Despite centuries of injustice and limited opportunities, African-Americans have made countless contributions to science, medicine, public service, and the arts, among many other areas. American music, for example, would be far less rich, innovative, and memorable without the creative work of black composers.
Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, and Florence Price were gifted musicians. Additionally, their lives exemplify the obstacles 20th-century people of color had to overcome regardless of profession. Here’s what you need to know about their lives and work:
Around the turn of the 20th century, Scott Joplin’s innovations in syncopated ragtime music made him one of the most acclaimed and influential American pianists and composers. His “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer” are now staples of the popular repertoire.
Later audiences rediscovered this “King of Ragtime” through the use of his music in movies such as The Sting. The 1973 production won multiple Oscars, including one for Marvin Hamlisch’s adaptation and orchestration of Joplin’s music into its score.
Joplin was born into a family of musicians in about 1867, probably in northeast Texas. He grew up in Texarkana and studied piano in his early teens. He performed in Chicago at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and two years later studied music at a segregated school in Missouri. After his early work made him famous, Joplin moved to St. Louis.
Hoping to reduce the prejudice shown by some critics to ragtime because of its African-American origins, Joplin published an instructional series called The School of Ragtime: Six Exercises for Piano. His ambitions as a composer of more traditional music led him to compose the opera A Guest of Honor and the ballet Rag Time Dance.
Before his death in 1917, Joplin’s multi-genre operatic theater piece Treemonisha, whose African-American themes prefigured George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, was presented in a small-scale version. Critics have noted Treemonisha’s vivid blending of influences from Richard Wagner to Giuseppe Verdi to Tin Pan Alley. Notable recent stagings include a 2019 production at East London’s Grimeborn music festival.
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington composed the score for Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life, which was also the film debut of then 19-year-old singer Billie Holiday. Revered as the most talented American jazz composer and conductor of his day, Duke Ellington wrote thousands of scores and is largely responsible for the distinctive sound of the Big Band era.
Born in Washington, DC, in 1899 to a middle-class family that encouraged his artistic ambitions, Ellington studied piano at age 7 and began performing in ragtime bands in his teens. Working in New York City from 1923, he eventually assembled a 14-piece orchestra. Ellington’s band became a fixture at Harlem’s Cotton Club in the 1920s and ‘30s, and he hired musicians who were themselves major figures in the development of jazz.
This group of musicians became a wildly popular touring ensemble, appeared in multiple films, and went on the road in Europe from 1933 to 1939. Ellington’s music, and swing and jazz in general, were popular among anti-Nazi German youth. As a result, he was among the many black performers banned from working in Germany after the mid-1930s.
However, at that time, the Cotton Club was an all-white establishment as far as patrons were concerned, and black musicians had to enter by the back door. While on tour in the United Kingdom in 1933, Ellington’s troupe was turned away from several hotels, and he suffered many other such slights on tour in the United States. This inspired him to begin working on behalf of the NAACP’s fight for racial justice. His extraordinary talent and personality forced white critics and audiences to take African-American music and performers seriously.
By the late 1930s, Ellington had begun composing long-form pieces, and the 1940s saw him compose a string of fast-tempo hits and pieces rich in tonal color. Ellington also expanded his talents into theater scores, including the 1964 production My People, a tribute to the Civil Rights movement. Ellington’s band continued touring the world with him for many years. Many of the same performers remained with him for four decades or more. His regal demeanor and charm continued to draw audiences until shortly before his death in 1974.
Florence Price is one of the few African-American female composers of symphonic music whose work achieved significant recognition from white audiences during her lifetime. She was the first black woman to have her work performed by a well-known orchestra. In 1933, the Chicago Symphony performed her Symphony in E minor. One critic wrote that the piece was “faultless” in its passion and restraint.
Many of Price’s hundreds of classical compositions were anchored in the tunes and rhythms of classic African-American spirituals. They were performed throughout the United States and Europe. Marian Anderson, one of the world’s great contraltos and herself a breaker of color barriers in a segregated society, included Price’s song “My Soul’s Been Anchored in de Lord” among the pieces she sang at her famous 1939 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887, Price studied music as a child under the guidance of her mother, a schoolteacher and pianist. She went on to study at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, a rare opportunity for a black woman in those days. Before returning to Arkansas to marry, she spent two years teaching music at Clark University in Atlanta.
Back in Arkansas, she continued to teach and compose. However, because she was African-American, she was refused admission into the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association. Despite the international reputation she earned, her work was knocked well-known in the decades after her death in 1953.
In 2009, the new owners of Price’s summer home in Illinois discovered a long-lost trove of her manuscripts. At that time, musicians began to edit, share, and record them, to the delight of new audiences.