Five Black Musicians Who Changed the World of Music

Black musicians have played a substantial role in the evolution of classical music in the United States and beyond. This month, we’re inviting you to learn more about the impact Black musicians have made on the music we love.

Celebrate Black History Month with ICAN by getting to know five musicians who changed the world of music:

Hazel Scott (1920-1981)

Trinidadian-born pianist Hazel Scott was a child prodigy who became a barrier-breaking performing artist. At eight years old, she auditioned for Julliard, where she was offered a scholarship to study privately with the school’s professors. Hazel Scott’s adult life was a long list of unprecedented events. For instance, she headlined New York’s first integrated nightclub. She was also the first Black performer to host her own nationally syndicated TV show. She advocated for civil rights by refusing to play before segregated audiences and demanding equal pay to her white counterparts. As a performer, Scott was known both for her imaginative improvisations of classical music and her charisma behind the piano keys. 

Marian Anderson (1897-1993)

Marian Anderson was an opera singer whom many consider the world’s greatest contralto (the lowest “female” singing voice). Her genius for singing was noticed at an early age. When her family couldn’t afford formal voice training, her local church congregation raised funds. Anderson went on to perform across Europe and the United States. Known for her masterful singing of both opera and spirituals, Anderson became the first Black singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Her most famous performance, however, was in 1939 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of 75,000 people, not to mention the millions tuning in over the airwaves.

James DePreist (1936-2013)

Conductor James DePreist is particularly known and beloved here in Oregon. His first professional breakthrough was working as assistant conductor to Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. From there, he was asked to lead orchestras around Europe, Canada, and the U.S. However, his role as music director of the Oregon Symphony proved to be his most memorable musical relationship. During his time with the OSO, DePreist was responsible for bringing the ensemble into a place of prominence and renown. He also expanded access to music beyond the concert hall throughout the Pacific Northwest. Fun fact – DePreist was the nephew of singer Marian Anderson, mentioned above.

Wynton Marsalis (b. 1961)

Wynton Marsalis is equally recognized in the worlds of classical and jazz music. He is a composer and trumpeter whose musical technique on the brass instrument is unmatched. At 17, Marsalis was the youngest musician admitted to Tanglewood’s Berkshire Music Center. While his early life was immersed in classical music, Marsalis turned out to be similarly captivated by jazz in adulthood. He became the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for music for his oratorio, Blood on the Fields. In addition to his writing and performing, Marsalis is currently the managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.

David N. Baker (1931-2016)

Like Wynton Marsalis, David N. Baker was another musical pioneer at the intersection of classical and jazz. Early in his career, Baker was met with resistance in his pursuit of becoming a symphony musician due to his race. Consequently, he took an instrument mainly used for classical genres, the cello, and began integrating it into jazz ensembles. As a composer, Baker wrote a staggering 2,000 works ranging from jazz pieces to music for orchestra and even film. One of his most significant achievements was founding the Jazz Studies Department at Indiana University. It was the first instance of jazz being given a place for formal academic study.