10 Stories That Highlight Black Artists and Composers

Jun 14, 2020

Check out these digital stories from the WRTI Arts Desk that highlight Black artists and composers—from classical and jazz worlds—who have had an incredible impact on American and global culture. Join us on Juneteenth as we showcase Black artists and composers throughout the day!

Head over to WRTI's Instagram page and share the music—from any genre—that YOU feel speaks to the Black Experience. Use #BlackMusicOnWRTI and tag us @WRTIMusic. We’ll be sharing your posts throughout the week!

1. Classical Album of the Week: The Groundbreaking Symphonies of Black Composer Florence Price
During our recent Black History Month celebration, WRTI’s Classical Album of the Week featured the neglected symphonies of Florence Price—the first African-American woman to have a large-scale symphonic work performed by a major orchestra.

2. Looking at the Mural of Grover Washington, Jr. You Can Almost Hear The Music
Grover Washington, Jr.’s hit albums included Mister Magic in 1974 and Winelight in 1981; the latter won him two Grammy awards in '82. A larger-than-life mural on the corner of Broad and Diamond streets pays tribute to the famed saxophonist who, for over three decades, called Philadelphia his home. WRTI’s Susan Lewis has more on the history behind the mural and how it came to be.

3. How Ella Fitzgerald Found Her Voice
Though she was blessed with impeccable intonation, a distinctive sound, and a superb sense of timing, Ella Fitzgerald was hindered in her early years by the limitations of the repertoire she sang. It took some time, determination, and visionary collaboration for Ella to find her voice. WRTI’s Debra Lew Harder and Bob Craig take a look at the key element Ella Fitzgerald needed to become the "First Lady of Song."

4. Miles Davis Changed Music Again and Again
Even though Miles Davis has a unique voice, that isn’t the only reason he’s one of the giants in the history of jazz. Swing turned into bebop, and while the energy was exciting, the furious notes and harmonies threatened to turn jazz into a mere showcase for virtuosos. The music was starting to be overwhelming. So were audiences.

5. Coltrane: The Philadelphia Years
Jazz giant John Coltrane was born and raised in North Carolina, died in New York, and in between spent 15 years in Philadelphia. WRTI’s Susan Lewis looks at the role the city played in the career of this master sax player and composer.

6. Duke Ellington: The Influential, Elegant Genius
In 1927, Duke Ellington’s orchestra opened at New York’s Cotton Club. As WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, it was a gig that would fire up Ellington’s career and change the way people thought about jazz. Author Terry Teachout's Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, explores Ellington's influence.

7. Classical Album of the Week: Sheku-Kaneh Mason's Inspiration
Nineteen-year-old British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason has been riding a media wave since winning the BBC Young Musician competition in 2016. Millions watched his performance at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Sheku’s debut recording, Inspiration, was released in 2018.

8. Wynton Marsalis's Violin Concerto Really Sounds Like America
Born in 1961 in New Orleans, jazz and classical trumpet player and composer Wynton Marsalis grew up playing in churches, jazz bands, and orchestras. As WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, his 2015 violin concerto reflects the varied musical landscape of America. 

9. At Last! A Jazz Orchestra for Philadelphia
The tremendous trumpeter Terell Stafford says finding talent for the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia was “super easy” because Philadelphia is filled with brilliant musicians. Chemistry is key in the band that Stafford put together in 2013. He says the jazz orchestra is what Philadelphia is about:  jazz virtuosos with ties to the city, focusing on music connected to its past and present.

10. Marian Anderson: The Most Modest Trailblazer
Classical singer Marian Anderson was one of the all-time greats — both as an artist and as a cultural figure who broke down racial barriers. She is best known for performing at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, after she was denied permission to sing for an integrated audience at Washington's DAR Constitution Hall. But she was much more than that — she helped shape American music.

*11. The Black Horn: Blowing Past Classical Music's Color Barriers
Robert Lee Watt fell in love with the French horn at an early age. He met a lot of resistance from people who thought his background and his race made a career with the instrument unlikely — but he went on to become the first African-American French hornist hired by a major symphony in the United States.

*We added an extra story because there are just so many stories to tell!