James DePreist (1936–2013), one of the first African-American conductors on the world stage, 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 "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."[1] In 1953, Lee was the "first black musician to conduct a white symphony orchestra in the south of the States...in 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. In 1969, James Frazier won the Cantelli Prize in Italy, and in the 1970s went on to conduct several important orchestras, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, London's New Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, the Spanish Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra, the Belarusian State Philharmonic and the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra.[3] Frazier, however, died young in 1981, just after being named conductor of the Bogota Symphony.[4]

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."[5] 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".[5] In the UK, the research by Scott Caizley argues how through the systemic removal of quality music education in UK state schools, many young people are losing opportunities which is contributing to fewer BAME young people participating in classical music.[6]

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. Contemporary Black conductors still comprise a small percentage of the conductors working today and are often overlooked for positions as chief conductors of major orchestras:

William Grant Still (1895–1978) was one of the first African Americans to conduct a major American symphony orchestra in the Deep South.
Henry Lewis and Marilyn Horne in 1961, photo by Carl Van Vechten.
David Baker (left) leads the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra during the NEA Jazz Masters awards ceremony and concert in 2008.
Gerald Wilson conducts a jazz big band

Jazz and popular music

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

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h 'Pliable', 'I don't believe in Negro symphony conductors', overgrownpath.com, July 25, 2011.
  2. ^ 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."
  3. ^ Funke, Phyllis (November 30, 1975). "A Black Conductor Pushes the Cause of Music". The New York Times. Archived from the original on September 9, 2021. Retrieved September 9, 2021.
  4. ^ "The Maestros". Ebony. Vol. 44, no. 4. 1989. p. 60. ISSN 0012-9011.
  5. ^ a b c Higgins, Charlotte, "Black conductor fears he will remain exception", The Guardian, 10 August 2004.
  6. ^ "ABRSM must include more black and BAME composers in exam syllabus, music leaders urge". Classic FM. July 16, 2020. Retrieved May 2, 2022.
  7. ^ Macdonald, Robert R.; Kemp, John R.; Haas, Edward F. (1979). Louisiana's Black heritage.
  8. ^ Price, Emmett George (2010). Encyclopedia of African American music: Volume 3. p. 219.
  9. ^ 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
  10. ^ a b c d Anthony Tommasini. "Leonard De Paur Dies at 83; Lincoln Center Administrator", The New York Times, 11 November 1998.
  11. ^ a b Woods, Timothy E., "Leonard De Paur's Arrangement of Spirituals, Work Songs, and African Songs as Contribution to Choral Music". Diss. University of Arizona, 1998.
  12. ^ Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc Archived 2011-07-17 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ A Dictionary for the Modern Composer, Emily Freeman Brown, Scarecrow Press, Oxford, 2015, p. 311 ISBN 9780810884014 Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra founded by Samuel Adler in 1952 conductor Henry Lewis 1955-1956 on https://books.google.com
  14. ^ Uncle Sam's Orchestra: Memories of the Seventh Army Orchestra John Canaria, University of Rochester Press 1998 ISBN 9781580460 194 Seventh Army Symphony on https://books.google.com
  15. ^ New Music New Allies Amy C. Beal, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2006, P. 49, ISBN 978-0-520-24755-0 "Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra (1952–1962) performing works by Roy Harris, Morton Gould and Leroy Anderson" and cultural diplomacy on https://books.google.com
  16. ^ a b "James DePreist: Biography". Allmusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved February 8, 2013.
  17. ^ PACO people Archived April 13, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ The Harbus
  19. ^ Cunningham, Carl (June 25, 1989). "Untitled". Houston Post.
  20. ^ 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
  21. ^ Voynovskaya, Nastia (August 20, 2021). "Michael Morgan, Visionary Oakland Symphony Conductor, Dies at Age 63". KQED Inc. Retrieved August 21, 2021.
  22. ^ "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.
  23. ^ Sisters in the Spotlight. March 2003. Retrieved May 18, 2010. ((cite book)): |work= ignored (help)
  24. ^ AfriClassical (February 18, 2012). "Marlon Daniel and Tatarstan State". AfriClassical. Retrieved February 16, 2022.
  25. ^ IMusici. "Marlon Daniel: A Voice for Cultural Diversity". IMusici. Retrieved February 16, 2022.
  26. ^ Africlassical (July 31, 2018). "Marlon Daniel Wins Prize at Bucharest". Africlassical. Retrieved February 16, 2022.
  27. ^ "Marlon Daniel: Biography". Marlon Daniel Biography. Retrieved February 16, 2022.
  28. ^ De Lerma, Dominique-Rene. "African Heritage Symphonic Series Vol. III". Liner note essay. Cedille Records CDR066.

Further reading