10 Of The Greatest Black Composers Of All Time

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

It’s not only Jazz but also the world of classical music that owes a lot to the black and African-American composers who’ve made their mark and given us some amazing music.

From bebop and blues to concertos and chamber music, the long history of black composers has been instrumental and groundbreaking, pushing the boundaries of convention and challenging stereotypes.

In this post, we’ll be looking at 10 of the greatest black composers throughout history and explore some of their music. Let’s get started.

1. Scott Joplin

If you’ve ever heard of ragtime, then you’ll probably have heard of one of the great American composers, Scott Joplin. His work has made him synonymous with ragtime music, earning him the title of the King of Ragtime.

While he cannot be credited with creating ragtime, most would agree he was by far one of the most influential ragtime composers of the 20th century.

He is most famous for his two compositions, “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer,” as well as over 100 other rags, a ballet, and a couple of operas! Selling sheet music for “Maple Leaf Rag” kept him financially secure throughout his life as it was a big hit and sold over 75,000 copies in the first six months of its release.

As Joplin’s dementia led to his decline, so did ragtime. He passed away in 1917, and many people moved on to other genres of music. Fast forward to the 1970s, people were rediscovering his music and sharing it with the world. While he is gone, people will forever remember him for bringing ragtime to life.

Related: Check out our list of the greatest Ragtime Composers here.

2. Florence Price

Our next composer is Florence Price, who was born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her father was a dentist, and her mother was a music teacher.

She was inspired by her mother’s musical talents to pursue music and began by learning the organ and piano at a young age, composing her first piece at 11 years old.

She studied music at the New England Conservatory of Music, and in 1933, she entered the Wanamaker Music Contest to earn the prize of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to perform one of her compositions and $500.

She won first place for her Symphony in E minor, which is what launched her success as a composer; in fact, she was the first African-American woman to have an original composition performed by an American symphony orchestra.

Price’s compositions tie African-American folk tunes and classic European tradition together, making her a truly unique composer.

3. William Grant Still

Before William Grant Still was named The Dean of African American Composers, he studied science to please his mother’s dreams of him becoming a physician.  However, Still knew that science wasn’t his passion and went on to study music at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

His life story is definitely what you’d call a list of firsts. For example, he was the first African American to be the conductor for a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have one of his operas performed on national television, and the first African American to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera in 1949.

Throughout his career as a composer, Still created more than 150 pieces, eight of which were operas, several ballets, and five were symphonies, of which his Afro-American Symphony No. 1 is the most well-known.

4. Duke Ellington

There were several notable jazz musicians who were prominent figures during the Harlem Renaissance, but perhaps none more influential than Duke Ellington. Born Edward Kennedy Ellington, he adopted the name Duke early in his career.

His work as a composer was truly groundbreaking, as he created a unique sound that blended traditional jazz elements with big band styles.

One of the key elements of Ellington’s compositions was his use of the piano. As a pianist, he was able to integrate complex harmonic structures into his pieces.

In addition to his mastery of the piano, Ellington also employed a musical technique known as call and response. This technique added a dynamic and conversational element to his compositions, making them feel alive and engaging.

Ellington was a prolific composer, with over 1,000 compositions to his name. One of his most famous compositions is “Mood Indigo,” which he wrote in 1930. Another notable composition is “Take the ‘A’ Train,” which became the signature tune of his orchestra.

Related: Next, read our list of the greatest jazz composers here.

5. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Next, we have Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a famous black British composer, conductor, and political activist who fought through racial prejudice to share his works. 

He was often known by white musicians as the African Mahler due to his combining African-American folk music with concert music. 

Samuel’s father was the one who taught him his first instrument, the violin, before he went on to study at the Royal College of Music in London.

Despite racial tensions being high during his lifetime, Coleridge-Taylor’s music was so popular that he began touring through the United States where he was even invited to visit the White House by President Roosevelt.

Of all his work, he is well known for his three cantatas of the poem “The Song of Hiawatha” and pieces like African Romances and Twenty-Four Negro Melodies.

Coleridge-Taylor was a progressive composer, and if he hadn’t passed away at 37 years old from pneumonia, it’s believed he would’ve continued to make his mark on the music world.

6. Julius Eastman

Born in 1940, Julius Eastman was a fantastic American composer from Ithaca, New York, where he learned the piano as a teenager. He soon progressed and went on to study at college and worked extensively as a pianist.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that he began composing more seriously, and his style became an essential part of the post-minimalism movement.

During his time, being openly gay was more difficult than it is now. As a gay, black composer, he expressed his personal experiences in his music. This is clearly demonstrated in well-known pieces such as “Gay Guerrilla” and “Evil Nigger.”

As influential and wonderful as Eastman’s performing and composing career was, his personal life took a turn for the worst. Whether it be due to mental health issues, drugs, or both, he was evicted and ended up passing away alone in New York at the age of 49.

7. Joseph Bologne

Also known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Joseph Bologne was the first known composer who came of African origins, with many people calling Bologne “Le Mozart noir,” which translates to “the black Mozart.” 

Born to a plantation owner and a slave in the French colony of Guadeloupe, Bologne was an outstanding composer who wrote operas and symphonies throughout the late 18th century, like L’Amant anonyme and Deux Symphonies à plusieurs instruments.

He was well-established in Europe with John Adams (who went on to become the 2nd president of the United States) quoted to say that Bologne was “the most accomplished man in Europe.”

8. George Walker

Our next composer, George Walker, is another African American whose career was built on firsts. He attended the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and was the first black person to graduate in 1945.

Walker was the first African American composer and musician to play at New York’s Town Hall, the first African American to earn their doctorate from the Eastman School, and in 1961, was the first black teacher to earn tenure.

While his entire life was filled with firsts, arguably the most impressive and memorable first for Walker was that he was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for music for his piece Lilacs in 1996.

Throughout his life, Walker composed around 100 pieces that have been recorded. His most famous piece is one he wrote in 1946, called The Lyric for Strings

9. Jessie Montgomery

Photo credit: Jessie Montgomery by Jiyang Chen

Born in 1981, Jessie Montgomery is a more recent African-American composer, but she’s just as influential as some of the older ones. The daughter of a musician father and a theater artist mother, her upbringing was steeped in artistic expression and cultural diversity.

She took her passion for music and talent to the Juilliard School, one of the most prestigious music schools in the United States. After her years studying at Julliard, Montgomery went on to earn a degree in composition from New York University.

Montgomery’s works have been performed by leading musicians and ensembles across the globe. One such piece is Banner, intended as a celebration. It reflects her ability to create music that not only evokes emotion but also speaks to the human experience.

10. Margaret Bonds

Ending this list is Margaret Bonds, who was born in Chicago in 1913. She initially studied piano with her mother and was later introduced to Florence Price, another famous composer. Their friendship was crucial to her development as a composer.

At 22 years old, Bonds became the first African American to perform alongside the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Her debut was the same program that Price had her symphony performed at in 1952.

Bonds’ work was varied and spanned lots of different instrumental lineups, from solo voice and solo piano all the way to musical theater work, ballets, and full orchestras. However, one of her significant works is with the poet Langston Hughes. They worked together on numerous compositions, including the famous “Three Dream Portraits.”

Summing Up Our List Of Famous Black Composers

That wraps up our article. As you can see, black and African-American composers have had a major impact on music across multiple genres. Their influence has helped to shape the cultural landscape of not just America but the world.

We hope you enjoyed reading about the lives of these amazing black composers. However, this list is far from complete. Let us know who we’ve missed, and we’ll add them here!

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.