Nineteen Black Composers You Should Know
In this article, we highlight nineteen powerful voices in our musical community. Their voices and stories are essential parts of the tapestry of our musical lives. We invite you to carry their music and stories with you, today and every day.
Photo courtesy of Chari Glogovac-Smith’s website
Allison Loggins-Hull is an accomplished flutist, composer, and producer with a dynamic career in performing and creating music. She and Nathalie Joachim co-founded the critically acclaimed duo Flutronix in 2009, which is known for its ability “to redefine the instrument” according to the Wall Street Journal. Allison has performed in numerous venues including Carnegie Hall, Orchestra Hall in Chicago, and the Mostly Mozart Festival in Lincoln center. She has also recorded and performed with a wide range of artists including Imani winds, Lizzo, the International Contemporary Ensemble, and NOVUS NY. As a part of Flutronix, she has released two full albums, entitled Flutronix and 2.0), a live album from the Attucks Theatre, and an EP entitled City of Breath. She is signed to Village Again Records in Japan and is also a member of The Re-Collective Orchestra. As a composer, she has composed for Flutronix and been commissioned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carolina Performing Arts, Alarm Will Sound, and The Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra. She is on the flute faculty of The John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University. Allison is also a teaching artist at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, the Julliard School’s Global Ventures, and is a former faculty member of The Julliard School’s Music Advancement Program. Her featured recording for this blog is entitled “Run-On”, which she and Nathalie Joachim perform as Flutronix, live at The Brooklyn Museum.
Bio and photo courtesy of allisonloggins.com
Born on August 17th, 1928, Dr. T.J. Anderson is one of the most prominent composers of his era. He received degrees from West Virginia State College, Penn State University, and a Ph. D in Composition from the University of Iowa. He studied composition with several illustrious composers including Darius Milhaud, George Ceiga, Philip Bezanson, and Richard Hervig. His first opera, commissioned by Indiana University, is entitled Soldier Boy, Soldier and is based on a libretto by Leon Forrest. He also wrote two more operas entitled Walker (commissioned by the Boston Anthenaeum and Slip Knot (commissioned by the Northwestern University School of Music). Mark DeVoto of Tufts University’s Department of Music describes Anderson’s music as being able to reflect “a global awareness of human experience in the twentieth century, synthesizing Eastern and Western classical traditions with the Black experience in America”. Dr. T.J. Anderson has appeared at numerous institutions as a lecturer, consultant, and visiting composer across the US, Brazil, France, Germany, and Switzerland. He was also a composer-in-residence with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and was a founder and the first president of the National Black Music Caucus. His featured recording on this blog is entitled “Variations on a Theme by M.B. Tolson” (1969).
Bio and photo courtesy of tjandersonmusic.com
Dorothy Rudd Moore was born on June 4, 1940, in New Castle, Delaware. As a young child, she knew she wanted to become a composer. She made up her own songs, took piano lessons, and learned to play the clarinet so that she could join the previously all-male band in high school. She went on to study at Howard University with Dean Warner Lawson, Mark Fax, and Thomas Kerr, among others. After graduating from Howard in 1963, she received the Lucy Moten Fellowship to study in France with Nadia Boulanger. In 1965 she returned to New York to study with Chou Wen-Chung and in 1968 she became a co-founder of the Society of Black Composers in New York City. Her work includes orchestral music, song cycles, chamber pieces, and an opera. Two of her works, Dirge and Deliverance, and Songs from the Dark Tower were released by Performance Records in 1981, and her opera Frederick Douglass was premiered in New York City in 1985. Her featured recording on this blog is the art song cycle Songs from the Dark Tower, performed by Gwendolyn Brown.
