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Anthony Davis (composer)

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Anthony Davis (born February 20, 1951)[1] is an American pianist and composer. He incorporates several styles including jazz, rhythm 'n' blues, gospel, non-Western, African, European classical, Indonesian gamelan, and experimental music.[2] He has played with several groups and is also a professor of music at the University of California, San Diego.

Davis is perhaps best known for his operas; he has been called "the dean of African-American opera composers."[3] His better known compositions include X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X,[1] which was premiered by the New York City Opera in 1986; Amistad, which premiered with the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1997; and Wakonda's Dream, which premiered at Opera Omaha in 2007. His opera The Central Park Five premiered on June 15, 2019, at the Long Beach Opera Company in California. It won him a Pulitzer Prize for Music on May 4, 2020.[4][5]


Davis was born in Paterson, New Jersey in 1951.[1] He has a 1975 degree from Yale University, and has taught at Yale and Harvard University.[6]

Davis is a Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of California, San Diego, having joined the department in 1996.[7] He has received acclaim as a free-jazz pianist, a co-leader or sideman with various ensembles.[1] Such ensembles include those that featured Smith as bandleader from 1974 to 1977. He has played with Anthony Braxton and Leo Smith.[1] In 1981, Davis formed an octet called Episteme.[1] He also wrote the incidental music for the 1993 Broadway version of Tony Kushner's Angels in America.[6]

Many of his operas have explored people and events from African-American history. In a 1986 interview with writer Samuel R. Delany and historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Davis provides a detailed account of his influences and motivations for writing X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X.[8] In 1997 his opera Amistad, with a libretto by his cousin Thulani Davis, premiered at the Chicago Lyric Opera. Its ambition was recognized but the production received mixed reviews. It was accepted for production in 2008 at Spoleto Festival USA. It underwent a major revision and the production was highly praised. Opera Today said that the revised Amistad was "much leaner, more focused and dramatically far more effective than the original. And in so doing they [the Davises] created not only a masterpiece of American opera, but further a work that — against a contemporary horizon darkened by undercurrents of racism — resonates today far beyond Memminger and Spoleto USA."[9]

Davis has also explored Native American history in his work. His opera Wakonda's Dream (2007), with a libretto by Yusef Komunyakaa, is a tale of a contemporary Native American Ponca family in Nebraska and the history that affects them.[10]

His opera, Lilith, (libretto by Allan Havis) had its world premiere at the Conrad Prebys Music Center at UCSD on December 4, 2009. The story is about the demon figure of Jewish mythology who was sometimes said to be biblical Adam's first wife. It is set in a modern era.

He began working on the music for the opera The Central Park Five in 2014. An early version, titled Five, was performed in Newark, New Jersey in 2016 by the Trilogy Company.[3] The librettist for both the early and final versions was playwright Richard Wesley. The Central Park Five premiered on June 15, 2019, in a production by the Long Beach Opera Company in San Pedro, California.[11] In 2020 the work won him the Pulitzer Prize for Music.[5] He is the third UCSD professor in the university's 60-year history to win a Pulitzer.[12] He commented, "it's also very exciting for me that you can create political work that has an impact and speaks to issues in our society. I've done my career creating political works, and I never thought I would ever get a Pulitzer."[13] He learned that he had won the prize while in a Zoom meeting with music faculty colleagues, so they all heard the phone call; one of them later commented "Best Zoombomb ever!"[12]

In 2022, the Detroit Opera staged a production of X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X, directed by Robert O'Hara.[14] This was followed by the Metropolitan Opera's production of the same opera in Fall 2023, which received significant critical acclaim in sources such as The New York Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, and Smithsonian Magazine.



  • Wayang V (Piano Concerto, 1984)
  • Maps (Violin Concerto, 1988)

(These two works were released on Gramavision 18-8807-1, a 12" long playing record, with Davis as soloist in the piano concerto and dedicatee Shem Guibbory as soloist in the violin concerto. In each, the William McGlaughlin led the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra.)

