Black conductors

African conductors are musicians of African , Caribbean , African-American ancestry and other members of the African diaspora who are musical ensemble leaders who live classical music performances, such as an orchestral or choral concerts, or jazz ensemble big band concerts by way of visible gestures with the hands, arms, face and head. Conductors of African descent are rare, as are the vast majority are male and Caucasian .



In the early 1930s, African American conductor Dean Dixon (1915-1976) found that his pursuit of leadership was stifled because of racial bias . In 1940, Three Conductors: African Americans Everett Lee and Dean Dixon , and American Jewish Benjamin Steinberg “… attempted to circumvent the institutionalized racism in American classical music by forming an orchestra of black musicians, but the orchestra of black musicians … “Steinberg established” … an orchestra of 36 black and white musicians, when he formed the Symphony of the New Worldin 1964. “It was the first fully racially integrated orchestra in the US, and held its first concert at Carnegie Hall on May, 6, 1965.

In 1945, Everett Lee was the “first African American to conduct a major Broadway production.” Leonard Bernstein asked Lee to conduct On the Town , which marked the “… first time a black conductor led an all-white production.” [1] In 1953, Lee was the “… first black musician to conduct a white symphony orchestra in the south of the States … in Louisville, Kentucky.” [1] In 1955, Lee was the “… first musician of color to conduct a major opera company in the US with a performance of La Traviata at the New York City Opera.” In 1955 William Grant StillConducted the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra and became the first African American to Conduct a Major Orchestra in the Deep South of the US . Henry Lewis (1932-1996) was the first African-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1972. Lewis found it hard to “… take on the role of an authoritarian conductor, because such a role was unacceptable for a black man” at this time. [2]

In the early 1950s, impresario Arthur Judson , head of Columbia Artists Management told Everett Lee that despite Lee’s excellent reviews for conducting, a black conductor could not conduct a white orchestra in the US. Judson stated that black instrumentalists could play a concerto with white orchestras, but it was not possible. Isaiah Jackson (born 1945) was principal conductor of the Royal Ballet , Covent Garden , in 1986, and became its music director 1987-90.


According to a 2004 article in the Guardian , “black conductors are rare in the classical music world and even in symphony orchestras it is unusual to see one or two black musicians.” Canadian-born black conductor Ryan Kwame, who studied music at Cambridge University and in Germany, made his professional conduct debut in 2004. Ryan says the “… message given to young people, black people, particularly in North America, was … that you can be a star athlete … [but the opportunity] [to become a conductor] is not encouraged in schools or in the media. ” [3]Ryan states that young blacks have a lack of “… exposure [to black conductor role models] and it is a deficit that is passed on from generation to generation.” Ryan said he has “… no optimism for the future.” [3]

Notable individuals

Classical music

Historically, the vast majority of classical music conductors have been Caucasian. However, there are a small number of notable conductors who are of African, Caribbean or African-American ancestry:

