Happy Black History Month!
From classical piano, to funk and R&B, black musicians have been recognized as outstanding composers in many genres. Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” is well known around the world, and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” is a hallmark of the 1970’s.
The “Music By Black Composers” initiative (a project of the Rachel Barton Pine Foundation), hosts a database of classical works by Black composers, and provides access to information about both the musicians and the pieces. In an effort to increase the opportunity for students to study music written by black composers, they also compile and publish anthologies of works. We would like to highlight the newest anthology, “Music by Black Composers for Violin” which in addition to pieces for (or arranged for) solo violin, also includes feature articles and role model interviews that correspond with the music.
Among the most influential Black American composers, is William Grant Still. Born in 1895, in Little Rock, Arkansas, he went on to study at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and throughout his lifetime, composed nearly 200 pieces of music. Still began violin lessons at a young age, and showed a great interest in music. He taught himself to play the clarinet, saxophone oboe, double bass, cello and viola. Often referred to as the “Dean of Afro-American Composers,” Still was the first American composer to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera. He is considered a figure of the Harlem Renaissance, and was the first African American to conduct a major symphony orchestra. His first work, Afro-American Symphony is his most well known piece, and was performed under his baton by the L.A. Philharmonic in 1936.
Another notable, more contemporary composer is George Walker. He composed many works for string orchestra, as well as piano, woodwinds and brass quintets. Among Walker’s 90+ works, are pieces commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, and many other ensembles. Walker’s music drew from many sources of inspiration, including jazz, church hymns, folk songs, and classical music. In 1996, George Walker became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, for his work Lilacs, a piece for voice and orchestra.
On the more contemporary side of things, Steinway Artist Jon Batiste grew up surrounded by music-making, and began playing and writing music at an early age. The New Orleans-bred, New York-based musician, educator and humanitarian is somewhat of an enigma thanks to his diverse mix of influences. Born into a long lineage of Louisiana musicians, Batiste grew up playing percussion in his family’s band before switching to piano when he was 11 years old. He released his first album, “Times in New Orleans” – a blend of funk, R&B, pop and jazz – at the age of 17. He went on to study at the Juilliard School and formed his band, Stay Human, soon after.
Now he balances a demanding international performance schedule—which often includes his signature, impromptu ‘love riot’ street parades — with his role as bandleader for the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Artistic Director At Large of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, as well as occasional acting gigs. He plays himself on the HBO series Treme, and most recently appeared in director Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer. In 2020, Batiste collaborated to write the music for the Pixar animated film, Soul, which went on to with the Academy Award for best original score. Batiste has been a Steinway Artist since 2008.
This Black History Month, we wanted to share some of our favorite influential black composers and invite you to learn more about these featured works, and others. Promoting diversity in concert and recital programs not only helps inspire historically underrepresented musicians, but also makes for more interesting programming.
We invite you to find pieces by black composers that challenge and inspire your musicianship. Here are some of our favorites!
Happy Black History Month from Schmitt Music!