10 Black Conductors Who Changed Music History

Last updated Apr 10, 2022 | Published on Apr 12, 2022

Aleah Fitzwater is a full-time music writer, classical flutist, and artist. She teaches tutorials for how to digitize music on the ScanScore Blog.

Orchestras as a whole are still, largely, whitewashed. As a classical musician myself, this has always baffled me. So many innovative pieces of music and different genres stem from black culture including; Rock, Jazz, Reggae, Blues, Folk, Bluegrass, and more. Composers of color have contributed countless pieces of music to the classical genre alone, all too often, without proper recognition.

Without further ado, here are 10 black conductors who I believe have changed music history in a large way.

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Table of contents

Joseph Boulogne Chevalier de Saint-George

Joseph Boulogne by Mather Brown (1761–1831) & William Ward (1766–1826)

Joseph Boulogne was a man of many hats (hence the second name…but we’ll get to that in a minute). Joseph Boulogne was born on the French island called Guadeloupe in 1745. He studied with the composer Joseph Gossec and the Italian Violinist Antonio Lolli.

I didn’t learn about Joseph Boulogne until I had been out of college for several years. But he wasn’t just a violinist, composer, and conductor. He was also a:

 

  • Champion at Fencing
  • Colonel in the French revolutionary war

Before Boulogne was famous for his music, he was knighted with his second name (Chevalier St. George).

Boulogne is often called ‘The Black Mozart’ but I feel this name is more than a little bit politically incorrect. After all, Mozart never got a second name for his fencing skills. An interesting fact related to this though is that Boulogne had actually met Mozart on more than one occasion. It is rumored that Mozart was jealous of Boulogne’s musical talent. Boulogne had connections with many other classical composers, including Christoph Gluck. He was such a talented violinist, in fact, that Gossec dedicated six trios to him.

Boulogne is the first conductor on our list- and for good reason. While France is known for its progressiveness, the 1700s were still the 1700s, and seeing a black conductor on the stage was very rare. Boulogne went through a lot of prejudice during his lifetime. Like many, it was likely much more than what we learn about in music history textbooks or on a Wikipedia page.

At one point in his career, the conductor/composer was accused on having an affair with the queen, after playing music with her. He immediately had to withdraw from activity in court, in order to preserve his name.

Luckily, after the revolution, France became much more lenient and understanding. The rights Boulogne fought so hard to get were finally beginning to be granted to him, later in his life.

If you are interested in learning more about Boulogne, you can read my article on him from Classicalconnect.

Dr. Anne Lundy

Anne Lundy was born in 1954 in Texas. She is 67 years old. We sure did jump eras here!

Dr. Lundy was actually the first African-American woman to conduct with the Houston Symphony. She was also one of the first black women to conduct a large symphony orchestra. She also founded two groups that specialize in performing music by black composers: The William Grant Still String Quartet, and the Scott Joplin Chamber Orchestra.

Lundy’s main instrument is the violin. Her first degree, which she received in 1977, was in music education. Later, she received a master’s in conducting and her doctorate in musical arts.

    Dr. Lundy frequently talks about the lack of diversity in traditional symphony orchestras. In an interview from Quaere Living, she states:

    I think everybody recognizes the lack of diversity as a problem, but it is the solution that people disagree on.” 

    In that same interview she expressed that, rather than wanting to focus on her own career, she now wants to see the next generation (of black conductors) succeed.

    Dean Dixon

    Dean Dixon was an African-American conductor from New York, New York. KMFA.org calls him “One of the great, albeit forgotten, conductors of the 20th century”.

    Dixon was born in Harlem, NY, and attended Julliard, and Columbia University. He formed several groups of his own, including a choral society, and orchestra (The Dean Dixon Symphony Orchestra). However, his attempts at finding a long-term career as a conductor were not successful, due to the racial bias in the United States at the time.

      Dixon guest-conducted in many orchestras. He was the first black conductor to conduct the New York Philharmonic. Despite successfully guest conducting in countless famous American orchestras, Dixon was still not able to find a permanent position. So, he moved to Europe. There he found that there was less prejudice at the time. According to Blackpast.org, here was abroad from 1949 to 1967, where he conducted the Goteburg Symphony (Sweden), and The Radio Symphony Orchestra (Germany). When he moved to Australia, he lead the Sydney Symphony.

      Mr.Dixon eventually came back to the states and found that the US had become much more culturally accepting by the ‘70s. There he stayed in the US for quite some time and found success yet again.

      Throughout his career, Dixon noted that he was becoming more well-known for his conducting than for this race. First, his concerts were announced as “The black American conductor Dean Dixon”. Later, he was presented as “The conductor Dean Dixon”. (Musicwebinternation.com).

      This article by Dr. Rufus Jones provides a lot of excellent information on the conductor.

      Dr. Isaiah Jackson

      According to WXXI Classical, Jackson was both the founder and first conductor of the Julliard String Ensemble. He was also the first black conductor of both the Cape Philharmonic orchestra and the Dayton Philharmonic. That is a lot of firsts! He is 77 years old and is currently a professor at Berklee College of Music.

      Dr. Jackson’s musical beginnings were humble ones. After injuring his wrist on a glass milk bottle at only 2 years old, he was sent to music therapy lessons. Music was a part of his life ever since. (Encyclopedia.com).

       

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      Dr.Jackson has guest conducted with many orchestras, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Boston Pops, the San Francisco Symphony, the BBC Concert Orchestra, and more. According to WXXI Classical, he was named Artistic Director of the Vienna Youth Music Festival at Leonard Bernstein’s suggestion.

