This February, we’re celebrating Black History Month by spotlighting some of our favorite artists, and encourage our audience to take a moment to explore and listen to the countless other remarkable musicians who have contributed and shaped the world of music, and continue to do so.
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887, Florence Price was the first African American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra. Her First Symphony won a composing prize that caught the attention of Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor Frederick Stock, after which he led a well-received premiere of the piece. Only recently, 30 boxes of manuscripts and papers were discovered in her abandoned summer home containing an estimated 200 pieces of music. This recent discovery will hopefully give way in time to a renaissance of this pioneering composer’s works.
Recently performed: The NJYS Youth Symphony performed Price’s Symphony No. 3 in c minor at Princeton University on January 26, 2020.
Marian Anderson (1897–1993) was an American singer of classical music and spirituals. Deemed one of the finest contraltos of her time, she became the first African American to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1955. Eleanor Roosevelt invited Anderson to perform at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939 in front of a crowd of more than 75,000, offering up a riveting performance that was broadcast live for millions of radio listeners.
What to watch: Marian Anderson: The Lincoln Memorial Concert, a 1939 documentary film chronicling the concert performance by African American opera singer Marian Anderson
With the emergence of jazz in the early-20th century and inspired by ragtime performers, Duke Ellington (1899-1974) brought American jazz to world audiences for five decades. Recognized as a leading figure in jazz, Charles Ives is perhaps his only rival for the title of the greatest American composer.
On our playlist on repeat: It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)
Musical legend Nat King Cole (1919-1965) started out as a pianist but is best known for his smooth and well-articulated baritone voice. He made television history in 1956 when he became the first African American performer to host a variety TV series. The Nat King Cole Show featured many of the leading performers of the day, including Count Basie, Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis Jr. and Tony Bennett.
Our favorite hit: Unforgettable
Following soon after, Ray Charles (1930-2004), helped create soul music, a fusion of blues, R&B, and gospel styles. Soul music became the sound of the 1950s. Not only one of the most original popular artists of that time, he was one of the most important American musicians of any style to have emerged in the postwar era. His honors include inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, the Jazz Hall of Fame, and as a recipient of both Kennedy Center Honors and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Check it out: Oscar-winning biopic Ray featuring Jamie Foxx
Soul music began to merge with pop and by 1959, Berry Gordy had founded Motown Records. The Motown soul-pop sound could be heard in featured talent Diana Ross and the Supremes. The Supremes were the most commercially successful of Motown’s acts and are to date America’s most successful vocal group, with 12 number-one singles on the Billboard Hot 100.
The Supremes’ first No. 1 hit: Where Did Our Love Go
Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin (1942-2018) signed with the label Atlantic in 1967 and her subsequent recordings for the label were the most powerful recordings by a female soul singer in the genre’s history. In 1987 she became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 1990 she won the Grammy’s Living Legends Award.
What to listen to: Literally anything by Aretha Franklin!
The 1970s and early 1980s introduced the genre of disco, and the fusion of pop music and dance-soul, which influenced musical icon Prince (1958-2016) heavily. He achieved worldwide fame with ‘1999’ and ‘Purple Rain,’ the latter album also serving as the soundtrack for the popular film of the same name that garnered an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score. Prince was not only lauded by Billboard.com as the greatest Super Bowl performer ever, but he was also featured in TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” and earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the BET Awards. He was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2010.
Not to miss: Prince’s Super Bowl XLI (2007) performance of Purple Rain in the rain
Angel Blue (born 1984) is an American operatic soprano and classical crossover artist. Her voice has been hailed for its shining, agile upper register and “smoky” middle register, and as a regular BBC Proms presenter, she is equally at home on the concert or operatic stage. Angel Blue is quickly establishing herself as one of the best singers in her generation, having performed in over 35 countries in the last 6 years.
See her now: The Metropolitan Opera’s acclaimed new production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess