Black conductors are musicians of African, Caribbean, African-American ancestry and other members of the African diaspora who are musical ensemble leaders who direct classical music performances, such as an orchestral or choral concerts, or jazz ensemble big band concerts by way of visible gestures with the hands, arms, face and head. Conductors of African descent are rare, as the vast majority are male and Caucasian.
In the early 1930s, African American conductor Dean Dixon (1915–1976) found that his pursuit of conducting engagements was stifled because of racial bias. As a result, he formed his own orchestra and choral society in 1931. In 1940, three conductors: African Americans Everett Lee and Dean Dixon, and Jewish American Benjamin Steinberg "...attempted to circumvent the institutionalised racism in American classical music by forming an orchestra of black musicians. But the project failed for financial reasons..." Steinberg established "...an orchestra of 36 black and 52 white musicians, when he formed the Symphony of the New World in 1964." It was the first fully racially integrated orchestra in the US, and held its premiere concert at Carnegie Hall on May, 6, 1965.
In 1945, Everett Lee was the "first African American to conduct a major Broadway production." Leonard Bernstein asked Lee to conduct On the Town, which marked the "...first time a black conductor led an all-white production." In 1953, Lee was the "...first black musician to conduct a white symphony orchestra in the south of the States...in Louisville, Kentucky."  In 1955, Lee was the "...first musician of colour to conduct a major opera company in the US with a performance of La Traviata at the New York City Opera." In 1955 William Grant Still conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra and became the first African American to conduct a major orchestra in the Deep South of the US. Henry Lewis (1932–1996) was the first African-American to lead a major symphony orchestra. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1972. Lewis found it hard to "...take on the role of an authoritarian conductor, because such a role was unacceptable for a black man" at this time.
In the early 1950s, impresario Arthur Judson, head of Columbia Artists Management told Everett Lee that despite Lee's excellent reviews for conducting, a black conductor could not conduct a white orchestra in the US. Judson stated that black instrumentalists could play solo concertos with white orchestras, dance in white productions and sing in white productions, but leading a white orchestra was not feasible. Isaiah Jackson (born 1945) was the first black principal conductor of The Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, in 1986, and became its music director 1987–90.
According to a 2004 article in the Guardian, "black conductors are rare in the classical music world and even in symphony orchestras it is unusual to see more than one or two black musicians." Canadian-born black conductor Kwamé Ryan, who studied music at Cambridge University and in Germany, made his professional conducting debut in 2004. Ryan says the "...message given to young, black people, particularly in North America, was... that you can be a star athlete; you can be a pop star...[but the] possibility for black children [to become a conductor] is not encouraged in schools or in the media." Ryan states that young blacks have a lack of "...exposure [to black conductor role models] and it is a deficit that is passed on from generation to generation." Ryan said he has "...no optimism for the future."
Historically, the vast majority of classical music conductors have been Caucasian. However, there are a small number of notable conductors who are of African, Caribbean or African-American ancestry:
- Charles-Richard Lambert (died in 1862) was a black American musician, conductor and music educator. He and his family were noted for talent in music and gained international acclaim. He worked as a music teacher and was a conductor for the Philharmonic Society, the first non-theatrical orchestra in New Orleans. One of his notable students was Edmond Dédé.
- William Grant Still (1895–1978) was one of the first African Americans to conduct a major American symphony orchestra in the Deep South, the first to have a symphony (his first symphony) performed by a leading orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television. As a classical composer, he wrote more than 150 compositions. After finishing college, he won a scholarship to study at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Between 1919 and 1921, he worked as an arranger for W. C. Handy's band. In the 1930s, he arranged music for many films. In 1955 he conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra and became the first African American to conduct a major orchestra in the Deep South.
- Everett Lee (born in 1913) "was [a]...violinist who led the orchestra in the original Broadway production of Carmen Jones and played the oboe on stage in the country club scene." In 1945, he was the "first African American to conduct a major Broadway production." Leonard Bernstein asked Lee to conduct On the Town, which marked the "...first time a black conductor led an all-white production." In 1946, Lee won a "Koussevitzky Music Foundation Award to conduct at Tanglewood." In 1952, he was "appointed director of the opera department at Columbia University...and was also awarded a Fulbright scholarship that allowed him to travel to Europe. In 1953, Lee was the "first black musician to conduct a white symphony orchestra in the south of the States...in Louisville, Kentucky." In 1955, he was the "first musician of colour to conduct a major opera company in the US with a performance of La Traviata at the New York City Opera." He was appointed chief conductor of the Norrköping Symphony in Sweden in 1962. In 1976, he conducted the New York Philharmonic for the first time, and he performed a piece by African American composer "David Baker to mark Martin Luther King's birthday." In 1979, he became music director of the Bogotá Philharmonic Orchestra in Colombia.
- Dean Dixon (1915–1976) studied conducting with Albert Stoessel at the Juilliard School and Columbia University. When early pursuits of conducting engagements were stifled because of racial bias (he was African American), he formed his own orchestra and choral society in 1931. In 1941, he guest-conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic during its summer season. He later guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra and Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1948 he won the Ditson Conductor's Award. Dixon was honoured by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) with the Award of Merit for encouraging the participation of American youth in music. In 1948, Dixon was awarded the Alice M. Ditson award for distinguished service to American music.
- Henry Lewis (1932–1996) attended The University of Southern California and at age 16, joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic, becoming the first black instrumentalist in a major symphony orchestra. Lewis founded the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. He gained national recognition in 1961 when he was appointed assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra under Zubin Mehta. He was the first African-American to lead a major symphony orchestra. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1972.
- James DePreist (1936–2013) was one of the first African-American conductors on the world stage. He was the Director Emeritus of Conducting and Orchestral Studies at The Juilliard School and Laureate Music Director of the Oregon Symphony. DePreist studied composition with Vincent Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory while earning a bachelor's degree at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a master's degree from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He won first prize in the Dimitri Mitropoulos International Conducting Competition. He was then chosen by Leonard Bernstein to become assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic during the 1965–66 season.
- Paul Freeman (1936–2015) was a conductor, composer, and founder of the Chicago Sinfonietta. Freeman earned bachelor, master, and doctoral degrees from the Eastman School of Music. A Fulbright Scholarship enabled him to study for two years at the Hochshule für Musik (University for Music) in Berlin, Germany with Ewald Lindemann. He later studied conducting with Pierre Monteux at the American Symphony Orchestra. He was the music director of the Opera Theatre of Rochester for six years. He then held posts as associate conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra from 1968–1970 and Detroit Symphony Orchestra from 1970–1979. Paul Freeman's papers are held at the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago.
- Isaiah Jackson (born 1945) was appointed for seven years as conductor of the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston, of which he has been named Conductor Emeritus. He is the first African-American to be appointed to a music directorship in the Boston area. He graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 1966. While there, he conducted Mozart's opera Così fan tutte, which helped him decide to pursue music as a career. Subsequently, he went to Stanford University and received his M.A. in music in 1969. He studied with Nadia Boulanger in Fontainebleau, France, before going to the Juilliard School in New York City, from which he graduated D.M.A. in 1973. Jackson founded the Juilliard String Ensemble and was its first conductor 1970–71. He was associate or assistant conductor with the American Symphony Orchestra (1970–71) where he worked with Leopold Stokowski; the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (1971–73); and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra (1973–87). He was appointed music director of the Flint Symphony Orchestra (Flint, Michigan) in 1982, the first black music director of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra in 1987 and principal conductor of The Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, in 1986, and became its music director 1987–90. He was the first black and the first American to occupy a chief position with the company.
- Calvin E. Simmons (1950 –1982) was an American symphony orchestra conductor. He was one of the early African-American conductors of a major orchestra. By the age of 11, he was conducting the San Francisco Boys Chorus. After working as assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta, Simmons became musical director of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra at age 28; he led the orchestra for four years. He was the first African-American to be named conductor of a major U.S. symphony orchestra and a frequent guest conductor with some of the nation's major opera companies and orchestras (e.g., the Philadelphia Orchestra and others). In addition, he was the Music Director at the Ojai Music Festival in 1978. He made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera conducting Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel.
- Leslie Dunner (born 1956) is an American conductor and composer. He went on to the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music, where he was awarded his bachelor's degree in 1978. He later attended Queens College in New York, where he was awarded a master's degree in 1979, and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where he was awarded a PhD in 1982. His reputation as a conductor rests on his ability to communicate with the audience through a wide variety of musical styles, and through his willingness to experiment with tempo and presentation. He was conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In 1998, Dunner took up the post of music director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra.
- Michael Morgan (born 1957) is music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony and the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra, and artistic director of Festival Opera in Walnut Creek, California. While a student at Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, he spent a summer at the Oberlin College Conservatory at Tanglewood. There he was a student of Gunther Schuller and Seiji Ozawa, and it was at that time that he first worked with Leonard Bernstein. In 1980, he won first prize in the Hans Swarovsky International Conductors Competition in Vienna, Austria and became Assistant Conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, under Leonard Slatkin. His operatic debut was in 1982 at the Vienna State Opera. In 1986, Sir Georg Solti chose him to become the Assistant Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
- Jeri Lynne Johnson is the founder and music director of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, the first multi-ethnic professional orchestra in Philadelphia. A graduate of Wellesley College and the University of Chicago, she is a conductor, composer and pianist. From 2001–2004, she was the assistant conductor of The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. She has led orchestras around the world including the Colorado Symphony, Bournemouth Symphony (UK), and the Weimar Staatskapelle (Germany). Alongside prominent woman conductors Marin Alsop and JoAnn Falletta, Ms. Johnson was heralded on the NBC Today Show as one of the nation's leading female conductors. In 2005, Ms. Johnson made history as the first African-American woman to win an international conducting prize when she was awarded the Taki Concordia conducting fellowship.
