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Five African-American Classical Composers and their work: William Grant Still, Florence B. Price, Harry T. Burleigh, William Levi Dawson, and Mary Lou Williams.

mary lou williams

African American pianist, composer and arranger, and vocalist Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981). She  demonstrated remarkable musical talent in modern genres as diverse as classical, free jazz, hard bop, swing, big band, and gospel.

Text by John P. Walsh

Following the tradition set down by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, the White House officially announced that June 2017 was to be African American Music Month. The proclamation in part reads: “During June, we pay tribute to the contributions African Americans have made and continue to make to American music. The indelible legacy of these musicians who have witnessed our Nation’s greatest achievements, as well as its greatest injustices give all Americans a richer, deeper understanding of American culture. Their creativity has shaped every genre of music, including rock and roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel, hip hop, and rap.” A very nice tribute although I would hasten to attach onto its last sentence – “and all other American musical genres.” This could then include the significant contributions by African American artists to classical music such as William Grant Still (1895-1978), Florence B. Price (1887-1953), Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949), William Levi Dawson (1899 – 1990), and Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981). 

William Grant Still (1895-1978).

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WILLIAM GRANT STILL (1895-1978) is the “dean” of African-American classical music composers. Born in Mississippi, William Grant Still grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, attended Wilberforce University and Oberlin Conservatory of Music, both in Ohio. In addition to composing over 150 works— including five symphonies and eight operas— William Grant Still is the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra (the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936); the first to have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra (his 1930 Symphony No. 1 in A-flat, “Afro-American” by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in 1931); the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company (his 1939 Troubled Island by The New York Opera Company in 1949), and the first to have an opera performed on national television (his 1941 A Bayou Legend in 1981).

WILLIAM GRANT STILL (1895-1978): In Memoriam of the Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy (1944). Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Szell.

Florence B. Price (1887-1953).

Florence B. Price.

FLORENCE B. PRICE (1887-1953) became the first African-American female composer to have a major symphonic composition performed by a leading American symphony orchestra. It was on June 15, 1933—in conjunction with A Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago— that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed the world premiere of Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor at The Auditorium Theatre on Michigan Avenue conducted by music director Frederick Stock. The concert included works by Harry T. Burleigh, tenor Roland Hayes (1887-1977), English mixed-race composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), sometimes called the “African Mahler,” and others. Price, who was born into a mixed-race family in Little Rock, Arkansas, studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, and later taught piano, organ and voice both at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia and privately. She moved to Chicago in 1927 where, in a career which produced over 300 works, Price incorporated rhythms expressed in Africa-based musical traditions along with African-American spirituals and folk tunes, and the orchestrations of European Romantic composers. In addition to Symphony No. 1 in E minor, some of her best known works include Sonata in E MinorFantasie NegreMississippi River suite, and Symphony No. 3 in C Minor. In 1940 Florence B. Price was inducted into ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers).

Mississippi River by Florence B. Price was composed in 1934 and dedicated to a prominent teacher at Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music where Price continued her musical studies after she arrived to Chicago. The suite uses the contrivance of a boat navigating the Mississippi River and experiencing its various expressions of human life and history along its path told in musical sections. The first part depicts dawn on the river; the second part its American Indian heritage via an array of percussion; the third part the African American experience utilizing traditional negro spirituals (Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen; Stand Still Jordan; Go Down, Moses; and Deep River). The suite concludes in a melodic cacophony of then-contemporary tunes such as River Song, Lalotte, and Steamboat Bill.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers
by Langston Hughes (1902-1967).

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
     flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln 
     went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy 
     bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Hughes had said he was crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois in 1919 when inspiration struck just outside of St. Louis and he wrote the poem. Hughes, who was born in Joplin, Missouri, and raised in various places in Kansas, Illinois, and Ohio, always knew best the landscape of the American Midwest even after he helped to lead the Harlem Renaissance in New York City as a poet, novelist, and playwright in the 1920’s.

