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10 Living Composers to Know: A Black History Month Listening Guide

Watch & Listen

From cinematic scores to concert hall pieces, their works resonate with the legacies of underrepresented voices that came before them while boldly carving their own new narratives. This listening guide is an introduction to Black composers making history in the present moment.

Listen along to the playlist as you learn about each composer below...

Michael Abels (b. 1962)

Michael Abels is a one-of-a-kind creative force with an aptitude for sparking excitement, wonder, terror, and anxiety—and sometimes all at once. Best known for his collaborations with director Jordan Peele, Abels composed the genre-defying soundtracks for Peele’s psychological horror films Get Out and Us, as well as his unnerving sci-fi Western, NOPE. Abels has a keen ability to convey Peele’s underlying messages and ambiguous tones, so much so that even Steven Spielberg has said of their rapport, “It’s like me and John Williams.”

Beyond the plucked strings and long, eerie pauses on screen, Abels has an impressive repertoire of concert music, including the jagged and hypnotic Isolation Variations for solo violin and Omar, the opera that earned him and co-composer Rhiannon Giddens the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Terence Blanchard (b. 1962)

Terence Blanchard at Walt Disney Concert Hall in March 2023 (Photo credit: Harrison Hill)

Born and raised in the vibrant music scene of New Orleans, Terence Blanchard is rightfully recognized as jazz royalty. From his early days performing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers to becoming a 2024 NEA Jazz Master, Blanchard is still transcending musical boundaries and expectations.

As a multiple Grammy Award-winning trumpeter and composer, Blanchard is widely praised for his soul-stirring melodies and technical prowess on the stage and screen. Throughout his longstanding collaboration with Spike Lee and other filmmakers, Blanchard has composed over 40 film scores, including Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Da 5 Bloods—both of which were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score.

In 2021, his opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones opened at the Metropolitan Opera, becoming the first-ever production by a Black composer in the organization’s history. A fearless advocate for social justice, Blanchard often tackles poignant issues in his work, adding a socially conscious dimension and sense of presence to his creative process and performance.

Blanchard says, “Like anybody else, I like to play feel-good party music, but sometimes my music is about the reality of where we are. I’m just trying to speak the truth.”

Courtney Bryan (b. 1982)

Courtney Bryan

Not only is Courtney Bryan “a pianist and composer of panoramic interest” (The New York Times), but she’s also a genius. As a 2023 recipient of the MacArthur “genius grant,” Bryan enters every musical setting with an honest intent to create something that resonates and something she’s proud of.

Considering herself a minister of music, Bryan says, “Music is my way of making sense of the world. It’s also an extension of me expressing my spirituality to really reflect on issues that have happened historically and issues that are happening today that are very important to me.”

Bryan’s Songs of Laughing, Smiling, and Crying explore the ways in which we communicate news, make jokes, grieve, and interact on social media, whereas her #BlackLivesMatter-inspired Sanctum, she says, “invokes solace found in the midst of persecution and tribulation.”

While her music draws on the experimental nature of jazz as well as the deep-rooted traditions of gospel, spirituals, and hymns, Bryan’s identity remains her own: a transformative voice who knows and shares the joy of performance.

Valerie Coleman (b. 1970)

Valerie Coleman is a Grammy-nominated flutist best known for founding Imani Winds and starting its legacy as one of the country’s premier wind ensembles. In 1997, Coleman composed the first iteration of Umoja—meaning “unity” in Swahili— for women’s choir. Over the past two decades, she has arranged the piece numerous times for various groupings of instruments.

Coleman says her latest version, Umoja: Anthem for Unity, “honors the simple melody that ever was, but is now a full exploration into the meaning of freedom and unity. Now more than ever, Umoja has to ring as a strong and beautiful anthem for the world we live in today.”

Selected as one of the Washington Post’s “Top 35 Women Composers,” Coleman continues to chronicle adversity and achievement, dedicating musical works to her family’s roots in the Deep South and notable figures in Black history—like Emmett Till and Serena Williams—to remind all listeners of their shared humanity.

Listen to Upbeat Live moderator Renae Williams Niles explore the music of Courtney Bryan, Valerie Coleman, and Florence Price with conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson and composer Courtney Bryan. 

Kevin Day (b. 1996)

Few composers today have accomplished so much in such a relatively short amount of time as Kevin Day. Still in his twenties, Day is already a Pulitzer Prize nominee whose music has made it to prestigious concert halls on nearly every continent.

Day incorporates a plethora of styles into his classical compositions, like dazzling Latin melodies, earnest folk traditions, and the slight swing of jazz. As demonstrated by Ecstatic Samba, the triumphant themes in his Concerto for Wind Ensemble, and the animated rhythms of Sonata in One Movement, Day’s signature sound is resilience.

Growing up in Arlington, Texas, Day said he could hardly speak until he was eight or nine years old because of a stutter. Through music, he found his voice.

“Music literally did heal me,” Day said. “It transformed me, in a way, to the person I am now.”

Having composed over 250 works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, and solo instruments, Day has a clear vision of what music is and can be, regardless of its form, genre, or capacity.