Bio courtesy of composers.com and photo courtesy of Bert Andrews from ACA archives
Chari Glogovac-Smith is a queer African American composer, instrumentalist, vocalist, songwriter, and film maker. They use their own mixture of traditional and experimental composition techniques to explore and illustrate the human experience. Much like their fluid identity, Chari’s compositional work is constantly evolving and label resistant. Their work includes fixed media pieces, transformative field recording compositions, electronic acoustic hybrid creations, and classical ensemble works. For their electronic performances, Chari incorporates vocal samples, layering of synthesizer and computer sounds, field recordings, and their own voice to weave experimental curtains of sound. They hold an MFA in Electronic Music and Recording Media from Mills College and are currently working on their Ph. D in Experimental Arts and Digital Media at the University of Washington. Their featured recording in this blog is entitled Identity.
Bio courtesy of chariglogovacsmith.com and photo courtesy of their instagram
Robert Allen Cole
Robert Allen Cole was an American composer, playwright, actor, stage producer, and director. He was born in 1868 and died in 1911, as one of the most prominent leaders in the world of black musical theater. He collaborated with Billy Johnson to write and produce A Trip to Coontown in 1898, which was the first musical entirely created and owned by Black showmen. He went on to collaborate with two brothers, J. Rosamond Johnson (a singer and pianist) and James Weldon Johnson (a pianist, guitarist, and lawyer), which culminated in over 200 songs. They put together a vaudeville act that featured classical piano pieces and enlightened lyrics without the stereotypes of the times. Their most popular songs were “Under the Bamboo Tree” and “Louisiana Lize”, and their most successful musicals were The Shoo-Fly Regiment from 1906 and The Red Moon from 1908. Sadly, Robert Allen Cole ultimately committed suicide in 1911 after a nervous breakdown and period of clinical depression. His featured recording on this blog is “Sugar Babe” from the musical The Shoo-Fly Regiment.
Bio and photo courtesy of wikipedia.com
Born in the Bronx, Dr. Valerie Capers attended the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind for her early schooling. She went on to become the first blind person to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from The Julliard School of Music. She served on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music and was also a faculty member for the Department of Music and Art at Bronx Community College of CUNY. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts award which included a grant to present a jazz series at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. She has also been established as a Bronx Living Legend for her contributions to the American jazz tradition by the Bronx Music Heritage Center. Some of her most noted works as a composer are Sing About Love, a Christmas cantata produced by George Wein at Carnegie Hall; Sojourner, an oratorio based on the life of Sojourner Truth; and Song of the Seasons, a song cycle for voice, piano, and cello. With her trio, she has appeared at a myriad of colleges, universities, jazz festivals, and concert halls throughout the world. She has also appeared on radio and television programs, including Branford Marsalis’ Jazzset and Marian MacPartland’s Piano Jazz. Her featured recording on this blog is “Billie’s Song”, performed by Valerie Capers, with the music also composed by Valerie Capers and the lyrics written and performed by LaDoris Cordell.
Bio and photo courtesy of valcapmusic.com
Dr. Joe W. Moore III is the current Assistant Professor of Percussion at Benedict College in Columbia, SC. He also served as the Assistant Professor of Percussion at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley prior to his appointment at Benedict College. He received his Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Central Florida, his Master of Music degree from the University of South Carolina, and his Doctor of Musical Arts degree with a minor in composition from Louisiana State University. His primary mentors in percussion include Brett Dietz, Troy Davis, Kirk Gay, Scott Herring, Jim Hall, and Jeff Moore. For composition, he was mentored by Dinos Constantinides, Jay Batzner, and Brett Dietz. He actively performs with the Omojo Percussion Duo, 2×2 Percussion, Dead Resonance, and the Black Sheep Percussion Quartet. Recently, he performed at the Sugarmill Music Festival, the National Conference on Percussion Pedagogy, the UTRGV Marimba Festival, and the 2018 Percussive Arts Society International Convention. His compositions have been performed across the United States, including performances at the National Conference on Percussion Pedagogy and the Percussive Arts Society International Convention. His music can be found with C. Alan Publications, Alea Publishing and Recording, Innovative Percussion Publications, and Strikeclef Publishing, as well as the store of his own website where he self publishes man of his own manuscripts. His featured recording on this blog is entitled “Being Black”, which he is also performing. This is a five-movement multi-percussion solo that was written to memorialize the black lives that have been taken through police brutality and other senseless murders. His musical choices were based upon the details of several cases including Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, George Floyd, and many more.