  • You Have the Right to Remain Silent (Clarinet Concerto, 2007)[15]
  • Amistad Symphony (2009)



As leader/co-leader[edit]

  • 1978: Past Lives (VPA)
  • 1978: Of Blues and Dreams (Sackville)
  • 1978: Song for the Old World (India Navigation)
  • 1979: Hidden Voices (India Navigation) - with James Newton
  • 1980: Lady of the Mirrors (India Navigation)
  • 1980: Under the Double Moon (MPS) - with Jay Hoggard
  • 1981: Epistēmē (Gramavision)
  • 1982: I've Known Rivers (Gramavision)
  • 1982: Variations in Dream-Time (India Navigation)
  • 1983: Hemispheres (Gramavision)
  • 1984: Middle Passage (Gramavision)
  • 1985: Return from Space (Wonder Nonfiction) (Gramavision)
  • 1986: Undine (Gramavision)
  • 1988: Ghost Factory (Gramavision)
  • 1990: Trio, Vol. 2 (Gramavision)
  • 1989: Trio, Vol. 1 (Rhino)
  • 1993: Lost Moon Sisters/In Dora Ohrenstein's Urban Diva
  • 1992: X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (Gramavision)
  • 2001: Tania (Koch)
  • 2008: Amistad (New World)

As sideman[edit]

With Barry Altschul

With Ray Anderson

With Anthony Braxton

With Marion Brown

With Baikida Carroll

With Chico Freeman

With Jay Hoggard

  • Mystic Winds, Tropical Breezes (India Navigation, 1982)

With Leroy Jenkins

With George E. Lewis

With Bobby Previte

With David Murray

With Wadada Leo Smith


  1. ^ a b c d e f Colin Larkin, ed. (1992). The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. pp. 636/7. ISBN 0-85112-939-0.
  2. ^ "Anthony Davis | Biography & History". AllMusic. Retrieved August 22, 2021.
  3. ^ a b Cooper, Michael (May 30, 2019). "This Summer, Opera Grapples With Race". New York Times. Retrieved June 8, 2019.
  4. ^ "The Central Park Five, by Anthony Davis". Pulitzer.org. Retrieved August 22, 2021.
  5. ^ a b "'Central Park Five' composer Anthony Davis wins the Pulitzer Prize for music". News.yahoo.com. May 4, 2020. Retrieved August 22, 2021.
  6. ^ a b "Anthony Davis". Music-cms.ucsd.edu. Retrieved January 2, 2021.
  7. ^ King, Anthony (May 7, 2020). "Anthony Davis Wins Pulitzer Prize for 'The Central Park Five' Opera". UC San Diego News Center. Retrieved January 2, 2021.
  8. ^ Delany, Samuel R. (1994). Silent interviews : on language, race, sex, science fiction, and some comics : a collection of written interviews. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 0-585-37120-2. OCLC 48139558.
  9. ^ a b "Revised Amistad makes its mark", Opera Today, May 2008, Accessed June 25, 2019
  10. ^ Smith, Steve (March 9, 2007). "Of Coyotes, Men and Tribal Memory". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved July 3, 2022.
  11. ^ a b Midgette, Anne (June 23, 2019). "'The Central Park Five' in song: Composer Anthony Davis on his new opera". The Mercury News. Retrieved July 3, 2019.
  12. ^ a b Varga, George (December 6, 2020). "Pulitzer Prize, Library of Congress induction and Grammy nomination cap banner year for San Diego musicians". San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved January 2, 2021.
  13. ^ Varga, George (May 5, 2020). "UCSD professor Anthony Davis wins Pulitzer Prize for fiery opera 'The Central Park Five'". San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved May 5, 2020.
  14. ^ Woolfe, Zachary (May 15, 2022). "Review: After 36 Years, a Malcolm X Opera Sings to the Future". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved July 3, 2022.
  15. ^ "Anthony Davis". Music-cms.ucsd.edu. Retrieved August 22, 2021.
  16. ^ Page, Tim (December 1, 1997). "'AMISTAD' MISSES THE BOAT". Washington Post. Retrieved July 3, 2019.

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