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William Still (1821 – 1902) was an abolitionist, conductor on the Underground Railroad, writer, historian and civil rights activist.

The phrase "Jim Crow Law" first appeared in 1904. The origin of the phrase "Jim Crow" has often been attributed to “Jump Jim Crow”, a song-and-dance caricature of blacks performed by white actor Thomas D. Rice in blackface, which first surfaced in 1832 to satirize Andrew Jackson’s's populist policies. "Jim Crow" had become a pejorative expression meaning "Negro" by 1838 and when the laws of racial segregation were enacted at the end of the 19th century they became known as Jim Crow laws.

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"Like millions of my race, my mother and father were born slaves, but were not contented to live and die so. My father purchased himself in early manhood by hard toil. Mother saw no way for herself and children to escape the horrors of bondage but by flight. Bravely, with her four little ones, with firm faith in God and an ardent desire to be free, she forsook the prison-house, and succeeded, through the aid of my father, to reach a free State. Here life had to be begun anew. The old familiar slave names had to be changed, and others, for prudential reasons, had to be found. This was not hard work. However, hardly months had passed ere the keen scent of the slave-hunters had trailed them to where they had fancied themselves secure. In those days all power was in the hands of the oppressor, and the capture of a slave mother and her children was attended with no great difficulty other than the crushing of freedom in the breast of the victims. Without judge or jury, all were hurried back to wear the yoke again. But back this mother was resolved never to stay. She only wanted another opportunity to again strike for freedom. In a few months after being carried back, with only two of her little ones, she took her heart in her hand and her babes in her arms, and this trial was a success. Freedom was gained, although not without the sad loss of her two older children, whom she had to leave behind. Mother and father were again reunited in freedom, while two of their little boys were in slavery..."

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R. Nathanial Dett, 1882-1943, was born in Drummondville, Ontario, the exit point for many passengers on the Underground Railroad.  A benefit concert gave young Dett the exposure he needed to attract funding for the remainder of his studies at Oberlin Conservatory.  

Carrying a double major in piano, studying with George Whitefield Andrews, the future teacher of William Grant Still, he remained at Oberlin for five years, graduating with his B.M. degree in 1908 with honors.  
It was here he heard Dvořák's "American" quartet (op. 96) and was reminded, not of Bohemia, but of the spirituals his grandmother had sung to him in Canada. 
From this time, he was resolved to participate in the preservation of the spirituals although he had originally looked on them, as did others, as reminders of slavery times.

When Dett completed his five-year course at Oberlin in 1908, he became the first African American to earn a B.A. in Music there with a major in composition and piano. 

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William Grant Still (1895 – 1978) was a classical composer who wrote more than 150 compositions.  He was the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, 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. 

He is often referred to as the Dean of African-American composers.  William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi.  He was the son of two teachers, Carrie Lena Fambro Still (1872–1927) and William Grant Still (1871–1895), who was also a partner in a grocery store and performed as a local bandleader. His father William Grant Still Sr. died when his infant son was 3 months old. 

All are descendants of the famous 19th century abolitionist William Still.


Will Marion Cook (né William Mercer Cook) was born in Washington, D.C. to John Hartwell Cook, dean of theLaw School at Howard University, and his wife, Isabel.  

When his father died in 1879, the 10-year-old Will went to live with his maternal grandparents (ex-slaves who had bought their freedom) in Chattanooga, where he first experienced "real Negro melodies" during what he would later call his "soul period".

Cook's musical talent was apparent at an early age. At fifteen, he was sent to the Oberlin Conservatory to study violin.

Best known for his songs, Cook used folk elements in an original and distinct manner.  The New York Syncopated Orchestra—he had created—toured the United States in 1918 and then went to England in 1919 for a command performance for King George V. Among his company were assistant director Will Tyers, and jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet.

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George Theophilus Walker (born 1922) is an African American compoter, the first to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. He received the Pulitzer for his work Lilacs in 1996.
Walker was first exposed to music at the age of five when he began to play the piano. 

A scholarship enabled him to enroll in Oberlin college at age 15, in 1937. David Moyer was his piano professor, and Arthur Poister taught him organ. Walker was 18 when he received his B.M. Degree, leading his Conservatory class in honors, in 1941.

He has published over 90 works and received commissions from the New York Philharminic, Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra and many other ensembles. He is the recipient of six honorary doctoral degrees.


James Reese Europe (1881 – 1919) was an American ragtime and early  jazz bandleader, arranger, and composer.  

He was the leading figure on the African American music scene of New York City in the 1910s.  Europe studied violin and piano as a child in Washington, then moved to New York (l9O4) where he later became a director for musical comedies. 

In 1901 he participated in a pioneering public concert of syncopated music presented by the singer and entertainer Ernest Hogan and in 1910 he organized the Clef Club, a black musicians association. Europe's band was the first black group to make recordings (from 1913). 

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Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was the most prolific composer of the twentieth century in terms of both number of compositions and variety of forms.  His development was one of the most spectacular in the history of music, underscored by more than fifty years of sustained achievement as an artist and an entertainer. He is considered by many to be America's greatest composer, bandleader, and recording artist.

The extent of Ellington's innovations helped to redefine the various forms in which he worked. He synthesized many of the elements of American music — the minstrel song, ragtime,  Tin Pan Alley tunes, the blues, and American appropriations of the European music tradition — into a consistent style with which, though technically complex, has a directness and a simplicity of expression largely absent from the purported art music of the twentieth century.  

Ellington's first great achievements came in the three-minute song form, and he later wrote music for all kinds of settings: the ballroom, the comedy stage, the nightclub, the movie house, the theater, the concert hall, and the cathedral.  Read More >>

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Wynton Marsalis is an internationally acclaimed musician, composer, bandleader, educator and a leading advocate of American culture. He is the world’s first jazz artist to perform and compose across the full jazz spectrum from its New Orleans roots to bebop to modern jazz.

By creating and performing an expansive range of brilliant new music for quartets to big bands, chamber music ensembles to symphony orchestras, tap dance to ballet, Wynton has expanded the vocabulary for jazz and created a vital body of work that places him among the world’s finest musicians and composers.

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Wynton was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on October 18, 1961, to Ellis and Dolores Marsalis, the second of six sons.  At an early age he exhibited a superior aptitude for music and a desire to participate in American culture.  At age eight Wynton performed traditional New Orleans music in the Fairview Baptist Church band led by legendary banjoist Danny Barker, and at 14 he performed with the New Orleans Philharmonic.  During high school Wynton performed with the New Orleans Symphony Brass Quintet, New Orleans Community Concert Band, New Orleans Youth Orchestra, New Orleans Symphony, various jazz bands and the popular local funk band, the Creators.

Winton Marsalis - Premature Autopsies (Sermon)

Winton Marsalis - Premature Autopsies (Sermon)