10 of the Greatest Black Composers you Should Know

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 some of the greatest black composers throughout history and explore some of their music. Let’s get started.

1. Scott Joplin (1868-1917)

If you’ve ever heard of ragtime, then you’ll probably have heard of one of the great American composers Scott Joplin.

Joplin’s work has made him synonymous with Ragtime music which was trendy at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th 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. 

Joplin studied music with a Jewish music teacher in his hometown of Texarkana, Texas where he developed and created complex harmonies and patterns that combine European and African American musical stylings. 

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!

Here’s a video of Scott Joplin himself playing his composition.

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 6 months of its release.

As Joplin’s dementia led to his decline, so did ragtime and 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.

2. Florence Price (1887-1953)

Florence Price 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.

After graduating high school as Valedictorian, she moved to Boston to study music at the New England Conservatory of Music. 

After graduating, she and her husband moved back to Arkansas but unfortunately, racial tensions at that time were high, and the couple moved to Chicago for their safety. 

Eventually, Florence and her husband Thomas divorced, leaving Florence with two daughters to raise. 

Price found a support system in other African American artists with one of her most essential bonds being with Margaret Bonds, another influential female black composer who we’ll look at later in this article.

By this time, Price had already composed several pieces 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 and in fact, she was the first African American woman to have an original composition performed by an American symphony orchestra. 

Her compositions tie African American folk tunes and classic European tradition together, making her a truly unique composer. 

3. William Grant Still (1895-1978)

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. 

But, 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, he created more than 150 pieces, eight of those were operas, several ballets, and five were symphonies, of which his “Afro-American Symphony No. 1 being the most well known. 

4. Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

Duke Ellington was born in D.C. with the name Edward Kennedy Ellington, but he always went by Duke.

Some say it was destiny that Duke became a composer due to both his parents being pianists. 

As a child, Ellington learned to play piano and would play various gigs at nighttime as he aged into a teenager.

In 1923, Ellington moved to New York City and quickly made a name for himself, and was a crucial figure of the Harlem Renaissance

Ellington, Cootie Williams, and Johnny Hodges created an eleven-piece orchestra that they played at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Their popularity grew, and the trio went on tour in the 1930s. 

Ellington was free to explore unconventional melodies, which led to some of his most influential works. One of his most famous pieces, Moon Indigo, was a product of this musical freedom. 

The musical diversity that Ellington possessed led him to work for ballets, theater, and movies with a long successful career playing and composing jazz pieces and experimenting with unique musical combinations. 

5. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is a famous black British composer who fought through racial prejudice to share his works. 

He was a composer, conductor, and political activist often known by white musicians as the African Mahler due to 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 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 of pneumonia, it’s believed he would’ve continued to make his mark on the music world.

6. Julius Eastman (1940-1990)

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 70s that he began composing more seriously and his style being an essential part of the post-minimalism movement. 

Being gay during the time he was alive was more controversial than it is today, and you can see his compositions address his status as a gay, black composer with well-known pieces like 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 50. 

7. Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799)

Joseph Bologne was the first known composer that came from African origins with many people calling Bologne “Le Mozart noir”, which translates to “the black Mozart“. 

Born to a plantation owner and one of his slaves in the French colony of Guadeloupe, he was an outstanding composer who wrote symphonies, concertos, and quartets throughout the late 18th century. 

He was well-established in Europe with John Adams (who went on to become the 2nd president of the United States_ was quoted saying that he was one of “the most accomplished man in Europe“.

Throughout his career, he composed many pieces including 2 symphonies, operas, concertos, sonatas, and lots more.

8. George Walker (1922-2018)

George Walker is another African American whose career was built on firsts. Walker 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 he went on to work at Smith College 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 (1981-)

Photo credit: Jessie Montgomery by Jiyang Chen

Jessie Montgomery is a more recent African American composer, but she’s just as influential as some of the older ones.

Born in 1981, this New York Native took her passion for music and talents 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 from New York University in composition. 

She’s been composing her own works where she has been commissioned to write extensively as well as performing as a violinist, and working with the Sphinx Organization.

10. Margaret Bonds (1913-1972)

Margaret Bonds was born in Chicago and studied piano with her mother. Her mother had taken in Florence Price, another famous composer, and their friendship was crucial to her development as a composer. 

Price is thought to be one of Bonds’ first piano and composition teachers.  

Bonds was the first African American to perform alongside the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at 22 years old. 

Her debut was the same program that her friend Florence Price (who we looked at earlier) had her symphony performed at.

Her work was varied and spans lots of different instrumental lineups from solo voice and solo piano all the way to musical theatre work, ballets, and full orchestras.

Summing up the Famous Black Composers

That wraps up our article, we hope you enjoyed reading about the lives of these amazing black composers.

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.

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping 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. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.