- Kwamé Ryan (born 1970, Toronto) is a Canadian conductor of Trinidadian descent. He attended Oakham School, in Rutland, England, and then studied at Cambridge. Ryan made his professional UK conducting debut at the 2004 Edinburgh International Festival. In 2007, Ryan became music director of the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine (ONBA), a post he held until 2013.
- John McLaughlin Williams is the first African-American win a Grammy Award for orchestral conducting. He came to conducting after a career as a violinist that saw him as a member of the Houston Symphony, Concertmaster of the Virginia Symphony, and a freelance concertmaster, soloist, and violinist who performed regularly with the Boston Symphony and as Assistant Concertmaster of the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra. He has conducted many orchestras in America, Ukraine, and Bulgaria, and is particularly known for his recording activity. Williams made many premiere recordings of American symphonic repertoire for the Naxos label's American Classics Series. He has had felicitous collaborations with such notable artists as Eliesha Nelson, Elmar Oliveira, Brian McKnight and The Winans. For Nelson's recording of The Complete Viola Works of Quincy Porter, Williams achieved the unique distinction of performing as conductor, violinist, pianist, and harpsichordist, and that recording subsequently received two Grammy nominations.
Jazz and popular music
In jazz and popular music, the leader of an ensemble may also be called a bandleader.
- David Baker (born 1931) is an American symphonic jazz composer and bandleader at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington. He has more than 65 recordings, 70 books, and 400 articles to his credit. His students include Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, Peter Erskine, Jim Beard, Chris Botti, Jeff Hamilton, and the jazz educator Jamey Aebersold.
- 'Pliable', 'I don't believe in Negro symphony conductors', overgrownpath.com, July 25, 2011.
- Paxton, Helen S., "Black Conductors; A Symphony Of Stature" (letter to the editor), The New York Times, October 25, 1992. "The writer is the director of marketing and communications for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra."
- Higgins, Charlotte, "Black conductor fears he will remain exception", The Guardian, 10 August 2004.
- Macdonald, Robert R.; Kemp, John R.; Haas, Edward F. (1979). Louisiana's Black heritage.
- Price, Emmett George (2010). Encyclopedia of African American music: Volume 3. p. 219.
- Sybil Kein, Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana's Free People of Color, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000, pp. 80–82, accessed December 28, 2010
- "James DePreist: Biography". Allmusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved February 8, 2013.
- PACO people Archived April 13, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
- The Harbus
- Greenfield, Phil (February 5, 1998). Candidate Dunner has trio of talents; Diversity: Leslie Dunner, who is vying for the directorship of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, is a talented conductor, composer and clarinetist, The Baltimore Sun, Retrieved November 22, 2010
- Sisters in the Spotlight. Ebony. March 2003. Retrieved May 18, 2010.
- Charlotte Higgins (August 10, 2004). "Black conductor fears he will remain exception". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-03-29.
- "Nommé directeur artistique et musical de l'Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine, Paul Daniel prendra ses fonctions en septembre 2013" (PDF) (Press release). Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine. July 15, 2012. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 9, 2013. Retrieved July 19, 2012.
- De Lerma, Dominique-Rene. "African Heritage Symphonic Series Vol. III". Liner note essay. Cedille Records CDR066.
- Michael Bowles: The Art of Conducting (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1959); English edition as The Conductor: His Artistry and Craftsmanship (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1961).
- Larry G. Curtis and David L. Kuehn: A Guide to Successful Instrumental Conducting (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992); ISBN 978-0697126948.
- Michel Faul: Louis Jullien: Musique, spectacle et folie au XIXe siècle (Biarritz: Atlantica, 2006); ISBN 9782351650387.
- Elliott W. Galkin: A History of Orchestral Conducting in Theory and Practice (New York: Pendragon Press, 1988); ISBN 978-0918728470.
- Antoinette D. Handy: Black Conductors. Scarecrow Press, 1995.
- Norman Lebrecht: The Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power (2nd revised and updated edition, New York: Citadel Press, 2001).
- Brock McElheran: Conducting Technique for Beginners and Professionals (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); ISBN 978-0193858305.
- Ilya Musin: The Technique of Conducting (Техника дирижирования) (Moscow: Muzyka Publishing House, 1967).
- Ennio Nicotra: Introduction to the Orchestral Conducting Technique in Accordance with the Orchestral Conducting School of Ilya Musin, book and DVD in English, German, Italian, Spanish (Milan: Edizioni Curci, 2007).
- Frederik Prausnitz: Score and Podium (New York: W.W. Norton, 1983); ISBN 978-0393951547.
- Max Rudolf: The Grammar of Conducting (New York: Macmillan, 2nd ed. 1981); ISBN 978-0028722207.
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