African-American Female Instrumentalists: An Archive of Black Female Sound from the Late Nineteenth Century to Now
By Chloe Swindler
This archival project focuses on the histories of African-American female instrumentalists from the late nineteenth century through today. The archive begins by focusing on the intertwining histories of Harriet Gibbs Marshall, Florence Price, and Margaret Bonds. These are the first three documented women to complete their studies in instrument performance in the United States. Unfortunately, recordings of their performances are not easily accessible to the public. A portion of the time spent on this project in the near future will be spent on locating any recordings of their performances in order to document where they can be found.
While these three women paved the way for future black classical musicians, jazz instrumentalists such as Valaida Snow (trumpet), Vi Redd (sax), Mary Lou Williams (piano), and Hazel Scott (piano) – just to name a few – paved the way for black jazz musicians. A portion of this project will focus on compiling their discographies and making them available in one place on an online platform. The full list of musicians for whom I will be creating an archive of can be found below:
Classical: Late 1800s–Mid 1900s
- Piano: Harriet Gibbs Marshall, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds
Jazz: Early 1900s–Mid 1900s
- Trumpet: Valaida Snow, Clora Bryant
- Sax: Vi Redd
- Guitar: Sister Rosetta Tharpe
- Piano: Mary Lou Williams, Alice Coltrane, Patrice Rushen, Shirley Horn, Lin Hardin Armstrong, Hazel Scott, Dorothy Donegan, Sweet Emma Barrett, Billie Pierce, Nellie Lutcher, Beryl Booker, Marilyn Crispell, Lovie Austin
- Piano and Vibraphone: Terry Pollard
- Trombone: Melba Liston
Classical: Mid 1900s–Today
- Harp: Ann Hobson Pilot
- Tuba: Velvet Brown
- Cello: Astrid Schween
- Violin: Carol Anderson
- Flute: Valerie Coleman
- Bassoon: Monica Ellis
- Oboe: Toyin Spellman-Diaz
Jazz: Mid/Late 1900s–Today
- Drums: Terri Lyne Carrington
- Piano: Geri Allen
- Clarinet: Doreen Ketchens
- Sax: Tia Fuller
- Guitar: Bibi McGill
- Flute: Reagan Whiteside
- Violin: Regina Carter
- Bass: Esperanza Spalding
- Trumpet: Arnetta Johnson
- Tuba: Chanell Crichlow
- Violin: Juliette Jones
The archive begins with the histories of Harriet Gibbs Marshall, Florence Price, and Margaret Bonds.
Harriet Gibbs Marshall (1868–1941)
Harriet Gibbs Marshall was the first African-American female instrumentalist to pursue and officially complete her studies at a music institution in the United States. Marshall was born in 1868, just five years after the official end of slavery. She lived during an era of Jim Crow laws, lynchings, segregation, World War I, race riots, the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression, and the beginning of World War II. While her life spans over these eras, research previously written on Marshall makes little to no note of these events and their effect on her performances, education, and work as an educator due to the lack of available archives on her life.
Her Early Life and Education
Born on February 18, 1868, Harriet Gibbs Marshall’s early life was centered in Oberlin, Ohio. Both of her parents, Maria Alexander and Judge Mifflin W. Gibbs, graduated from Oberlin College. They encouraged and presumably provided financial assistance for Gibbs to enroll in Oberlin College’s preparatory and college courses as well as the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. During her time at the Oberlin Conservatory, Gibbs studied piano, pipe organ, and theory with a focus on harmony and counterpoint. She received her degree, an equivalent of a present day Bachelor of Music in performance, in 1889 and furthered her education and performance in Boston, Chicago, and Paris. While in Boston, Gibbs was under the private instruction of Frank Davis who said that she “was received by the musical public of Boston as having attained a high degree of excellence in rendering the very best inspirations in pianoforte literature, having mastered a superior method of technic interpretation, expression and phrasing.”
