributions to American heritage. To celebrate Black History Month, we've created a playlist of music by African American composers.
Taken from their homes against their will, transported to a strange land, and forced to work alongside others with whom they had little in common, they and their descendents were forced to create a new culture, drawing on countless traditions blended together and infused with hope for a better future.
Even after they were freed from being enslaved, they remained second-class citizens. The people themselves were forced to remain on the outskirts of society, but their music took a place at the core of American culture— ragtime, jazz, rock, soul, R&B, disco, pop... and classical.
Here are just a few of the American composers of African descent who have created great music for our concert halls:
- Born in Mississippi and raised in Arkansas, William Grant Still was a man of many firsts: the first African American to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra, the first to conduct a major American orchestra (the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl), the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television. He also worked on the scores for films like Pennies From Heaven and Lost Horizon. When he won a competition to compose the theme music for the 1939 World’s Fair—beating countless white composers for the job—he had to be given a police escort because of the threats against his life.
- A contemporary of Still’s from Little Rock, Arkansas, Florence Price was the first African American woman to have her music performed by a major orchestra. She made a living as a film organist, a jingle writer, and a music teacher, all while raising two children.
- Margaret Bonds was close friends with Florence Price, poet Langston Hughes, and other great figures of the Harlem Renaissance and African American community. She was the first Black musician to perform with her hometown Chicago Symphony, and her Margaret Bonds Chamber Society premiered the works of many composers.
- An Alabama native, William Dawson became known for bringing African American folk music into the concert hall with his compositions and arrangements. His Negro Folk Symphony was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski; he later revised the piece after studying traditional music in West Africa.
- Duke Ellington is well-known as a jazz composer, but his music crosses genre lines more than many people realize. He brought classical techniques to big band arranging and jazz influences into the classical concert hall. Works like Night Creature and Harlem blur the line between the two worlds.
- George Walker grew up in Washington, DC, and started studying music from a young age. As a pianist, he began his career as the first Black soloist to appear with the Philadelphia Orchestra. His Lyric for Strings is one of the most-performed works by an African American composer, and his Lilacs won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996.
- Another composer from Chicago, Ed Bland always had a uniquely focused artistic vision. Not one to respect traditional genre lines, his music draws on everything from jazz and West African drumming to classical. He dubbed this personal blend “urban classical funk”. His film The Cry of Jazz has also been added to the National Film Registry. The Library of Congress called it "a historic and fascinating film that comments on racism and the appropriation of jazz by those who fail to understand its artistic and cultural origins."
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