William Levi Dawson (1899 – 1990).

William L. Dawson American composer

WILLIAM L. DAWSON (1899-1990), born in Alabama, was a composer and arranger, trombonist, and music educator. He continually was learning so to use the rich heritage of African American music and later African music as the basis for many types of music that he composed and arranged. After graduating with highest honors from Tuskegee Institute he studied music and composition in Kansas City and Chicago and performed for many years as first trombonist with the Chicago Civic Orchestra. It is Dawson’s work as music director with the 100-voice Tuskegee Institute Choir that led to many distinguished and fêted national and international choral engagements throughout the mid-twentieth century. William Dawson is most famous perhaps as the composer of his Negro Folk Symphony which he wrote in 1934 but revised in 1952 after studying indigenous African music throughout West Africa. The three movements of the symphony are entitled: “The Bond of Africa,” “Hope in the Night” and “O, le’ me shine, shine like a Morning Star!”

William Dawson conducts the Tuskegee Institute Choir in 1955 in his arrangement of the negro spiritual Listen to the Lambs written by R. Nathaniel Dett first performed in 1913.

In 1952, Dawson visited several countries in West Africa to study indigenous African music. The experience inspired him to revise his Negro Folk Symphony which was first written in 1934. The new work was recorded in 1961 by Leopold Stokowski for Decca Records.

Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949).

burleigh

HARRY BURLEIGH (1866–1949), born in Erie, Pennsylvania, was an eminent African-American baritone, and influential classical composer and arranger. As a student at New York City’s National Conservatory of Music of America, Burleigh became associated with Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) who heard the baritone sing spirituals and encouraged him to create arrangements for these melodies. With the Czech composer’s active interest, Burleigh developed into one of America’s most important composers and arrangers of spirituals. He created arrangements for more than 100 songs including “Deep River,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” which are classics today. Burleigh’s “In Christ there is no East or West” remains a church hymnal standard. Burleigh set poems by Walt Whitman to music also. When Burleigh was accepted in 1894 as baritone soloist at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan—a post where he stayed for over 50 years—the tie vote of the congregation which had never allowed African-Americans to worship there before—was broken by J. P. Morgan in Burleigh’s favor. While Burleigh’s advocacy of negro melodies through writing, speaking engagements and new arrangements remained indefatigable, he found time to coach many well-known singers, including Caruso, Roland Hayes, Marion Anderson, and Paul Robeson.

Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981).

Mary Lou Williams,

A self-taught pianist, by the time she was 20 years old MARY LOU WILLIAMS  was a professional musician and touring bandleader. In these formative years she looked for inspiration to Chicago bandleader and composer “Lovie” Austin (1887–1972) but Williams’ own records as a pianist and arranger began to sell briskly. In a 50-year-plus career she wrote and arranged music for bandleaders as famous as Duke Ellington (1899-1974) and Benny Goodman (1909-1986) and was a beloved mentor to slightly younger African-American musical artists who became household names in the world of jazz: Thelonious Monk (1917-1982), Charlie Parker (1920-1955), Miles Davis (1926-1991), Tadd Dameron (1917-1965), Bud Powell (1924-1966), and Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993), to name a few. Though Mary Lou Williams’ musical talents fly under the popular culture radar almost 40 years after her death, to her admirers—many of which are artists and institutions—her recordings remain a treasure to listen to and she is much honored for her inspiring work

Mary Lou Williams’ album, Zodiac Suite, released in 1945 and remastered here from the original acetates, is a 12-part interpretation of the astrological zodiac composed and performed on the piano by Mary Lou Williams who is accompanied by two of her hand-picked session musicians—all innovators from the clubs of New York—namely, Canadian jazz double-bassist Al Lucas (1912-1983) and American jazz and rhythm & blues drummer Jack “The Bear” Parker. Each movement is a set of classically-inspired jazz tone poems for the signs of the horoscope: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces.

©John P. Walsh. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system.