There have been many famous black pianists throughout history who have left their mark on the music world. Despite racism and discrimination, these musicians have persevered and created beautiful music that has entertained and inspired people around the globe. In article post, we will take a look at some of the most famous black piano players who have made an impact in both jazz and classical music.
Black piano players have played a crucial role in shaping the music world throughout history. Despite racism providing them with much fewer opportunities for education, representation, and acceptance compared to white musicians, black pianists have made their mark on the music industry.
One of the most influential black pianists was Scott Joplin, who is credited with creating ragtime music. His work paved the way for other black musicians, such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie, to make their own contributions to the world of jazz.
In more recent years, black keyboardists like Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones have continued to shape the sound of popular music. While black piano players may not always receive the credit they deserve, their talent and creativity have helped to shape the music industry in a profound way.
As a music blogger, I wanted to do my part for the Black Lives Matter movement by compiling a list of famous black piano players. While there are many black musicians who have been influential in jazz music, there are also many classical pianists who have made a significant impact on the music scene.
Blind Tom Wiggins was a slave child who became a famous musician. His story is one of determination and talent, as he overcame his blindness to become an accomplished pianist. Don Shirley was another black pianist who achieved success despite the racism he faced. His story was the inspiration for the film Green Book, which highlights the challenges that black musicians faced during the Jim Crow era.
These are just two of the many black pianists who have made a significant impact on music. Their stories serve as a reminder that black lives have always mattered, and that we must continue to fight for equality and justice for all.
Black Classical Pianists
Despite the many achievements of Black classical pianists, they have often been relegated to the margins of music history.
This is due in part to the racist attitudes of the past, which limited opportunities for Black musicians.
However, there have always been a handful of Black pianists who have managed to make their mark on the classical world.
André Watts is one of the most celebrated classical piano players in the world. Hailing from Germany, he moved to the United States at the age of eight and quickly showed a prodigious talent for music.
In 1963, when he was just sixteen years old, he substituted for the renowned pianist Glenn Gould at a New York Philharmonic concert.
This formidable debut launched Watts on a hugely successful career that has seen him perform all over the world, record for prestigious labels, and win numerous awards, including a Grammy.
Today, his place among the pantheon of great classical pianists is firmly secured.
Blind Tom Wiggins
Blind Tom Wiggins was an African American slave and pianist who became world-renowned for his exceptional musical abilities.
Born into slavery in 1849, Wiggins was blind and autistic, yet still managed to teach himself to play the piano by listening to others. By the age of three, he could imitate anything he heard on the piano, and by age eight, he had already composed his first original piece.
Wiggins toured extensively throughout the United States and Europe, becoming one of the highest-paid classical pianists of his time.
Despite his success, Wiggins remained a slave until 1865, when he was finally freed following the end of the Civil War.
He continued to perform and compose music until his death in 1908, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most remarkable musicians in history.
Don Shirley was a prominent pianist in the 20th century and was well-known for his unique style of playing the piano by mixing classical and jazz traditions.
He was born in Pensacola, Florida and studied psychology at one point in his life due to the limited opportunities for black classical musicians.
Thankfully, he returned to music later on and recorded for Cadence Records. If you watched the movie Green Book, you may already know that Don Shirley is the pianist in the Oscar-winning movie.
His character is played by Mahershala Ali. The movie tells the story of Don Shirley and Tony Lip, who was the bodyguard and driver Don Shirley hired to accompany him during his concert tours.
While he was an exceptional pianist, Shirley quit his music career in the early 1950s and went to study psychology due to the limited opportunities for black classical musicians.
Later, he returned to music to record for Cadence Records. Despite any challenges or barriers he faced during his lifetime, Shirley’s talents as a pianist prevailed. He will always be remembered as an exceptional musician with a one-of-a-kind playing style.
As a world-renowned concert pianist, Leon Bates has dazzled audiences with his renditions of some of the most famous pieces by George Gershwin.
Originally from Philadelphia, Bates began studying piano at a young age and quickly developed into a virtuoso.
His natural talent combined with his passion for music led him to pursue a career as a concert pianist, and he has since toured the world several times.
In addition to his solo work, Bates has also performed with some of the best symphonies in Europe and the United States.
His arrangements of Gershwin’s pieces are especially well-known and have won him critical acclaim.
As one of the leading contemporary interpreters of Gershwin’s music, Bates is sure to continue impressing audiences for many years to come.
Philippa Duka Schuyler
Harlem-born Philippa Duka was a child prodigy who could play Mozart and Bach pieces as well as write her own compositions by the age of four.
When she entered adolescence, she was already an acclaimed concert pianist touring the U.S. and Europe.
However, Philippa later experienced racism which led to an inferiority complex and a shortened career. Despite this, she is still remembered as one of the most celebrated black piano players of her time.
Philippa’s early success is a testament to her immense talent and drive. Though her career was cut short, she left a lasting impression on those who heard her play.
