Black conductors

James DePreist (1936–2013) was one of the first African-American conductors on the world stage. Here he is congratulated by President George W. Bush after receiving the National Medal of Arts in 2005.

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.



Benjamin Steinberg conducting the premiere concert of the US's first racially integrated orchestra, the Symphony of the New World at Carnegie Hall on May 6, 1965.

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 " 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."[1] In 1953, Lee was the "...first black musician to conduct a white symphony orchestra in the south of the Louisville, Kentucky." [1] 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.[2]

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."[3] 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 " optimism for the future."[3]

Notable individuals[]

Classical music[]

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:

William Grant Still (1895–1978) was one of the first African Americans to conduct a major American symphony orchestra in the Deep South.

Jazz and popular music[]

In jazz and popular music, the leader of an ensemble may also be called a bandleader.

David Baker (far left) leads the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra during the NEA Jazz Masters awards ceremony and concert in 2008.
Conductor Gerald Wilson leads a jazz big band

See also[]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h 'Pliable', 'I don't believe in Negro symphony conductors',, July 25, 2011.
  2. ^ Paxton, Helen S., "Black Conductors; A Symphony Of Stature" (letter to the or), The New York Times, October 25, 1992. "The writer is the director of marketing and communications for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra."
  3. ^ a b Higgins, Charlotte, "Black conductor fears he will remain exception", The Guardian, 10 August 2004.
  4. ^ Macdonald, Robert R.; Kemp, John R.; Haas, Edward F. (1979). Louisiana's Black heritage.
  5. ^ Price, Emmett George (2010). Encyclopedia of African American music: Volume 3. p. 219.
  6. ^ 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
  7. ^ a b "James DePreist: Biography". Allmusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved February 8, 2013.
  8. ^ PACO people Archived April 13, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  9. ^ The Harbus
  10. ^
  11. ^ 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
  12. ^ Sisters in the Spotlight. Ebony. March 2003. Retrieved May 18, 2010.
  13. ^ Charlotte Higgins (August 10, 2004). "Black conductor fears he will remain exception". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-03-29.
  14. ^ "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.
  15. ^ De Lerma, Dominique-Rene. "African Heritage Symphonic Series Vol. III". Liner note essay. Cedille Records CDR066.

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