Black Musicians and Composers You Should Know

February is Black History Month! Learn about these visionary Black musicians and composers who have brought us the music we know and love.

Florence Price

Florence Price was the first Black woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer and the first to have her work played by a major orchestra. Price was a Chicago-based musician who fled her hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas in the Jim Crow south. A part of the Chicago Black Renaissance, Price’s impact on the city’s arts and culture in the 1930s and 1940s was monumental. She worked with renowned Black artists; Chicago pianist Margaret Bonds, writer Langston Hughes, and contralto Marian Anderson all aided her success as a composer

Sonny Rollins

American jazz tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins is widely considered one of the most influential jazz musicians. With roots in New York’s jazz scene in the 1950s, Rollins performed in the Miles Davis quartet and recorded with Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. His works “St. Thomas”, “Oleo “, “Doxy “, and “Airegin” have all become jazz standards. In 1956, Rollins released the album Tenor Madness, whose title track is the only recording of he and John Coltrane performing together. SLAM saxophone students Titobioluwa and Michal performed “Tenor Madness” arranged by teaching artist Jamaal Crowder at the Greater South Side 2023 Winter Concert. Catch their performance of the piece at Big Night, Bigger Dreams!

Jessie Montgomery

Jessie Montgomery is a composer, violinist, and music educator who is pushing the boundaries of classical music. In 2023, Montgomery was named the Chicagoan of the Year for Classical Music by the Chicago Tribune. In 2021, Montgomery became the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Mead Composer-in-Residence and is the second Black woman to have her music performed by the Orchestra. In her compositions, Montgomery intertwines classical elements with improvisations and sounds from pop and folk music. Watch the excerpt above of Montgomery’s Hymn for Everyone.

Xavier Dubois Foley

Xavier Dubois Foley is an award-winning double bassist who has performed with Atlanta Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Nashville Symphony, Sphinx Symphony, and Sphinx Virtuosi. In 2014, Foley became the First Prize winner of the Sphinx Competition. More recently, his work “For Justice and Peace” was co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the Sphinx Organization. This composition, a double concerto for violin and bass, was written in 2019 to mark 400 years since the arrival of the White Lion, the first ship that brought enslaved Africans to Jamestown, Virginia. This year, Chicago Sinfonietta’s annual MLK tribute concert featured Foley performing his piece, “‘Victory’ Concerto.”

Esperanza Spalding

Four-time Grammy Award winner Esperanza Spalding is a bassist, vocalist, composer, bandleader, and educator. Spalding taught herself violin, after being inspired by Yo-Yo Ma, and began playing chamber music at the age of 5. A role model for young music students, her original compositions and virtuosic live performances have captivated audiences worldwide since her 2011 Grammy Award for “Best New Artist,” the first jazz musician to receive the award. In 2021, Spalding headlined The People’s Music School’s Big Night gala, singing and performing on bass.

Tia Fuller

Jazz musician Tia Fuller is a saxophonist, composer, and bandleader. Her career has taken her all across the globe, teaching as a full time professor at Berklee College of Music and touring as a member of Beyoncé’s all-female band. Fuller is the saxophonist behind the music of Dorothea Willams, a character in the Pixar movie Soul. She then became the inspiration behind the character, too, as the studios shaped Williams to emulate Fuller and the way she played alto sax. In 2023, Fuller visited The People’s Music School for a masterclass, where she performed for students at our Greater South Side site and spoke about her experience as a Black woman in jazz

William Grant Still

William Grant Still, Jr. was a pioneering composer of symphonies, ballets, operas, and solo pieces. Known as the “Dean of African-American Composers,” Still became the first Black man to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the U.S. when he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936. His compositions encompass a wide range of styles, including symphonies, ballets, operas, and chamber music. Notable works include the “Afro-American Symphony,” which premiered in 1931 and was a groundbreaking piece that combined elements of jazz and classical music. Still’s music often reflects his diverse cultural heritage and drew inspiration from African American, blues, and spiritual traditions.

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