October is Black History Month, and so it seems fitting that my playlist this month exclusively features Black Composers. The music of Black Composers has traditionally been given very little, if any, attention and their music has been largely ignored for many years. I did a music degree in the 1990s that was fairly academic, and had not heard of many of the composers mentioned here during my studies, other than twentieth century composers. Happily, things are starting to change, but this is exactly why we need Black History Month to shine a spotlight on the work of these great musicians, so more people can listen to and love their music.
Some of the composers on this playlist you will have heard of; some pieces have featured on previous playlists; and some composers you may not have heard from before. It is always good to discover music that is new to you and to see if a composer’s works are ones you or your children enjoy or are inspired by. So sit back, relax and have a listen to this whistle stop tour of music through the ages.
Prior to the Classical period in music history I have not found information about Black composers working on music of the western tradition.
I have put together a Spotify playlist featuring most of the works mentioned below. Sadly I could not find all of the works I mention here in this post on Spotify. However, if you would like to listen to most of these works all together, you will find my playlist at the end of this post, or you could simply access it with this link.
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 – 1799)
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a French composer, amazing violinist, conductor of the main Symphony Orchestra in Paris and a famous champion fencer! In fact when he first performed as a violinist, the audience were surprised that the famous fencer was such a good musician. A few pieces of Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ music:
George Bridgetower (1788-1860)
George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower was a British composer of African heritage born in 1788. He was a virtuoso violinist whose performance impressed Beethoven so much that he dedicated his Kreutzer Sonata to Bridgetower. Sadly most of his compositions were lost, and he was mostly remembered as a violinist, largely due to the dedication by Beethoven.
Francis Johnson (1792-1844)
Francis Johnson was the first African-American composer whose compositions were printed as sheet music, he was also the first African-American composer to give public concerts in the United States and to take part in racially integrated concerts there.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 – 1912)
Born in 1875 in London, Coleridge-Taylor, named after the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was a composer and prominent conductor in the early 1900s. Despite being a successful conductor, Coleridge-Taylor struggled financially and so he sold the rights to what became his most successful work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, for a small sum to make some immediate money. He learned from this experience not to give up the rights to his creative endeavours.
Early 20th Century
Scott Joplin (1868-1917)
Scott Joplin was an American composer and pianist who was known as the “King of Ragtime”. One of his first pieces became ragtime’s most influential hit, the Maple Leaf Rag. Joplin’s compositional style, and his use of harmony and rhythm were hugely influential on composers who followed him, and you can hear echoes of these harmonic and rhythmic ideas in music composed today.
Florence Price (1887-1953)
The first African-American woman to be recognised as a symphonic composer, and the first to have one of her works performed by a major orchestra, Price was also a pianist, organist and music teacher. Price studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts and became Head of Music at what is now Clark Atlanta University. In the late 1920s, following a number of racially motivated incidents in Atlanta, Price moved with her family to Chicago and a number of her works for orchestra were performed by the Chicago Women’s Symphony and the Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago amongst other ensembles.
Late 20th Century
Duke Ellington (1899-1974)
Edward Kennedy Ellington, known as Duke Ellington, was an American composer, pianist and jazz artist, leading his own Jazz Orchestra which became famous through their appearances at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Duke Ellington was one of the most significant jazz composers, creating the distinctive Big Band style of performing. Ellington called this “American music”. He was a prolific composer of both jazz songs, and instrumental, more “classical” works.
Margaret Bonds (1913 – 1972)
Margaret Bonds was an American composer, pianist, arranger and teacher, who was one of the first Black composers and performers to gain recognition there. She studied under Florence Price, amongst others and she was one of a few Black students at Northwestern University, where her experience was marred by the hostile and racist environment she found herself in. She moved to New York after graduation to attend the very prestigious Julliard School of Music. Margaret Bonds is best known for her arrangements of African-American spirituals.
George Walker (1922 – 2018)
George Theophilus Walker was the first African-American composers to win the Pullitzer Prize for Music in 1996. George Walker’s music is influenced by many different musical styles including “classical” music, folk songs, jazz, church hymns. He did not want to confine himself to one particular style of composition and so he uses many different musical styles within his compositions.
Miles Davis (1926-1991)
Miles Davis is probably known to you as a trumpeter, but he was also a composer. He was born in Illinois, America, into a musical family as his mother was a violinist and music teacher. Having spent much of his younger years performing at school and home, and going on to play in bands in clubs in St Louis and New York. Miles Davis’ album Kind of Blue is the best selling jazz albums of all time, and he is one of the most influential and respected jazz musicians, influencing many, many musicians who came after him.
Nina Simone (1933-2003)
Eunice Kathleen Waymon was an American singer songwriter, musician and civil rights activist. A brilliant pianist with dreams of being a concert pianist as a child, she changed her name to Nina Simone when she started to play in nightclubs in Atlanta, so her family would not know that she was playing in cocktail bars, playing “the devil’s music”. Playing in the clubs, she was told that she would have to sing as well as play piano, starting her career as a singer. For many years Simone performed her most popular music only to help her fund her classical music studies, she was rather indifferent to her recording contract. She had a change of record distributors in 1964 and this gave her the opportunity to change the content of her songs to be much more focussed on the civil rights movement. Nina Simone became more and more involved in activism, and so she wrote and released less music.
Composing and performing today
Eleanor Alberga (1949 – present)
Born in Jamaica, Alberga started performing and composing at a very early age. She studied music at the Jamaican School of Music and moved to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music after winning the biennial West Indian Associated Board Scholarship. Alberga initially worked as a concert pianist after graduating from the Royal Academy of Music, but stopped performing in 2001 to concentrate on composing. Her music draws on her Jamaican background with its colour and cross-rhythm. Alberga uses influences from jazz music, tonal harmony and repeated rhythm patterns.
Errollyn Wallen (1958 – present)
Errollyn Wallen was born in Belize but moved to London with her family when she was 2 years old. She was brought up largely by her uncle and aunt after her parents moved to New York. Wallen started out training as a dancer, but after going to study a the Dance Theatre of Harlem, she decided to become a composer, returning to the UK. She studied composition at Goldsmiths’ College, Kings College, London and later at King’s College, Cambridge. Wallen was the first Black female composer whose work was performed at the BBC Proms in 1996.
YolanDa Brown (1982 – present)
Yolanda Brown was born in Essex, UK. Brown initially studied at business school, and she gained Masters degrees in business and in social research and studied management science at doctorate level before deciding to pursue a musical career. Yolanda Brown was the first person to win the Music of Black Origin (MOBO) award for Best Jazz Act twice. Brown mixes jazz, reggae and soul music in her work.
Parents of young children will know her best from her CBeebies programme Band Jam, which we love in this house. In fact before the pandemic hit we had bought tickets for her Band Jam show near us. If you haven’t already discovered Band Jam, then go and find it on CBeebies, it’s a great, fun show full of music to make your children get up and dance, and Yolanda Brown teaches your children about different instruments and musical styles inviting guest musicians onto the show.
The first two clips I have linked to below are from the brilliant Band Jam, and the final piece is one of Brown’s compositions.
Ayanna Witter-Johnson (1986 – present)
Ayanna Witter-Johnson is a cellist, composer and singer-songwriter. She began playing piano at a very early age, and took up cello at 13. She studied music at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Drama and later studied for her Masters degree in music at the Manhatten School of Music. Witter-Johnson fuses classical and pop in her music, singing and playing cello. She has described hr song writing style as “a bit of soul, hip-hop and reggae”.
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