6 Pieces By Black Composers Whose Inspirations and Innovations Have Helped Define Our American Sound


Composer Kris Bowers | Photo by Molly Cranna

On February 5th, KUSC Resident Artist Lara Downes shared “Crossings”, two hours of music from Black composers whose inspirations and innovations help define our American sound—from Scott Joplin and Florence Price to Wynton Marsalis and Jon Batiste. Please enjoy selections from “Crossings” below.

Florence Price was writing music from an early age, and attended the New England Conservatory in Boston at the beginning of the 20th Century. She made history when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played her First Symphony in 1933. Her works have been having a renaissance in recent years, as more audiences and musicians have been learning about her music, and her story.

Margaret Bonds followed in the footsteps of Price, translating traditional spirituals and her own material into chamber, choral, and orchestral works for the concert stage. Here’s “Hold On,” which many will recognize as having the same tune as “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” an anthem of the Civil Rights movement.

There have been several composer/performers who blur the lines between “popular” and “serious” music, from Joplin himself to iconic bandleader Duke Ellington, to some of his musical heirs: Wynton Marsalis and Jon Batiste.

Ellington’s “Come Sunday” draws on the traditions of jazz as well as the gospel music heard in churches. It was originally part of his “Black, Brown, and Beige” Suite, which he and his orchestra performed at Carnegie Hall in 1943.

Wynton Marsalis has successfully straddled the worlds of classical music as well as jazz and blues, with parallel careers as a trumpeter, bandleader, and composer. He won a Grammy award for his recording of the Haydn Trumpet Concerto, and has been Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center – and was the first jazz composer to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music, for Blood on the Fields. He’s written a Violin Concerto for Nicola Benedetti, a Swing Symphony, and Blues Symphony, which premiered in 2009.

Marsalis also has been a mentor to pianist, composer, and bandleader Jon Batiste, who many know from his performances on The Late Show with Steven Colbert, as well as collaborating on the Oscar-winning score for the 2020 Pixar film Soul.

Jon Batiste’s Nocturne No. 1 in D minor combines an insistent tango and Chopinesque virtuosity:

Another of this generation’s Black composers establishing himself through his work in film and television as well as the concert stage is Kris Bowers. He wrote the score for the popular Netflix show Bridgerton, as well as being the subject of a fascinating and Oscar-nominated short documentary called A Concerto is a Conversation.

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Lara Downes

Lara Downes is KUSC’s Resident Artist and is currently KUSC’s Evening Host weeknights 8PM-Midnight.

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Jeffrey Freymann

Jeffrey is an arts producer for KUSC and our sister station, Classical KDFC, in San Francisco.