Bio courtesy of joewmooreiii.net and photo courtesy of his Facebook
Lil Hardin Armstrong
Lil Hardin Armstrong, born as Lillian Hardin in 1898 and died as Lil Hardin Armstrong in 1971, was a composer, arranger, singer, jazz pianist, and bandleader. She was Louis Armstrong’s second wife and collaborated with him on many recordings in the 1920s. In her early years, she was taught spirituals, hymns, and classical music on the piano, but was later drawn to popular music and the blues. She received a diploma from Fisk University, from which she earned formal piano training and eventually became a sheet music demonstrator at Jones Music Store in Chicago. Eventually, Lil started to change the sheet music she performed at the store by including embellishments and adding aspects of Jelly Roll Morton’s style into her performance. Her reputation began to build and before long she was the main event at the store, which brought her to the attention of Lawrence Duhé and his New Orleans Creole Jazz Band. He paid her $22.50 a week to play piano in his band, which roughly translates to over $300 in today’s money. Things went well for a while, until Joe “King” Oliver the cornet player was brought in and conflicts began to boil within the band. Ultimately, Joe Oliver took over the band with moderate success. This was the band into which Louis Armstrong entered, and from whom Lil Hardin acquired her third name. As their relationship progressed, she orchestrated opportunities for him and even performed piano on all The Hot Five’s recordings, an orchestra that featured Louis prominently. As her relationship with Louis declined and eventually dissolved, she went on to continue her study of music and obtain a teaching diploma from the Chicago College of Music. She continued to form various bands including an “All Girl Orchestra” (technically a mixed-sex big band) that was broadcasted nationally over the NBC radio network. In 1971, she collapsed suddenly while playing a memorial concert for Louis Armstrong, and later died from a heart attack. Her featured recording on this blog is one of her original compositions “Doin’ the Suzie Q” (1936).
Bio courtesy of wikipedia and photo courtesy of Riverwalk Jazz – Stanford University Libraries
Ozie Cargile graduated from the University of Michigan School of Music in 2003 with a Bachelor of Music Composition and Principle in Piano Performance. He studied with Michael Daugherty, Susan Botti, Erik Santos, and Bright Sheng. In 2019, he became one of eight fellows selected to work with the 2019 Film Music and Sound Design Lab directed by Peter Golub. He had the opportunity to work on cues with film composers James Newton Howard and Marco Beltrami. He is a composer for hitRECord.org which is a collaborative production company in Los Angeles, California that is headed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Cargile has underscored numerous film shorts and animations featured on the company’s website, at the 2012 and 2014 Sundance Film Festivals, and even on Netflix with the Emmy Award winning Pivot cable television series HitRECord on TV. The Boulder Symphony Music director Devin Hughes commissioned Ozie Cargile to compose a choral orchestral work as a precursor to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, thus Cargile’s Song for Humanity was born. It premiered in 2011 by the Boulder Symphony and the 120-voice Boulder Chorale. Ozie Cargile was also the composer-in-residence for the Black Pioneers in Music Performance operatic concert series, which performed his piece Creation of the Universe in 2008. In 2009, this series also featured his orchestral works The Audacity of Hope and Epoch: Opening of the Heavens. His featured recording in this blog is his symphony Creation of the Universe with video footage courtesy of the Creative Commons community of filmmakers.
