13 Black conductors, past and present, who’ve inspired us from the podium

31 December 2020, 17:46 | Updated: 31 July 2023, 11:18

Great Black conductors
Great conductors Thomas Wilkins, Calvin E. Simmons and Kalena Bovell. Picture: Getty / Chris Christodoulou

By Rosie Pentreath

Classical music wouldn’t be the same without these trailblazers. From Rudolph Dunbar to Anne ‘Georgianne’ Lundy, these are the late and living Black conductors you should know.

We salute just 13 of the many Black conductors, past and present, who have taken to the podium and changed the course of classical music in doing so.

  1. Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 – 1799)

    Classical era violin prodigy and composer Joseph Boulogne was also an ensemble leader and conductor. The chevalier was one of the first Black colonels in the French army, which is where he got the title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He was a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, and he conducted one of Europe’s greatest orchestras of his time – Le Concert des Amateurs.

    Read more: Chevalier star Kelvin Harrison Jr. on 18th-century virtuoso Joseph Boulogne: ‘He could do everything!’

    Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
    Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Picture: Getty
  2. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 – 1912)

    A British composer and conductor, Coleridge-Taylor studied at the Royal College of Music, and after graduating – as well as being a professor and receiving wide recognition for works like Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast – conducted the orchestra at the Croydon Conservatoire and other ensembles and music competitions. His daughter, Gwendolyn, followed in her father’s footsteps and was a composer and conductor too.

    Read more: The life and works of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the English composer referred to as ‘Black Mahler’? >

    Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
    Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Picture: Getty
  3. William Grant Still (1895 – 1978)

    American composer-conductor William Grant Still was a man of many firsts, including making history as the first Black conductor to direct a major US orchestra – when he conducted the LA Philharmonic in two of his own works at Hollywood Bowl in July 1936. Grant Still has been dubbed the ‘Dean of Afro-American composers’.

    Read more: How William Grant Still, the ‘Dean of Afro-American composers’, changed American classical music forever >

    William Grant Still
    William Grant Still. Picture: Getty
  4. Rudolph Dunbar (1907 – 1999)

    Rudolph Dunbar was a Guyanese conductor, clarinettist, composer and journalist, active in New York’s 1920s jazz scene and beyond. He was a friend of William Grant Still (see above), and studied composition in Paris.

    His compositions include the ballet Dance of the Twenty-First Century, which was written in 1938 for Cambridge University’s Footlights comedy club. Dunbar made history in September 1945 when he conducted the Berlin Philharmonic – the first time a Black conductor had done so in the orchestra’s then-65-year history, and having done so as “a US war correspondent in battledress”, as Time magazine stated.

    Rudolph Dunbar Conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
    Rudolph Dunbar Conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Picture: Getty
  5. Dean Dixon (1915 – 1976)

    A Columbia University and Julliard alumnus, Dixon was a very successful American conductor. He conducted so many major orchestras that it’s hard to list them all, but said list would include guest stints at NBC Symphony and New York Philharmonic early in his career; and positions at Israel Philharmonic, Gothenburg Symphony and Sydney Symphony Orchestra; plus appearances with Chicago and San Francisco Symphonys.

    His work and influence introduced the works of many American composers, including William Grant Still (see above) to European concert halls.

    Dean Dixon
    Dean Dixon. Picture: Getty
  6. James DePreist (1936 – 2013)

    Conductor James DePreist was the nephew of the American contralto Marian Anderson, who in 1955 was the first African American to perform at the Met. DePriest was appointed by Leonard Bernstein as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1965-66, and he conducted and directed many of the world’s major orchestras, including the Helsinki Philharmonic, Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony and Oregon Symphony Orchestra.

    Young James DePreist with New York Philharmonic

  7. Calvin E. Simmons (1950 – 1982)

    Simmons’ resume sees him start conducting at a prodigiously young age – by just 11, baton in hand, he was at the helm of the San Francisco Boys Chorus (he’d been a member of the choir) and by his early twenties he’d conducted San Francisco Opera.

    He was assistant conductor of the LA Phil, working with Zubin Mehta, before becoming musical director of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra at just 28, the same year as he made his conducting debut at the Met. He also conducted Glyndebourne Touring Opera – but his career was sadly short. He died at the tragically young age of 32 in a canoeing accident – it’s quite overwhelming to think about what more he would have achieved had he had the chance.

