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Black History Month

Black History Month

Published on February 8, 2021

In honour of Black History Month, learn about some trailblazing Black musicians and their contributions to everything from classical to popular music. 

Black Musicians of Yesteryear

Learn more about four influential, talented, and note-worthy Black musicians from the past and their impact on music today.


Born in 1745, this composer is best remembered as the first known classical composer of African ancestry.

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    Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

    Joseph Bologne


    He was also a champion fencer, virtuoso violinist, and conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris. He composed numerous string quartets, other instrumental music, and opera. Learn more

 

This child prodigy and composer of popular songs was blind from birth, and learned to play piano, by ear, at age four.

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    Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins

    Tom Wiggins

    Wiggins began holding public concerts when he was only 8 years old, and his first compositions were published in 1860 when he was only 11. During the 19th century, he was one of the most famous pianists and popular performers in the United States. Learn More.

 

An American composer and pianist, this musician achieved fame for his compositions and was known as the "King of Ragtime”.

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    Scott Joplin

    Scott Joplin

    He wrote 44 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas during his career and shaped a genre that influenced decades of music. His most famous piece, "Maple Leaf Rag", is now recognized as the archetype of the classic rag. Learn More.

 

This English composer combined African-American folk music with concert music in his works, making him one of the most progressive writers of his time.

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    Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

    Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

    He joined the Royal College of Music when he was just 15 years old and his best-known works today include ‘Nonet in F Minor’, ‘Christmas Overture’, and ‘Deep River’. Learn More.

Black Musicians Who Broke Barriers

The following musicians were the first in their category to achieve success, and helped paved the road for their successors.


This classical composer, pianist, organist, and music teacher was the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra.

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    Florence Price

    Florence Price

    She made considerable use of characteristic African-American melodies and rhythms in many of her works, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered her award-winning Symphony in E Minor in 1933. Learn More.




This virtuoso violinist and bugle-player wrote more than 200 compositions and was the first Black composer to have his works published as sheet music.

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    Francis "Frank" Johnson

     
    Francis Johnson

    His works encompassed various styles, including operatic airs, Ethiopian minstrel songs, patriotic marches, ballads, cotillions, quadrilles, quicksteps, and more. Learn More.




This American composer, pianist, and organist was the first Black musician to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music.

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    George Theophilus Walker
    George Walker
    Photo: George Walker

    He won the award for his work, Lilacs for voice and orchestra, which was premiered by the Boston Symphony. Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry even proclaimed June 17, 1997 as "George Walker Day" in the nation's capital. Learn More.


This musician was known as "The Dean" of African-American composers, as he was the first Black composer to conduct a major American symphony orchestra as well as have an opera produced by a major opera company.

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    William Grant Still

    William Still
    Photo: Carl Van Vechten

    He composed nearly 200 works, including five symphonies and nine operas. His most famous symphony, Afro-American Symphony, composed in 1930, was the most widely performed symphony composed by an American until 1950. Learn More.


Black Contributions to Music Genres

African-American history and culture are also the root of many of the genres of music we enjoy today – read on to learn more.

 

This genre is one of the largest and most significant forms of American folksong and is most closely associated with the enslavement of African people in the American South. Often sung in a call and response form, a popular example of this genre is "Swing low, sweet chariot."

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    Spiritual

    Historians also considered Spirituals a genre of folk music, and it not only served as an expression of sorrow, but was also used as a code to orchestrate escapes and rebellions. Click here to learn more.

     



This dynamic and diverse genre of music was derived from and was largely played by Southern Black men in the 19th Century. It is now one of the most important influences on the development of popular music throughout the United States.

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    Blues

    Blues music follows no strict rules and was created using readily available instruments – even ones that were made at home! Although instrumental accompaniment is almost universal in the blues, the blues is essentially a vocal form. Blues songs are lyrical rather than narrative; blues singers are expressing feelings rather than telling stories. Click here to learn more.

This genre is perhaps the most well-known American musical export and was born from a fusion of musical styles in New Orleans, where the population was more diverse than anywhere else in the South, in the very early part of the 20th century.

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    Jazz


    The evolution of jazz was led by a series of brilliant musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. There is a lot of variety in jazz, but most jazz is very rhythmic, with a forward momentum and "bent" or "blue" notes. Jazz musicians also often improvise solos on the spot, which requires considerable skill. Click here to learn more.


This genre of music was associated with Black youth in after-hours clubs in the 1950s, and evolved to include soul and funk in the 1970s. Today, it can be used to loosely define most sung African-American urban music.

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    R&B

    The genre R&B’s name is composed of “rhythm” and “blues”. The music’s four-beat measures and liberal use of backbeat (where the second and fourth beats of each measure are accented) makes up the “rhythm” in the genre’s name, whereas the often sad lyrics and melodies of the songs make up the “blues”. Click here to learn more.