Bio courtesy of oziecargile.com and photo courtesy of his Soundcloud page
Nailah Nombeko is a native of New York and hails from a musical family. For her early schooling, she attended the Preparatory Division of Manhattan School of Music, then the LaGuardia High School for music and art. She went on to receive her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Mannes College of Music with supplementary studies in orchestration at The Julliard School. Her compositions have been performed at Symphony Space, Columbia University, Queens College, Lewis University, St. Peter’s church, and countless other venues. Her works were also featured on several radio stations including Classical Discoveries 103.3 FM, Radio Arts Indonesia, What’s Next Radio 91.1 FM, and Kath Fraser’s “Gathering Her Notes”. Recently, she was commissioned to write a piece by international opera star Karen Slack for Sparks and Wiry Cries. Her string quartet entitled “Multifarious Aggressions” was premiered in December 2019 at National Sawdust. She is also a member of The New York Women Composers, Vox Novus, and the African American Art Song Alliance. Her featured recording on this blog is “The Lilly” which is taken from Nombeko’s Short Songs to the Poetry of William Blake and is performed by soprano Sarah Comfort Reed and pianist Michelle Horsley.
Bio courtesy of nailahnombeko.com and photo courtesy of castleskins.org
Billy Childs grew up immersed in jazz, classical, and popular music influences as a young child in Los Angeles. He began publicly performing on the piano at age six and by the age of sixteen he was admitted to the USC Community School of Performing Arts. He earned a Bachelor of Music degree in Composition under Robert Linn and Morten Lauridsen. Soon after his graduation, he was discovered by infamous trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and eventually performed with him on tour. He has also recorded with Wynton Marsalis, J.J. Johnson, and Joe Henderson. He released his first record with Windham Hill Records in 1988 entitled Take For Example, This… which was the first of four renowned albums with this label—the following three entitled Twilight Is Upon Us (1989), His April Touch (1991), and Portrait Of A Player (1992). In terms of composing, his orchestral and chamber music commission resumé includes the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, The Lost Angeles Master Chorale, The Ying Quartet, The American Brass Quintet, and The Dorian Wind Quintet. Childs has earned thirteen Grammy nominations, has been awarded a Chamber Music America Composer’s Grant, the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, and the music award from The American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2016, he was appointed President of Chamber Music America. His featured recording on this blog is the Largo movement from his chamber music piece A Day in the Forest of Dreams, performed by the Dorian Wind Quintet.
Bio courtesy of billychilds.com and photo courtesy of his Facebook page
Alice Coltrane was born as Alice McLeod in 1937 and died as Alice Coltrane in 2007. She was an American jazz composer and musician, and she was one of only a handful of jazz harpists in history. She grew up in a musical household and at the encouragement of her father she pursued music as well. She played in various clubs around Detroit and eventually moved to Paris in the late 1950s to study classical music as well as jazz music with Bud Powell. In 1960 she worked as an intermission pianist at the Blue Note Jazz Club, where she eventually appeared on a television performance with Lucky Thompson, Kenny Clarke, and Pierre Michelot. Her first marriage, to Kenny Hagood in 1960, resulted in a daughter but ended soon after due to Hagood’s heroin addiction. After the end of her first marriage, she moved back to Detroit with her daughter and continued playing jazz professionally with her own trio. Around 1962, she started playing with Terry Gibbs’ quartet and eventually met John Coltrane. They were married in 1965 and eventually had three children together. In 1966, she replaced McCoy Tyner as the pianist with John Coltrane’s group and continued to play with them until his death in 1967. Alice went on after her husband’s death to release records as a composer and band leader. From 1967 to 1977 she released fourteen full-length records, moving from more standard jazz styles into more cosmic, spiritual sounds. Her life overall became more spiritually focused in the early 70’s, when she ended up abandoning her secular life to establish the Vedantic Center in California in 1975. She performed both formal and informal devotional Vedic ceremonies at the ashram, and also developed her own original melodies from the traditional Vedic chants. From this, her first spiritual cassette was developed in 1982, which was only released to Ashram members. In the 1990s, there was a revitalized interest in her work and then following a twenty five year-break from the stage, she returned for three major U.S. performances in 2006 that culminated in a concert for the San Francisco Jazz Festival with her son Ravi on saxophone, Roy Haynes on drums, and Charlie Haden on bass. Alice Coltrane died the next year in 2007 from respiratory failure at age 69. Her featured recording on this blog is her album from 1973 entitled Reflection on Creation and Space.
