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Learn About the Black Composers Featured in Our Faculty Concert

Jul 14, 2020

Florence Price (1887-1953), composer of Night, performed by Laetitia Ruccolo and Kristen Scott; composer of The Goblin and the Mosquito, performed by Sarai Buchanan           

  • Classical composer, pianist, organist, and music teacher.
  • Florence Price graduated as high school valedictorian at age 14 and left Little Rock in 1904 to attend the New England Conservatory.
  • First black female composer to have her music (Symphony No. 1) performed by a major American orchestra (Chicago Symphony Orchestra) in 1933.
  • Founded the Little Rock Club of Musicians and taught music at the segregated black schools after being refused to the all-white Arkansas Music Teachers Association.


Duke Ellington (1898-1974) & Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967), composers of Satin Doll, performed by Richard Devens

  • Duke Ellington was one of the most creative musicians of the twentieth century with immense influence on classical music, popular music, and jazz.
  • Ellington’s band performances at the Cotton Club in New York City helped him rise to fame in the 1930s as a musician and composer.
  • Billy Strayhorn, a pianist, joined Ellington’s band in 1939 and became a friend and frequent collaborator with the band leader.
  • Strayhorn received the Esquire Silver Award for outstanding arranger in 1946 and later, a scholarship was established in his honor at the Juilliard School.


Thelonious Monk (1917-1982), composer of ‘Round Midnight, performed by Colin Fullerton

  • One of the creators of bebop and modern jazz.
  • At eleven-years-old, Monk began studying classical piano. By the age of thirteen, he had won amateur night at the Apollo Theater in New York City multiple times with his extraordinary performances.
  • One of the few jazz musicians to be on the cover of Time Magazine (1964).
  • He won a Grammy Award for his recording of Criss-Cross in 1963 and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1993.


Charles Brown (1940-), arranger of spiritual, Calvary, performed by Charlotte Moore and Nicole Peragine

  • Originally from Detroit, Charles Brown began his music studies with his church choir director, and later graduated University of Michigan with a Masters degree in Voice Performance.
  • He was a member of the first production of George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera and has since performed lead roles with a number of acclaimed opera companies.
  • As a composer and arranger, Brown has published many choral and solo works, including arrangements of spirituals.
  • Also a music educator, Brown has taught at Lincoln University of Missouri, the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and in New York City Public Schools.


Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945), composer of Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, performed by Bill Ruyle

  • American gospel blues singer and guitarist known for his baritone voice and inspired slide guitar arrangements.
  • Despite becoming blind at the age of seven, Johnson learned to play guitar with an ingenious style that was all his own.
  • Johnson’s music was greatly influenced by African-American church choirs.
  • Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground was one of his early recordings in 1927 with Columbia Records.

James Lee III (1975-), composer of “Topaz”, Prelude No. 9 from 12 Preludes of the New Earth, performed by Irena Portenko

  • Current professor of music theory and composition at Morgan State University, James Lee III is praised as a promising young contemporary composer.
  • He studied piano at Andrews University and University of Michigan, where he earned Bachelors, Masters, and Doctoral degrees in piano performance and composition.
  • In 2002, he was accepted as a composition fellow at Tangelwood Music Center where he premiered his work Psalm 61.
  • Lee’s compositions have won numerous awards and honors, ad have been performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and National Symphony Orchestra, among others


Jacqueline B. Hairston (1932-), composer of Les Enfants Noirs du Monde, performed by Douglas Bish, Song Gonzalez, and Jake Robinson

  • Pianist, vocal coach, arranger and composer.
  • Hairston was classically trained at Julliard and Howard University, and received her Masters in Music from Columbia University.
  • Two of Hairston’s spiritual pieces were performed at Carnegie Hall in 1993. She was an invited guest Conductor at Carnegie Hall in 2012 for a performance of her original choral arrangements of spirituals.
  • Her composition You Deserve It, won an ASCAP Award for Top Gospel Song in 2018.
  • Les Enfants Noirs du Monde is in three parts: African-Brazilian Reflections, Creole Folk Reflections, and Spiritual/Gospel-Jazz Reflections. It was composed in 1994 for Douglas Bish.


Bill Withers (1938-2020), composer of Lean on Me, performed by Donald Stevens

  • Originally from a small mining town in West Virginia, Bill Withers arrived in Los Angeles in 1967 to pursue a career as a musician.
  • Withers won his first Grammy Award for his hit song Ain’t No Sunshine in 1971.
  • His multitude of musical works have been covered and recorded by an extensive list of artists and featured in films and television.

In 2007, Lean on Me was accepted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Withers was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.