Black pianists have shaped the sound of American music throughout the history of our country. The most famous black piano players, alive or dead, live on in our public consciousness through their songs and influences on the artists of today.
In this article, we’ll be covering the most famous black pianists ever to live. We’ll go through a short biography of their lives and how their music continues to inspire us to this day.
1. Duke Ellington
Considered one of the most influential jazz composers of the 20th century, Duke Ellington was a legendary piano player born in Washington, D.C.
He initially gained a name playing in the Cotton Club in Harlem, where he and his jazz orchestra based themselves in the 1920s.
While most of Duke Ellington’s compositions were instrumentals, they often had lyrics attached at a later point.
Countless songs of his, like “Sophisticated Lady,” topped the charts of the time and are still played everywhere to this day.
2. Alicia Keys
Alicia Keys is probably the most well-known black pianist alive today, born Alicia Augello Cook in New York City in 1981.
She was classically trained and signed to Columbia Records at age 15 before moving onto Arista Records to release her debut album.
Keys’ award-winning discography has provided the soundtrack to so many lives over more than twenty years.
She has 15-Grammy Awards to her name and countless hit singles, like “If I Ain’t Got You,” and “This Girl Is On Fire,” along with her instant-classic collaboration with Jay-Z, “Empire State of Mind.”
3. Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock was born in Chicago in 1940 to parents with no outward talent for music.
Recognized quickly in the public school system as a child prodigy, Hancock was tutored in classical music for years before moving on to jazz.
In fact, he played a Mozart piano concerto for the Chicago Symphony by the time he was 11.
Hancock is best known for his compositions such as “Watermelon Man,” “Cantaloupe Island,” and “Chameleon.”
Known as the original godfather of the post-bop era, he’s considered one of the best jazz pianists and composers ever to live.
4. Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin, “The King of Ragtime,” is another legendary black pianist from the 20th century.
Born in rural Texas in 1868, the story goes that Joplin taught himself how to play piano in a white home his mother worked in. A German musician took notice and gave him some formal instruction.
Joplin quickly became popular across the country, touring with troupes that played events like the World’s Fair.
Although a renowned pianist during his time, he’s best known for being one of the greatest ragtime composers of all time furthering the syncopated rhythm of ragtime music and influencing almost every artist to come after him with his innovative style and melodies.
5. Hazel Scott
Recognized as a child prodigy very early on in her life, Hazel Scott used her position as an influential musician and actress to further the cause of black Americans around the country.
She was born in Trinidad but moved to NYC, where she trained at Juilliard in the classics.
Scott was the first African-American to have her own nationally syndicated television show, The Hazel Scott Show.
As a pianist, she performed across the United States and Europe for radio and live performances until her death in 1981.
6. Oscar Peterson
Born in Canada to parents from the West Indies in 1925, Oscar Peterson was recognized by the most famous players as one of the best pianists to ever live.
Duke Ellington called him “The Maharaja of the keyboard,” and that reputation stuck with him in whatever concert hall he played in.
Peterson performed in several acts, including duos, trio, and quartets, with famous musicians like Sam Jones, Ray Brown, Duke Ellington, and Irving Ashby.
He pushed the envelope on what jazz pianists could do, especially in establishing instruments like the keyboard in the mainstream.
7. Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder’s fame might eclipse that of Alicia Keys as the most recognized black piano player alive today to those from an older generation.
Born Stevland Hardaway Judkins in 1950 Michigan, Stevie Wonder developed a condition that rendered him blind. However, he quickly picked up the piano despite his circumstances.
Wonder was picked up and groomed into a musician by Ronnie White of the Miracles.
As his career progressed, Wonder has rightfully garnered a reputation as a pioneer in several genres.
Notably, his pop, R&B, blues, and soul music plays almost everywhere you can imagine to this day and he is
8. Mary Lou Williams
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, to a family of eleven children, Mary Lou Williams grew up in Pittsburgh and taught herself to play piano by three.
A child prodigy by all accounts, Williams went on the Orpheum Circuit at 12, playing with Duke Ellington and other notable jazz musicians of the time.
Mary Lou Williams composed hundreds of pieces for piano, including solo pieces like “Drag ‘Em” and “Night Life.”
To date, she’s considered by many to be the best female jazz pianist and one of the best black piano players of the 20th century.
9. Billy Preston
Billy Preston was a wildly popular keyboardist and organist of the 20th century who backed artists like Little Richard, Ray Charles, and the Beatles.
Entirely self-taught, Preston was playing organ onstage with notable gospel singers by age 10.
Preston went on to become a hit solo artist, penning classics like “That’s the Way God Planned It” and “Nothing from Nothing.”
10. Ray Charles
Ray Charles is undoubtedly one of the most famous pianists to ever live, regardless of race.
Stricken blind by glaucoma at age six, he found solace in the piano, and we all thank him for it.
Charles had countless hits as a solo act and performed in groups with other legendary artists of the time.
“I’ve Got a Woman,” “Georgia on My Mind,” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” are just a few of his timeless classics that have influenced the generations of pianists that have come since.
11. Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk was a jazz pianist and composer known for his incredible improvisational technique that sent audience heads spinning.
Though he was well-regarded by his contemporaries, he struggled to attain mainstream success for a large part of his career.
Today, he’s considered one of the most influential jazz artists of all time but still isn’t as famous as other pianists of his era.
12. Art Tatum
Another blind musician, Art Tatum is widely considered to be one of, if not the best, jazz pianists of the 20th century.
In his relatively short life, Tatum pushed the boundaries of jazz, introducing reharmonizations, bitonality, and voicing in ways that were completely novel at the time.
While Tatum cut his teeth in Toledo in the early 20s, he developed his reputation while playing clubs in New York City through the 50s and made several hit recordings throughout his career.
13. Count Basie
Count Basie was a hugely influential jazz pianist of the 20th century, credited with helping develop other noteworthy talents of the time.
Born in Redbank, New Jersey, Count Basie eventually formed the Count Basie Orchestra, which toured worldwide for decades.
He’s most known for his jazz instrumentals but was a noted sideman for several projects at the time.
14. John Legend
One of the most popular pianists of the modern-day, John Legend has crafted a unique sound defined by heavy influences of R&B and soul.
Homeschooled by his mother, Legend was raised into music from a young age.
Some of his most popular hits include “All of Me” and “Ordinary People,” among other award-winning singles.
15. Hank Jones
Born Henry Jones in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Hank Jones was raised in a family of musicians, and some of his siblings would go on to forge their own noteworthy careers in jazz.
Jones helped shape the bop era of the time and was given a lifetime achievement award during the 2009 Grammys just before his death.