Jonathan Bailey Holland (b. 1974)

Jonathan Bailey Holland

Originally from Flint, MI, Jonathan Bailey Holland is a composer whose work has been performed by respected orchestras from coast to coast and overseas. As the current dean of Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music and a recipient of awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, Academy of Arts and Letters, ASCAP, and more, Holland approaches music from an emotional and intellectual standpoint.

Whether creating or consuming music, Holland says, “You have to go somewhere, in a sense, or feel that there is something that has been developed or that you experienced something.” To do so, he finds an instrument’s je ne sais quoi and brings it to the forefront.

With Rebounds, it’s vibrations from the reed of a bass clarinet and marimba. It’s the extravagant personality exuding from a trumpet in The Flamboyant Frenchmen. And with Halcyon Sun—Holland’s dedication piece for the 2003 opening of Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center—it’s the entire orchestra, bursting with lustrous melodies and colorful, controlled chaos.

Hannah Kendall (b. 1984)

British composer Hannah Kendall stands out for her fascinating sound explorations and deep engagement with historical moments. One of her best-known pieces, The Spark Catchers, takes inspiration from a Lemn Sissay poem about the matchgirls’ strike in London. Kendall’s work is marked by punchy dynamism and shimmering textures that come together in visceral passages of bursting colors.

Born from a Guyanese mother and Antiguan father, Kendall delves into her “Creoleness” on her more recent compositions, like Verdalashouting forever into the receiver and the Tuxedo series. By experimenting with unconventional instruments that she has associated with Afro-Caribbean experiences (whistles, harmonicas, music boxes, and walkie-talkies), Kendall aims to distort western classical music’s idea of perfection.

Looking ahead, Kendall is also composing a brand-new Afrofuturist opera for experimental vocalist and movement artist Elaine Mitchener.

Upbeat Live Podcast featuring Kendall's Verdala performed in the LA Phil's 2021/22 season. 

Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981)

Jessie Montgomery
The LA Phil at Walt Disney Concert Hall. This performance was part of the Symphonies for Youth series and featured works by Michael Abels, Jessie Montgomery, and more. (Photo credit: Paul Cressey)

Known for her complex rhythms, fascinating manipulation of texture, and colorful harmonies, Jessie Montgomery has become one of today’s most refreshing and captivating voices in classical music. The New York Times goes as far as to say, “The changing American canon sounds like Jessie Montgomery.”

From her nostalgic, American folk-inspired Strum to the symphonic melting pot that is Coincident Dances, Montgomery’s compositions are often reflections of the nuances and vibrancy of diverse communities. Montgomery has amassed several prestigious accolades, including the Leonard Bernstein Award, the Sphinx Medal of Excellence, and a 2024 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition with Rounds, her first work for solo piano and string orchestra.

Beyond her work as a composer and violinist, Montgomery is an educator and advocate committed to building a more inclusive and equitable landscape for musicians. With the Sphinx Organization, a non-profit supporting Black and Latinx string players, Montgomery serves as a vital role model, fostering opportunities for young musicians and writing her own forward-thinking pieces.

Carlos Simon (b. 1986)

Hearing the work of Carlos Simon is like having a simultaneous experience of the past, present, and future. In Tales: A Folklore Symphony, he weaves fanfare-like motifs and African American spirituals with Afrofuturism, revealing the multidimensional aspects of Blackness, such as intelligence, heroism, and ingenuity.

As praised by The New York Times, “his scores often sound as if they believe, sincerely yet humbly, in their own power to make a difference.” And so far, this has been true. Simon, one of the few composers to earn the Sphinx Medal of Excellence, is a brilliant storyteller with a passion for social outreach and mentorship. Currently serving as the Kennedy Center’s Composer-in-Residence, he’s helping answer the question, “What are we doing to shape the Black lives of tomorrow?”

To start, he’s put forth his most authentic self—an adventurous improviser, collaborator, and music-maker—on his latest album, Together.

Pamela Z (b. 1956)

Pamela Z, Ars Electronica, 2008. (Photo credit: Rubra)

Pamela Z’s music can make anything and be made from anything. As a pioneer of live digital looping techniques and vocal processing, she has created an eccentric musical aesthetic that sparks curiosity, reflection, and reaction.

In both her solo projects and interdisciplinary collaborations, Z incorporates operatic bel canto, found objects, spoken word, and wireless MIDI controllers that allow her to manipulate sound with physical gestures. Because of her ingenuity and bold experimentation, she’s received numerous accolades, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Herb Alpert Award, an Ars Electronica honorable mention, the NEA Japan/US Friendship Commission Fellowship, and more lifetime achievements.

In songs like “Questions” and “Timepiece Triptych: Declaratives in the First Person,” Z chops and layers and repeats various phrases like mantras to reorient listeners into the evocative soundscape she’s created.

“I look at the visual world in the same way that I think about the sonic world, which is sort of a John Cage philosophy that all sounds are music,” Z told V Magazine. “It just depends on if it’s organized in the ear of the listener.”