In the 1890s, books recording the success of African-American women were first written. Dr. Lawson A. Scruggs’ Women of Distinction, Dr. Monroe A. Majors’ Noted Negro Women, and Gertrude Bustill Mossell’s The Work of the Afro-American Woman collectively brought to light the accomplishments of black women in America. In Helen Walker-Hill’s From Spirituals to Symphonies, Walker-Hill breaks down the collective musical narratives woven between these books:
Of approximately 360 or so women named in the books of Majors and Scruggs (there was a good deal of overlap), about 24 percent were musicians. Of that 24 percent, 60 percent were singers, 27 percent were pianists and/or teachers, 11 percent were organists, and six also composed. Although not admitted to many white institutions of higher learning, they could obtain training at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music (opened in 1865) and four other music schools (all founded in 1867) that admitted blacks: the Boston Conservatory, the New England Conservatory of Music, the Cincinnati Conservatory, and the Chicago Musical College.
Given these documented categorizations, it would be safe to say that few if any widely regarded non-piano/organ instrumentalists were established musicians prior to the 1890s. In addition, playing the piano, organ, and/or teaching appear to be the most approachable careers for African-American women during this time.
Contemporaries of Harriet Gibbs Marshall
During Harriet Gibbs Marshall’s formative higher education years, she would have looked at in admiration at two contemporaries that were breaking classical boundaries at the time. Margaret Lang and Amy Beach, two of the first American women to have their works performed by a major U.S. orchestra, were also gaining success in Boston. In 1885, Beach performed Chopin’s F minor concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and in 1893, Lang’s Overture entitled Wichitis was performed by the same orchestra. In Boston, white female musicians had secured roles as soloists and composers with a major U.S. orchestra before the turn of the century. This surely would have served as inspiration for Gibbs Marshall. Another source of inspiration would have been Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, one of the first Afro-British composers whose works were highly regarded in both England and the United States. His influence was so strong that various organizations and schools opened in his name in areas with high amounts of performing black musicians. In Helen Walker-Hill’s text From Spirituals to Symphonies, she claims that Coleridge-Taylor’s “example as a black musician and composer, respected by whites in his own land, impressed the black audiences and communities and gave new impetus to their classical musical activities.”
Florence Price (1887–1953)
One notable African-American classical pianist who won acclaim later in Marshall’s life is Florence Price. Florence Price was born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas, to Dr. James H. Smith and Florence Irene Gulliver. When Price enrolled for music study at New England Conservatory, her mother Florence Smith had her enroll as a student from “Pueblo,” Mexico with Hispanic heritage during her studies in Boston, Massachusetts. Even though she enrolled as a student from Mexico to avoid discrimination, Price’s composition professor George Chadwick was fond of African-American influence in music, including Negro spirituals and the influence of African-Americans on composers like Dvorak. With the guidance of a composition professor who reflected the North’s open-minded thinking, Price was able to learn the repertoire for the Romantic period for organ and piano while being exposed to African-American music through her main composition instructor. Price graduated from New England Conservatory in 1906 with a degree in organ performance and piano instruction.
Margaret Bonds (1913–1972)
Around twenty years after her graduation, Price took on an African-American female piano student named Margaret Bonds. Bonds, who was born in 1913, soon joined Harriet Gibbs Marshall as one of the first nationally acclaimed black classical musicians when she became the first black female instrumentalist to solo with a major U.S. orchestra. During her life, Bonds had several prominent role models and connections with other middle class black artists such as William Grant Still and Langston Hughes that pushed her to perform and compose. These contemporaries functioned as leading examples in Black art for Bonds. In contrast to Gibbs Marshall, there are many details from Bond’s life that give detail of how the Great Depression and Harlem Renaissance shaped her career.