Awadagin Pratt is a world-renowned concert pianist, violinist, and conductor.
He made history as the first black pianist to win first place at the Naumburg International Piano Competition, and he is also the first student in the history of the Peabody Conservatory of Music to earn diplomas in three different fields: piano, violin, and conducting.
Throughout his career, Pratt has performed with many of the nation’s most prominent symphonies, while also recording albums and teaching as a professor at Peabody.
His exceptional talent and achievements have earned him a place among the world’s greatest black pianists.
Black Jazz Pianists
Some of the most influential and innovative musicians in jazz history have been black pianists.
From early pioneers like Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller to modern greats like Herbie Hancock and Thelonious Monk, black pianists have made an indelible mark on the music.
Black jazz pianists have often been at the forefront of experimentation, pushing the boundaries of the genre and expanding its possibilities.
They have also been some of the most popular and commercially successful jazz musicians, with many becoming household names.
Today, black jazz pianists are still leading the way, keeping the music fresh and exciting.
Whether you’re a fan of traditional jazz or looking for something new, there’s always something to enjoy from these talented musicians.
Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton was a pioneering black pianist who helped to define the sound of early jazz.
Born in New Orleans in 1890, Morton began his musical career playing in the city’s famous red-light district.
He quickly developed a unique style that blended elements of ragtime, blues, and marching band music. In 1923, he made his recorded debut with the song “Jelly Roll Blues.”
The record was a huge success, and Morton soon became one of the most celebrated musicians in America.
He went on to make dozens of recordings, both as a solo artist and with his legendary band, the Red Hot Peppers.
Morton’s pioneering approach to jazz had a lasting impact on the course of American popular music, and he is widely regarded as one of the greatest musicians of his generation.
Herbie Hancock is a legendary jazz pianist who has helped to shape the sound of modern music.
Born in Chicago in 1940, Hancock began piano lessons at an early age and soon developed a passion for jazz. He began his professional career in the 1960s, playing with iconic musicians such as Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter.
Hancock’s unique style combines elements of blues, gospel, and R&B, creating a sound that is both distinctive and accessible.
Over the course of his career, Hancock has won 14 Grammy Awards and been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
In addition to his work as a solo artist, he has also composed film scores and electronic music.
Hancock’s contributions to the world of music are truly incalculable, and his influence will continue to be felt for generations to come.
Art Tatum was a virtuoso jazz pianist who was probably the best that the music world has ever seen.
His other-worldly skills made many musicians feel incompetent in comparison. Les Paul is one example of a musician who stopped playing piano after hearing Tatum play.
Even Horowitz is rumored to have taken a break from performing for years so that he could improve his own skills after hearing Tatum play classical pieces with an extraordinary technique and improvisational style.
As a blind black pianist, Tatum pushed all the boundaries. He died at the age of 47, but his influence will remain for decades to come.
McCoy Tyner is a Philadelphia-born jazz pianist who made a big splash in the jazz world as a member of the John Coltrane Quartet.
His skills on the piano were so impressive that Coltrane never hired anyone to accompany him if Tyner wasn’t available.
In 1965, Tyner decided to leave the Quartet to pursue his own unique style of music, which contained more experimental and atonal elements.
His approach to chord voicings was very novel and had a big impact on other contemporary artists like Chick Corea. Tyner is a five-time Grammy winner and is considered one of the most groundbreaking black jazz artists of the 20th century.
Powell’s unique approach to the piano led him to be one of the most significant figures in bebop.
His effort to sound like a horn player on the piano- with fast arpeggios and chromatic passages- made him stand out amongst other pianists of his time.
Though only 20 when he faced police brutality, the event forever changed Powell’s life. He was never able to fully recover from the mental and physiological damage that was done to him, and he suffered from mental illnesses related to his racial traumas for the rest of his life.
Despite this, Powell’s passion for music shone through and he left behind a legacy that has inspired pianists for generations.
Thelonious Monk is one of the most famous black piano players of all time.
A talented and unique artist, Monk is known for his flat-finger style, harsh hitting of the notes, abrupt silences with unexpected attacks, and dissonant melodic twists that his improvisations mostly feature.
While his unorthodox style of playing wasn’t embraced by everyone at the time, Monk is remembered as a true jazz legend by the majority.
In fact, he only had 70 compositions, but nearly all of them have become jazz standards.
Simply put, Thelonious Monk was a musical genius and his place in the history of black Piano players is well deserved.
Oscar Peterson was a classically trained pianist who later fell in love with jazz music.
He studied the work of Art Tatum and practiced for hours each day to reach the level of virtuosity that Tatum had achieved.
In addition to being an accomplished musician, Peterson was also an activist who fought for the rights of black people throughout his life.
He won eight Grammy Awards during his career and is widely considered to be one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time.
Harold Mabern was one of the leading pianists in the bebop and post-bop styles of jazz.
He had a successful career of over 60 years. While he planned to attend a music college, he couldn’t afford it due to financial restraints.
