In honor of Black History Month, we're looking at individuals who helped break down racial barriers on stages, orchestra pits and podiums, leading the way for future generations of minority musicians. Though many artists blazed and continue to blaze paths towards acceptance, here are the top five black artists who did break barriers.
1. It’s impossible to speak of civil rights not just in music but also within the country without mentioning the great contralto, Marian Anderson. The Philadelphia native had to traveled to Europe to perform, and impressed Arturo Toscanini, who said "a voice like hers is heard only once in a hundred years." She is best known in the U.S. as the woman who sang a free Easter concert to 75,000 people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, after the Daughters of the American Revolution barred her from Constitution Hall because of her race. She later broke the color barrier at the Metropolitan Opera on Jan. 7, 1955 at age 58.
2. Known as the dean of Afro-American composers, William Grant Still holds the biggest footprint of all black composers in the American classical music canon. He was the first black composer to have his symphony performed by a major American orchestra (Afro-American Symphony). He was the first to conduct a major American orchestra (the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936) and conduct a major symphony in the south (the New Orleans Philharmonic in 1955). He was also the first black composer to have a major company produce his opera (Troubled Island by the City Center of Music and Drama in New York) and have it nationally televised.
3. In 1941, 26-year-old Dean Dixon conducted the New York Philharmonic to such raves, he took six curtain calls: two before intermission and four following the program. He had just become the first African American to lead the esteemed orchestra. Over the next three years, both Philadelphia and Boston invited him to their podiums. But like many black musicians, Dixon found greater acceptance abroad. He led orchestras in Israel and Australia but eventually returned to the states in the 1970s for appearances with New York and Chicago.
4. Born in 1869, Will Marion Cook studied violin at Oberlin College at 13 and later trained in Berlin. He was to premier his opera Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the World’s Columbian Exposition, but circumstances cancelled the performance. Talented but temperamental, his student, Duke Ellington, recalls in his memoir Cook’s Carnegie Hall recital, in which he barged into the office of a reviewer who called him the “world’s greatest Negro violinist.” Smashing his violin on his desk he said: “I am the greatest violinist in the world!” Cook went on to find success writing musical and songs.
5. When George Szell hired Donald White as a cellist in the Cleveland Orchestra in 1957, the Indiana native became the first black musician in one of the country’s big five orchestras. The appointment did not come without controversy. Upon hearing that the ensemble was mixed race, Birmingham, Ala. authorities tried to bar White from the stage from a 1961 performance in the city. Szell threatened to cancel the sold-out concert. The orchestra still has the release from the mayor that allowed White and the rest of the orchestra to perform. White spent 39 years with the orchestra. He died in 2005.