Bonds’ Early Career
Margaret Bonds was born in 1913 in Chicago to Dr. Monroe Majors and Estella C. Bonds. She studied piano at the Coleridge-Taylor Music School in around 1925 and in 1926 began to study composition and piano with Florence Price and William Dawson. As a composer, Price was the first African-American female to have her symphonic work performed by a major U.S. orchestra. Her Symphony in E-minor was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. Bonds performed solo piano on the same concert, performing John Alden Carpenter’s Concertino with the same orchestra. In the same year, she finished her Bachelor of Music at Northwestern University. Bonds was awarded the Rosenwald Scholarship for graduate study in 1934 and continued her studies at Northwestern University for a Master of Music.
Black Musicians’ Unions
Black musicians in classical music faced tremendous difficulty finding jobs in the music trade due to racial prejudice, especially from the end of the Reconstruction era in 1877 well through the 1960s with the end of Jim Crow laws. For Bonds’ contemporaries, lack of career options due to these laws forced them to switch to other trades. In Amy Absher’s The Black Musicians and the White City: Race and Music in Chicago, 1900–1967, Absher writes the following on this topic in regards to Chicago:
As professional musicians, they found that the Black-led union local – an example of the self-sufficiency movement – was powerless to help them find symphony and other well-paying jobs outside of the South Side. The lack of symphony and compositional employment forced many to change instruments, according to Milton Hinton, who started out as a violinist but had to switch to bass because it would be easier for him to find work if he focused on jazz bands. The employment situation was such that skilled and trained artists slowly grew “listless” and “lost any hope of aspiring to be anything,” according to Hinton. He watched as his friends “reached maturity,” and “if there was no place to work, I began to see them lose their creativity, and their hope for the future, and they began to settle for second best.
For Margaret Bonds, she too found difficulty finding work after completing her composition studies at Northwestern. As a classically trained pianist, she used her skills of accompanying and composition to find work in New York during the Harlem Renaissance and New Negro Movement. Upon discovering Langston Hughes’ poetry in the Evanston public library during her time as a Northwestern student, Bonds began to compose music set to Hughes’ poetry. This decision to participate in Black arts collaboration is noted by Amy Absher as being one “that would bring her fame, as well as demonstrate how composers participated in the development of racial pride and used their skills to disrupt racism.”
Black Women Create Their Own Black Conservatories
In the 1939, Bonds opened her own conservatory, the Allied Arts Academy, as a space where musicians, artists, and ballet dancers in Chicago could continue their art studies. At the academy in 1939, Bonds gave a recital with a wide range of composers on the program. These included Bach, Handel, Brahms, Ravel, Carpenter, Florence Price, Coleridge-Taylor, and four of her own pieces. This diverse program, which places traditional European composers alongside Afro-influenced composers, gives insight into the intentions of black performing artists of her time and their decision to integrate their music. Bonds’ Allied Arts Academy would eventually close due to the financial hardships she faced during the Great Depression.
Harriet Gibbs Marshall had also opened her own arts institutions. In 1903, she founded the Washington Conservatory of Music and School of Expression. The funds to create the conservatory were earned by Gibbs Marshall through performing various concerts in Boston and in some southern states.
Marshall also founded the National Negro Music Center in 1939, the same years as Bonds’ Allied Arts Academy. Between Gibbs Marshall’s creation of the Washington Conservatory and National Negro Music Center, and Bonds’ Allied Arts Academy, Marshall and Bonds made proactive efforts to educate black musicians and empower educators.
A Note on the Role of Black Female Music Educators
While this overarching research project focuses specifically on African-American female instrumentalists, a majority of these women became educators in levels ranging from primary public music education to private music colleges. They pursue educating others either while performing or take on educating others as their sole focus. Why might this be? While symphonies, performing arts groups, and concerts halls rarely exhibited colored musicians, the black female musicians who could perform in these groups – if non-segregated areas permitted – took it upon themselves to act as role model for the younger black generations during or after having their strong careers. During these three trailblazing careers, Marshall, Price, and Bonds fought for their right to exist within a field of music that was not yet ready to accept their color and talent, two traits which were inextricable at the time.