Bio courtesy of wikipedia and photo courtesy of The Music Aficionado website
Donal Fox is an internationally acclaimed composer, improviser, and pianist. His works expertly fuse Afro-Latin, jazz, and classical idioms into exhilarating performances. He premiered his “Monk and Bach Project” at Jazz at Lincoln Center, his “Scarlatti Jazz Suite Project” at Tanglewood, and his piano concerto Peace Out for improvised piano and orchestra at Carnegie Hall. In 2013, he made a special appearance with Imani Winds and Roy Eaton on WQXR’s “Emancipation 150” series for an evening honoring the African American experience in classical music. He has received numerous awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Bugliasco Fellowship. He was the first African American composer-in-residence with the St. Louis Symphony and was also a composer-in-residence for the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Ireland, the Oberpfälzer Künstlerhaus in Germany, Dejerassi Resident Artist Program, Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival, and several other programs. Fox is also a Steinway Artist and has recorded for New World Records, Yamaha’s Original Artist Series, Wergo Records, Evidence Records, Music & Arts, and Passin’ Thru Records. His featured recording on this blog is his Fire Fly Suite performed by the Donal Fox Innovations Quartet.
Bio courtesy of donalfox.com and photo courtesy of Lou Jones
Dr. Sharon J. Willis is a prolific composer as well as the founder and director of Americolor Opera Alliance. She holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from The University of Georgia, a Master’s in Church Music from Scarritt Graduate School in Nashville, a Master’s in Music Theory from Georgia State University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music from Clark College. Her works include twelve operatic theater stage works that feature Afro-centric health, social, and American subjects. Her first opera, entitled The Opera Singer was premiered in April 2000 with great success. It was followed shortly by The Herndons, The Great Divide, LaRoche (about the only black passenger on the Titanic); Madam C. J.; Pink Lady (centers on three women with breast cancer); 3kings and a PRINCE; The Candlers of Callan; The Seduction of King Solomon; and Carmen J. Her eleventh work The Bridge focuses on homelessness in Atlanta and her twelfth opera, Three-Dream Portrait is a presentation of three mini-operas in one. Dr. Willis has also written several Afro-centric and Biblical plays including Unspoken, (focuses on AIDS Ministry work); Rev. Sistuh! (centers on Three women ministers), Connect-3 (portrays the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease on the elderly, the misconception of Autism in children, and the apathy experienced by some family members in reference to these issues). She is currently the only woman composer in the United States to have established an opera company alongside completing the expanse of her body of work. In 2016, she was awarded Composer of the Year by the National League of Pen Women and was commissioned by the Georgia Music Educator’s Conference to write a piece for their annual composer’s competition. Her Vocalise for Trumpet and Organ was commissioned by trumpeter David Kuehn and concert organist Calvert Johnson. Her featured recording on this blog is entitled Love Ritual and is performed by soprano Arietha Lockhart and pianist Mary Au. It is a five-part song cycle about a conceited and narcissistic young woman obsessed with love, following her through the cycle of emotions she experiences from day to day.
Bio and photo courtesy of americoloropera.org
Edward W. Hardy is a renowned American composer, music director, virtuoso violinist and violist. He received his Bachelor of Music from SUNY Purchase College and his Master of Music from the Aaron Copland School of Music. He is one of the most prominent supporters of solo violin repertoire for theatrical productions and, at the age of 25, is one of the youngest composers to be accepted into the Exploring the Metropolis Con Edison Composer Residency. He is the composer, music director, and violinist of the sensational Off-Broadway show The Woodsman, which was a recipient of the 2014 Jim Henson Foundation Grant, the 2016 Obie Award, and was broadcasted on PBS stations several times. He is a proud member of the Local 802 Musicians Union, ASCAP, and the Dramatist Guild of America. His featured recording on this blog is Nevermore from Three Pieces Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, both composed and performed by Edward W. Hardy.