  • Charles-Richard Lambert (died in 1862) was a black American musician, conductor and music educator. He and his family were noted for talent in music and gained international acclaim. [4] He worked as a music teacher and conductor for the Philharmonic Society, the first non-theatrical orchestra in New Orleans . [5] Edmond Dede, one of his notable students . [6]
William Grant Still (1895-1978) was one of the first African Americans to conduct a major American symphony orchestra in the Deep South.
  • William Grant Still (1895-1978) was one of the first African Americans to conduct a major American Symphony Orchestra in the South , the first to have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television. As a classical composer, he wrote more than 150 compositions. After finishing college, he won a scholarship at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music . Between 1919 and 1921, he worked as an arranger for WC Handy’s band. In the 1930s, he arranged music for many movies. In 1955 he conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra and became the first African American to conduct a major orchestra in the Deep South.
  • Everett Lee (born in 1913) “was [a] … violinist who led the orchestra in the original Broadway production of Carmen Jones and played the oboe on stage in the country club scene.” [1] In 1945, he was the “first African American to conduct a major Broadway production.” Leonard Bernstein asked Lee to conduct On the Town , which marked the “… first time a black conductor led an all-white production.” [1] In 1946, Lee won a “Koussevitzky Music Foundation Award for Conduct at Tanglewood .” [1] In 1952, he was appointed director of the department of Columbia University … and was also awarded aFulbright scholarship that allowed him to travel to Europe. [1] In 1953, Lee was the “first black musician to conduct a white symphony orchestra in the south of the States … in Louisville, Kentucky.” [1] In 1955, he was the “first musician of color to conduct a major opera company in the US with a performance of La Traviata at the New York City Opera.” He was appointed chief conductor of the Norrköping Symphony in Sweden in 1962. In 1976, he conducted the New York Philharmonic for the first time, and performed a piece by African American composer “David Baker to mark Martin Luther King’s birthday.” In 1979, he became music director of the Bogotá Philharmonic Orchestra in Colombia.[1]
  • Dean Dixon (1915-1976), conducting with Albert Stoessel at the Juilliard School and Columbia University . When early pursuits of Conducting commitments Were stifled Because of racial bias(He Was African American), he FORMED His Own orchestra and choral society in 1931. In 1941, he guest-Conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra , and the New York Philharmonic During its summer season. He later guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra . In 1948 he won the Ditson Conductor’s Award . Dixon was honored by theAmerican Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) with the Award of Merit for encouraging the participation of American youth in music. In 1948, Dixon was awarded the Alice M. Ditson award for distinguished service to American music.
Henry Lewis and Marilyn Horne in 1961, photo by Carl Van Vechten .
  • Henry Lewis (1932-1996) attended The University of Southern California at age 16, joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic , becoming the first black instrumentalist in a major symphony orchestra. Lewis founded the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. He gained national recognition in 1961 when he was appointed assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestraunder Zubin Mehta . He was the first African-American to lead a major symphony orchestra. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1972.
  • James DePreist (1936-2013) was one of the first African-American conductors on the world stage. He was the Director Emeritus of Conducting and Orchestral Studies at The Juilliard School and Laureate Music Director of the Oregon Symphony . DePreist studied composition with Vincent Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory while earning a bachelor’s degree at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania . [7] He won first prize in the Dimitri Mitropoulos International Conducting Competition. [7]He was then chosen by Leonard Bernstein to become assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic during the 1965-66 season.
  • Paul Freeman (1936-2015) was a conductor, composer, and founder of the Chicago Sinfonietta. Freeman earned bachelor, master, and doctoral degrees from the Eastman School of Music . A Fulbright Scholarship for the Hochshule für Musik (University for Music) in Berlin, Germany with Ewald Lindemann. He later studied conducting with Pierre Monteux at the American Symphony Orchestra . He was the music director of the Opera Theater of Rochester for six years. He then held the position of associate conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra from 1968-1970 and Detroit Symphony Orchestrafrom 1970-1979. Paul Freeman’s papers are held at the Columbia Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College.
  • Isaiah Jackson (born 1945) was appointed conductor of the Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston , of which he was named Conductor Emeritus. [8] He is the first African-American to be appointed to a directorship in the Boston area. [9] He graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 1966. While there, he conducted Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte , which helped him decide to pursue music as a career. Subsequently, he went to Stanford University and received his MA in music in 1969. He studied with Nadia Boulanger in Fontainebleau, France, before going to the Juilliard School in New York City, from which he graduated DMA in 1973. [10] Jackson founded the Juilliard String Ensemble and was its first conductor 1970-71. He was associate or assistant conductor with the American Symphony Orchestra (1970-71) where he worked with Leopold Stokowski ; the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (1971-73); and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra (1973-87). He was appointed music director of the Flint Symphony Orchestra ( Flint, Michigan ) in 1982, the first black music director of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra in 1987 and principal conductor ofThe Royal Ballet , Covent Garden , in 1986, and became its music director 1987-90. He was the first black and the first American to occupy a position with the company.
  • Calvin E. Simmons (1950 -1982) was an American symphony orchestra conductor. He was one of the early African-American conductors of a major orchestra. By the age of 11, he was conducting the San Francisco Boys Chorus. After working as assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta , Simmons became musical director of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra at age 28; he led the orchestra for four years. He was the first African-American conductor of the US Symphony Orchestra and a frequent guest conductor of the nation’s major opera companies and orchestras (eg, the Philadelphia Orchestra and others). In addition, he was the Music Director at the Ojai Music Festivalin 1978. He made His debut at the Metropolitan Opera Conducting Engelbert Humperdinck ‘s Hansel and Gretel .
  • Leslie Dunner (born 1956) is an American conductor and composer. He Went there to the University of Rochester ‘s Eastman School of Music , Where He Was Awarded His bachelor’s degree in 1978. He later Attended Queens College in New York, Where He Was Awarded a master’s degree in 1979 and the University of Cincinnati College -Conservatory of Music , where he was awarded a PhD in 1982. His reputation as a conductor rests on his ability to communicate with the audience through a wide variety of musical styles, and through his willingness to experiment with tempo and presentation. He was conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra . In 1998, Dunner took the post of music director of theAnnapolis Symphony Orchestra . [11]
  • Michael Morgan (born 1957) is the music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony and the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra , and artistic director of the Opera Festival in Walnut Creek , California. While a student at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music , he spent a summer at the Oberlin College Conservatory at Tanglewood. He was a student of Gunther Schuller and Seiji Ozawa , and it was at that time that he worked with Leonard Bernstein . In 1980, he won first prize in the Hans Swarovsky International Conductors Competition in Vienna, Austria and became Assistant Conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, under Leonard Slatkin . His operatic debut was in 1982 at the Vienna State Opera. In 1986, Sir Georg Solti became the Assistant Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra .
  • Jeri Lynne Johnson is the founder and music director of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, the first multi-ethnic professional orchestra in Philadelphia . A graduate of Wellesley College and the University of Chicago , she is a conductor, composer and pianist. From 2001-2004, she was the assistant conductor of The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia . [12] She has led orchestras around the world Including the Colorado Symphony , Bournemouth Symphony (UK), and the Staatskapelle Weimar (Germany). Alongside prominent female conductors Marin Alsop and JoAnn Falletta , Ms. Johnson was heralded on theNBC Today Show as one of the nation’s leading female conductors. In 2005, Ms. Johnson made history as the first African-American woman to win an international conducting prize when she was awarded the Taki Concordia conducting fellowship.
  • Kwame Ryan (born 1970, Toronto ) is a Canadian conductor of Trinidadian descent. He attended Oakham School , Rutland , England, and then studied at Cambridge . Ryan made his professional UK debut at the 2004 Edinburgh International Festival . [13] In 2007, Ryan became music director of the National Orchestra Bordeaux Aquitaine (ONBA), a post he held until 2013. [14]
  • John McLaughlin Williams is the first African-American win a Grammy Award for orchestral conducting. He is a member of the Houston Symphony, Concertmaster of the Virginia Symphony, and a freelance concertmaster, soloist, and violinist who performed regularly with the Boston Symphony and as Assistant Concertmaster of the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra. He has conducted many orchestras in America, Ukraine, and Bulgaria, and is well known for his recording activity. Williams made many premiere recordings of American symphonic repertoire for the Naxos label’s American Classics Series. He has had felicitous collaborations with such notable artists as Eliasha Nelson, Elmar Oliveira, Brian McKnight and The Winans. For Nelson’s recording of The Complete Viola Works of Quincy Porter , Williams achieved the distinction of performing as conductor, violinist, pianist, and harpsichordist, and that recording Grammy nominated grammy nominations.