This led him to train himself by listening to other legends like Ahmad Jamal and practicing almost 12 hours every day for years.
Mabern’s style can be defined as aggressive but somehow optimistic. He strived to become a better jazz player till the end of his life, and it is apparent that he has become one of the most influential black piano players of the era.
Harold Mabern has made significant contributions to the world of jazz through his unique style and his passion for the music.
Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams was one of the rarest stars in jazz music. As a black female jazz pianist, she was a self-taught pianist who played at parties in her childhood to financially support her 10 siblings.
By the age of 15, she was already known as the “The Little Piano Girl” in Pittsburgh, and her fame only rose in the following years.
Williams composed numerous jazz pieces most of which became the greatest hits of the 20th century.
Making arrangements for Duke Ellington and teaching to successor jazz legends like Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, Mary Lou Williams is one of the most exceptional and famous black piano players of all time.
Her story is one of immense talent, hard work, and dedication to her art that has inspired musicians for generations.
Ramsey Lewis is a legendary figure in the jazz world, known for his incredible skill as a pianist and his ability to connect with a wide range of listeners.
A three-time Grammy winner, Lewis has released numerous successful singles, including “The In Crowd,” “Wade in the Water,” and “Hang On Sloopy.”
Throughout his career, he has toured extensively, performed at some of the world’s most prestigious venues, and composed several groundbreaking pieces of music.
His reputation has only grown in recent years, cementing his place as one of the most influential black pianists in history.
Hazel Scott was a world-renowned jazz pianist in the early to mid-1900s. Born in1920 in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and Tobago, Scott moved to New York City with her family when she was just three years old.
The daughter of a classical pianist and a scholar, Hazel Scott was more than just a famous piano player.
Other than being a virtuoso black jazz pianist who was extremely popular at the time, she was a very talented actress and was the first African American to host a TV Show in her name, The Hazel Scott Show.
Hazel Scott started her piano education by playing classical music. When Scott was just 8, she auditioned for Julliard School of Music, at which she performed the Rachmaninov Prelude.
While the minimum entry of age was 16 to Julliard, the jury was so impressed that they had no choice other than accepting this 8-year-old child prodigy with a scholarship. By the time she was 10, Scott had made her Carnegie Hall debut.
As an adult, Hazel Scott toured internationally as a solo performer and also played with some of the biggest names in jazz including Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. She even recorded an album with Duke Ellington.
In addition to her musical talents, Hazel Scott was also an accomplished actress. In 1950, she became the first African American woman to have her own television show with The Hazel Scott Show.
The show was short-lived but it paved the way for future African American entertainers like Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres.
Even after her career in entertainment came to an end, Hazel Scott continued to use her platform to support civil rights causes until her death in 1981.
Trinidad-born female jazz pianist Winifred Atwell was an extremely popular figure in the 1950s, becoming the first-ever black artist to rank number 1. in the UK charts.
Having multiple hits of boogie-woogie and ragtime records, Keith Emerson was one of her biggest fans.
She still holds the record for the only female instrumentalist to sell over 20 million copies of her records to this day.
Atwell became greatly famous worldwide, especially in Britain and Australia, touring both countries and performing several times. She was so popular in Australia that she ended up settling there and getting Australian citizenship.
Watch Winifred Atwill playing her famous hit, “The Poor People of Paris” below! Her nimble fingers flying across the keys is sure to amaze you.
Thomas “Fats” Waller was one of the most original and influential pianists of the Jazz Age. A native of New York City, he began his musical career as a church organist before finding success as a performer in the city’s nightclubs and theaters.
It was during this period that he developed the Harlem stride, a style of piano playing that was heavily influenced by ragtime.
Waller’s most famous compositions include “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose.”
In the 1930s, he enjoyed worldwide success as a touring musician, performing his jazz compositions for audiences in Europe and the United States.
Unfortunately, Waller died at the early age of 39 due to pneumonia. Despite his short life, he left a lasting legacy as one of the greatest black piano players of all time.
Count Basie was an American jazz pianist and bandleader. He started playing the piano at a young age and by the time he was in his teens, he was already performing in clubs in Kansas City.
In 1935, he formed his own band, the Count Basie Orchestra, which quickly became one of the leading ensembles of the swing era.
Over the next 50 years, the orchestra would tour extensively and release dozens of albums, cementing Basie’s reputation as one of the greatest jazz bandleaders of all time.
In addition to his work with the orchestra, Basie also found success as a solo artist, winning a Grammy Award in 1958 for his album The Atomic Mr. Basie.
Thanks to his immense talent and tireless work ethic, Count Basie left a lasting mark on jazz music and helped to break down barriers for black musicians in America.
Black piano players have been integral in shaping the music world throughout history, despite facing many obstacles including racism. Some of the most famous black piano players include Hazel Scott, Winifred Atwell, Fats Waller, and Count Basie. These musicians have helped to break down barriers for black artists and contribute to jazz and classical music respectively.