Bio and photo courtesy of edwardwhardy.com
Jocelyn C. Chambers’ relationship with music began early – as a child she found herself connecting with characters’ experiences in film through the music that followed their storylines. She began taking piano lessons at age 7 and her walk with music composition began at age 13, when she learned to write music by recreating existing music to match her personal story. Once she learned to properly notate music, she began studying composition with Dr. Rachel McInturff at the Armstrong Community Music School. During her first year of studies, she entered and won the Texas Young Composers Competition, in which her piece was premiered by the Austin Symphony Orchestra. At age 17, she entered the Butler School of Music’s composition program at the University of Texas at Austin. In response to the lack of representation for female composers of color, she created a threefold work with her original music, poetry, and film to chronicle her experiences as a Black woman growing up in America. This work, entitled “The Gospel According to Jocelyn” was produced in collaboration with The Cohen New Works Festival. She is currently pursuing her graduate certificate in film scoring from the University of California Los Angeles and she is resolute in her pursuit to revamp the Hollywood film industry to ensure it better reflects the diversity of the world. Her featured recording on this blog is from her Soundcloud and it is the reprise for Helayna, an original A capella composition.
Bio and photo courtesy of jocelyncchambers.com
Julius P. Williams is a world-renowned conductor, composer, educator, pianist, and recording artist. Even though he is a native of New York, his career has taken him to every corner of the earth and through every musical genre imaginable. His Carnegie Hall conducting debut was with the “Symphony Saint Paulia” in 1987. He has conducted orchestras all across the states and was the Music Director of the Washington Symphony (the official orchestra of Washington, D.C.) from 1998 to 2003. He is currently serving as the Artistic Director and Conductor of the Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra, the music director and conductor of the Trilogy An Opera Company, and as President of the Conductors Guild. He is also a composer-in-residence with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As a composer, he has created works for nearly every genre of contemporary classical music. His opera “Guinevere” was performed at the Aspen Music Festival and at the Dubrovnik Music Festival in Croatia. He was the composer of the score for the film “What Color is Love?” and composed the music “Dreams” for the Boston Children’s Choir. His ballet “Cinderella” was premiered by the Nutmeg Ballet Company in Connecticut, for which he also served as a composer-in-residence. His featured recording is Songs for Baritone Voice and Piano with text by Countee Cullen, performed by Phil Lima and Elena Roussanova.
Bio courtesy of juliuspwilliams.com and photo courtesy of becauseofthemwecan.com
Jasmine Barnes was brought up in the Baltimore City Public School system and was fortunate to be surrounded by many artistic influences that paved the way for her to become the composer she is today. She earned her Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in Music from Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. She was the first composition major of Morgan State University, where she studied under Dr. James Lee III. She is currently a Graduate Teaching Assistant for Music Theory and Aural Skills at Morgan State University. She specializes in writing for voice but has embraced writing for a variety of instrumentation. She was commissioned by Symphony Number One, a Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, to write a short piece entitled The Mind. She was also commissioned by Carl Alexander and The Voic(ed) Project for the song cycle Songs for the African Violet. Her featured recording on this blog is The Mind performed by Symphony Number One.
Bio and photo courtesy of jasminebarnescomposer.com
Francis Johnson was an American composer and musician who was born in 1792 and died in 1844. He was one of the few successful African American composers during the Antebellum period – known for performing as a virtuoso on the keyed Kent bugle, the violin, and for more than two hundred compositions of various styles. He wrote pieces in every genre from opera to patriotic marches, ballads to quicksteps, and even Ethiopian minstrel songs. Unfortunately, only manuscripts and piano transcriptions survive today. He was also the first African American composer to have his works published as sheet music and the first to give public concerts. His featured recording on this blog is an orchestral arrangement of his piece The Philadelphia Gray’s Quickstep, played by the Symphony Orchestra of America.
Bio courtesy of wikipedia and photo courtesy of Jstor