Jazz and popular music

In jazz and popular music, the leader of an ensemble may also be called a bandleader.

David Baker (far left) leads the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra during the NEA Jazz Mastersawards ceremony and concert in 2008.
Conductor Gerald Wilson leads a jazz big band
  • David Baker (born 1931) is an American symphonic jazz composer and bandleader at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington . [15] He has more than 65 recordings, 70 books, and 400 articles to his credit. His students include Michael Brecker , Randy Brecker , Peter Erskine , Jim Beard , Chris Botti , Jeff Hamilton , and the jazz educator Jamey Aebersold .

See also

  • List of senior conductors by orchestra


  1. ^ Jump up to:h ‘Foldable’, ‘I do not believe in Negro SymphonyConductors ‘ , , July 25, 2011.
  2. Jump up^ Paxton, Helen S.,”Black Conductors; A Symphony Of Stature” (letter to the editor),The New York Times, October 25, 1992. “The writer is the director of marketing and communications for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. “
  3. ^ Jump up to:b Higgins, Charlotte, “Black conductor he fears Will Remain exception” , The Guardian , 10 August 2004.
  4. Jump up^ Macdonald, Robert R .; Kemp, John R .; Haas, Edward F. (1979). Louisiana’s Black Heritage .
  5. Jump up^ Price, Emmett George (2010). Encyclopedia of African American music: Volume 3 . p. 219.
  6. Jump up^ Sybil Kein, Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana ‘s Free People of Color , Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000, pp. 80-82, accessed December 28, 2010
  7. ^ Jump up to:b “James DePreist: Biography” . Allmusic . Rovi Corporation . Retrieved February 8, 2013 .
  8. Jump up^ PACO ArchivedpeopleApril 13, 2010, at theWayback Machine.
  9. Jump up^ The Harbus
  10. Jump up^
  11. Jump up^ Greenfield, Phil (February 5, 1998). Candidate Dunner has trio of talents; Diversity: Leslie Dunner, who is vying for the directorship of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, is a talented conductor, composer and clarinetist, The Baltimore Sun , Retrieved November 22, 2010
  12. Jump up^ Sisters in the Spotlight . Ebony . March 2003 . Retrieved May 18, 2010 .
  13. Jump up^ Charlotte Higgins (August 10, 2004). “Black conductor fears he will remain exception”. The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-03-29.
  14. Jump up^ “Appointed Artistic and Music Director of the Orchester National Bordeaux Aquitaine, Paul Daniel will take up his post in September 2013” (PDF) (Press release). National Orchestra Bordeaux Aquitaine. July 15, 2012. Archived fromthe original (PDF) on July 9, 2013 . Retrieved July 19,2012 .
  15. Jump up^ From Lerma, Dominique-Rene. “African Heritage Symphonic Series Vol III”. Liner note essay. Cedille RecordsCDR066.

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