      Dr. Isaiah Jackson is both the first black conductor and the first American to have ever held a chief position at the Royal Ballet (Encyclopedia.org)

      Everett Lee

      Carl Van Vechten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

      Everett Lee was an African-American conductor and violinist from West Virginia. He just recently passed in January of this year, at the age of 105.

      According to the NY Times, he was the first black conductor on Broadway. Another first was that he was one of the few black conductors to start conducting all-white orchestras in the south. Everett also was an opera director as well and was the first black man to conduct the New York City Opera.

        At the suggestion of an artistic director, Lee ended up leaving the United States to go abroad, as Dean Dixon did. Lee did extremely well in Sweden, especially. He did return to America several times to serve as a guest conductor but ultimately found that Malmo, Sweden was his true home.

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        Henry Lewis

        Henry Lewis was both a conductor and double bassist, from Los Angeles, California. He is best known for conducting the 7th Army Symphony Orchestra, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and the LA Philharmonic.

        In 1948, at just 16 years old, Lewis received a position with the LA Phil, making him the first African American to be appointed to an orchestra…Ever. He was also one of the youngest to be appointed by the LA Philharmonic (laphil.com). These were his two first ‘firsts’, but certainly not the last.

        Photo by Carl Van Vechten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

        Lewis’s musicianship showed at an early age. Once, when he was performing a recital, his mind went blank during a Handel piece. So, he improvised a Handel-like composition, on the spot. It is said that his pianist knew something was amiss, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was. (laphil.com)

        Lewis was the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra, the New Jersey Symphony (laphil.com). Henry Lewis was also the first black conductor to conduct the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (The NY Times).

        Calvin Simmons

        Calvin Simmons was a symphony conductor from California. He was among the first to conduct a large symphony orchestra. As a child, Simmons was a part of the San Franciso Boys Chorus. He also learned how to play piano from his mom.

        Simmon’s connection to the San Fransico Opera continued for most of his life. He became the assistant conductor of the Symphony in 1972 (SF Examiner, September 16th, 1969). At 28, he began directing the Oakland Symphony Orchestra.

          Unfortunately, Simmons passed away at the age of 32, in a canoeing accident (Opera). Three pieces were inspired by the death of this influential man: The Blue Guitar, Sop’o Muerte se Cande, Elegy, To The Memory Of Calvin Simmons, and Exequien for Calvin Simmons.

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          Jeri Lynne Johnson

          Jeri Lynne Johnson is a female American conductor currently based in Philidelphia, PA.

          She founded the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble whose aim “is to take the audience beyond spectatorship to participation in the musical experience by combining artistic excellence with innovative hands-on community engagement” and to celebrate diversity. (Blackpearl.co)

          In 2005 she became the first African American woman to receive an international award for conducting by earning the Takia Concordia Conducting Fellowship.

          Photo by Knight Foundation, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

          Ms. Johnson is also a composer. She has composed multimedia works, such as those for the Kimmel Center’s See Hear! Series (Philidelphiaaward.org). She is an artist who isn’t afraid to question why we do things as we’ve always done them. Jeri Lynne has redefined what it means to have an orchestra. She’s also not afraid to explore other genres; she has worked with classical orchestras, The Roots, Alicia Keys, and more.

          You can find more about her on her website here.

          John (McLaughlin) Williams

          John McLaughlin Williams is a critically-acclaimed American conductor from North Carolina. He has won a Grammy four times over and was actually the first black conductor to ever receive a Grammy award.

          Williams attended both the Boston University School of Music and the Cleveland Institute of Music. However, according to MomentumArtist.com, Williams was already musically successful at the age of 14, when he was a soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra.

          This conductor’s presence is absolutely riveting. He is well known for his interpretive skills, and presence.

          When it comes to orchestral auditions, Mr. Williams does not believe in de-blinding. At one point, he posed the poignant question, “Why not just send in a headshot?”.

          I find it interesting that Williams takes such a different stance than Dr. Anne Lundy, who I wrote about earlier in this article. While Lundy believes that doing auditions behind screens benefits women and not those of different races, Williams’s statement suggests otherwise.

          Furthermore, according to City Journal, “John McLaughlin Williams’s work constitutes a profound rebuttal to the constricting vision of today’s race arbiters.” You can read more about Mr. Williams and his thoughts on music and race in the article here.

          David Baker

          While most of the conductors we have covered in this article have been primarily classical conductors, David Nathaniel Baker Jr. is was both a classical conductor and a jazz conductor. He was from Indianapolis, Indiana.

          David Baker was raised with a rich musical upbringing, which included gospel, blues, and jazz (Keiser Southern Music). Baker began playing jazz locally when he was just a teen. He went to college at Indiana University to study classically, because there was no jazz curriculum at that period of time. It was here where he would eventually become a professor and the head of the jazz department.

          Photo by Tom Pich., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

          David Baker was famous for both his work as a conductor, and as a performer. He was becoming a well-known trombonist, when, unfortunately, he broke his jaw. He then switched to the cello, because he was unable to play winds. You can hear his cello playing in recordings starting around the 1960s.

          According to SongofAmerica.net, there are 2,000 works in his catalog. Baker received many awards during his lifetime, including the Living Art Jazz Legend Award, and an Emmy. He was also nominated for Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize.

          Conclusion

          I hope you have enjoyed learning about 10 conductors who changed the world of music history. There are many more out there, so, if you enjoyed this article, consider taking a deeper dive. Thanks for sticking around until the end!

          Aleah J. Fitzwater

          Aleah J. Fitzwater

          Aleah Fitzwater is a full-time music writer, classical flutist, and artist. She teaches tutorials for how to digitize music on the ScanScore Blog and has been published in various coves of the internet.

          She also creates visual art and flute arrangements https://aleahfitzwater.com/

          Find her on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube

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