    Calvin E. Simmons with Simon Rattle in 1981
    Calvin E. Simmons with Simon Rattle in 1981. Picture: Getty
  8. Anne Lundy (b. 1954)

    Conductor Anne ‘Georgianne’ Lundy goes down in history as the first African-American woman to conduct the Houston Symphony. She’s the founder of the William Grant Still String Quartet and the Scott Joplin Chamber Orchestra, both of which specialise in championing music by Black composers.

    In 1983, she became executive director of Houston’s Community Music Centre, putting music and her experience at the heart of the community. Lundy’s Scott Joplin Chamber Orchestra recently made its own history when its musicians accompanied pop megastar Beyoncé at Super Bowl XXXIII.

    Beyoncé Super Bowl Halftime Show Rehearsal: Day 1

  9. Thomas Wilkins (b. 1956)

    As well as being music director of Omaha Symphony Orchestra, principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and family and youth concerts conductor of the Boston Symphony, Thomas Wilkins has guest conducted the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra.

    Sphinx is a US organisation, founded in 1997 by Aaron P. Dworkin, that champions diversity in the arts with it’s annual Sphinx Competition and many other initiatives, as well as close ties with other organisations, including the UK’s Chineke! Foundation (see below) and Young Classical Artists Trust (YCAT).

    Read more: Meet violinist Randall Goosby, the Itzhak Perlman protégé and Sphinx Competition winner set to inspire a generation >

    BSO Homeschool | Thomas Wilkins on Conducting Episode 5

  10. Wayne Marshall (b. 1961)

    Wayne Marshall is a British pianist, organist and conductor who was appointed OBE in the New Year’s Honours List 2021 for his services to music. Originally from Barbados, Marshall is a Chetham’s and Royal College of Music alumnus who has performed in the world’s most prestigious concert halls and conducted many world-leading orchestras – including the UK’s first professional orchestra of Black and ethnically diverse musicians, Chineke! Orchestra, founded by Chi-Chi Nwanoku.

    Read more: Chi-chi Nwanoku: ‘Classical music is suddenly going to become much more diverse’ >

  11. Kwamé Ryan (b. 1970)

    A Canadian conductor of Trinidadian descent, Kwamé Ryan has conducted all over the world, including at Edinburgh International Festival and English National Opera. He’s another trailblazing conductor who has been at the helm of Chineke! Orchestra (see above).

    Kwame Ryan - Symphonie d'une Vie - Full FILM

  12. Jeri Lynne Johnson (b. 1972)

    Johnson’s conducting career sprang off the Jorge Mester Conducting Scholarship and has been nurtured by mentors like Sir Simon Rattle, Marin Alsop and Daniel Barenboim.

    Johnson’s history-making moment came in 2005 when she became the first African American woman to win the prestigious Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, and since, she’s taken to the podium with Philadelphia Orchestra, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and the Weimar Staatskapelle, to name just a few of the world-class orchestras she has led.

    She is the founding artistic director of Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra and her Twitter bio says, “Actually, I AM the Black Pearl. But since I can't play all the instruments myself, I gathered together other cultured gems and VOILA! an orchestra was born.”

    *Hits follow.

    Beethoven Symph #8, 1st Mvt - Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra

  13. Kevin John Edusei (6. 1976)

    Edusei is the current chief conductor of Munich Symphony Orchestra, and he divides his time between there and appearances with orchestras like the London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, to name but an illustrious few. He has also conducted Chineke! Orchestra (see above).

    Schumann Symphony No 1, 'Spring' (4th movement) // London Symphony Orchestra & Kevin John Edusei

There are so many great conductors to talk about – like Germany-based US conductor Roderick Cox, and Michael Morgan who conducts US orchestras.

And many more that we’re excited to continue to watch, from Jonathon Heyward, who was recently named chief conductor designate of the Northwest German Philharmonic, to Kalena Bovell (pictured above) who recently conducted Chineke! Orchestra in Adolphus Hailstork’s powerful Martin Luther King tribute, Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed.