Each week throughout the month of February, WDAV’s First and The Future blog series highlights two Black composers or musicians who have shaped the course of classical music: one who shattered a historical barrier, and one whose extraordinary achievements in the same field continue today. Check back here every Thursday at noon for the next pair of classical artists!
Eva Jessye and Jeri Lynne Johnson
Revered as the first Black woman to achieve international recognition as a choral conductor, Eva Jessye began her career as a music teacher in 1914 after earning two Bachelor’s degrees from Western University and Langston University. Twelve years later, Jessye founded the Dixie Jubilee Singers, a multi-genre ensemble that would later become the famed Eva Jessye Choir.
She and the choir soon relocated to New York, where they found remarkable success: throughout the 1920s and 30s, they made regular appearances in the Capitol Theatre stage show, performed on the radio extensively (including a regular spot on the Major Bowes Family Radio Hour), and recorded on Brunswick, Columbia, and Cameo records. In 1935, the choir was selected to perform in the original production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and Jessye herself was chosen as the production’s choral director. The Eva Jessye Choir’s popularity climbed for decades, and in 1963, the ensemble was chosen to be the official choral group of the March on Washington.
Along with her choral conducting career, Jessye published several beloved compositions and spiritual arrangements, which remain widely performed today. Her home state of Kansas declared October 1 “Eva Jessye Day” in 1978, and in 1982, Governor John Carlin named her the “Kansas Ambassador for the Arts.”
Visit Eva Jessye’s Black Past biography to read more about her accomplishments and legacy.
Jeri Lynne Johnson
Jeri Lynne Johnson is an acclaimed conductor and orchestra founder based in Philadelphia, PA. Like Eva Jessye, Johnson’s achievements include a historical first: she was awarded the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship in 2005, becoming the first African-American woman to win an international conducting prize. Johnson’s career has included engagements with the world’s leading orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and Germany’s Weimar Staatskapelle, world-premiere performances with MacArthur Genius Grant Winners, and a collaborative appearance at Carnegie Hall with Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, and The Roots.
In 2008, Johnson founded Philadelphia’s Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, which features “top musicians in the country from diverse cultures and ethnicities as a model for the 21st-century orchestra.” Now a beloved staple of the city’s cultural landscape, Black Pearl has the distinction of being the only organization in the United States to win three Knight Foundation Arts Challenge grants.
Today, Johnson serves as the Artistic Director of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra and the current cover conductor of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra. Among her numerous accolades, she was named one of today’s leading young women conductors on the NBC Today Show and has been honored as a 2010 Philly 360 Creative Ambassador, a 2010 British American Project Fellow, and a 2011 Philadelphia Business Journal Woman of Distinction.
Ann Hobson Pilot
First Black member of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra; the BSO’s first Black principal player
There’s a reason harpist Ann Hobson Pilot is so often described as “legendary:” at 79, she remains one of history’s most esteemed harpists after over 55 years as a top soloist, recording artist, and educator. Born into a musical family in 1943, Pilot took up piano as her first instrument, following in the footsteps of her concert pianist mother. When she switched to the harp at age 14, the racist backlash from others at her predominantly white school was swift. In one incident she described to Sarasota Magazine, “[A friend’s mother] pointed to a portrait on the wall of a white woman, with long blond hair, playing the harp, and she said, ‘See, she is what a harpist is supposed to look like.’ I was shocked that she said that to me. What did she want me to do, quit?”
Pilot persisted, and at just 18, her skill began to garner public attention as she performed alongside artists like Peggy Lee, Andy Williams, and Johnny Mathis at a Philadelphia nightclub. Following her subsequent studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music, she won a position as a master harpist with the National Symphony Orchestra in 1966 and joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra as assistant principal harp in 1969, becoming both orchestras’ first Black member. Pilot also made history when she earned the principal harp position in 1980, which made her the BSO’s first Black principal player. During her time in Boston, she served on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music and Boston University for decades, toured the globe as a soloist, and recorded numerous albums.
Though Pilot officially retired in 2009 after 40 years with the BSO, she immediately returned to open the BSO and Carnegie Hall seasons with the premiere of “On Willows and Birches,” a concerto written for her by John Williams. Pilot’s solo career continued to flourish after her retirement: “Everybody says to me, ‘Do you miss it?,’ and I can’t really say that I do, because I am still playing,” she told PBS. “I will continue as long as I can.” She released her latest album, “A Dream,” in 2020 and has made many high-profile returns to the stage, including a performance at the opening of the the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
A frequent award recipient, Pilot has been honored twice with the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Distinguished Alumni Award and has received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Boston Musicians Association and the Talent Development League of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. She has been granted honorary doctorates from Tufts University and Bridgewater State College and became the only harpist recipient of the League of American Orchestras’ Golden Baton award, its highest honor, in 2017.
Harpist, educator, and activist; founder of Challenge the Stats and Artistic Director of the Urban Youth Harp Ensemble
In 2007, teenage harpist Angelica Hairston found a mentor in a living legend: Ann Hobson Pilot. “It was so gratifying to look into the eyes of a professional orchestral harpist from one of the top symphonies in the country who looked like me,” she said of their first meeting in an interview with Lyon & Healy. “She taught me to understand that it is possible to pursue a classical music career that reaches major stages and secondly, that I was not alone.”
Growing up surrounded by music of all genres, Hairston gained a new perspective on the art form’s power while listening to gospel music at her grandmother’s church. “I learned that the world wasn’t looking for artists who only played the right notes,” she explained. “What the world needed were more artists who told a deeper and more meaningful story.” She began her musical study as a violinist at 4 years old and transitioned to the harp at 12. Hairston performed on From the Top for the first time at age 18, later winning the From the Top Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award, a scholarship that aided her studies at Toronto’s Royal Academy of Music.
While completing her graduate degree at Northeastern University as a 2015 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Fellow, Hairston founded Challenge the Stats, a growing initiative dedicated to empowering BIPOC classical artists and challenging racial inequality and systemic oppression in classical music. She currently provides free harp instruction to over 90 students as the Artistic Director of the Urban Youth Harp Ensemble.
Hairston is an alum of the Sphinx Organization’s SphinxLEAD, a 2019 winner of a Georgia Governor’s Award for the Arts & Humanities, and a recipient of the 2020 Atlanta Magazine’s Women Making a Mark Award. Now 30, Hairston remains dedicated to activism in the Atlanta area and beyond as a musician, educator, speaker, and consultant. “Everything we do is right at the intersection of classical music and justice,” she told Atlanta Magazine in 2021. “Facing a pandemic – but especially as a Black woman facing this racial reckoning and all the violence that’s been happening toward Black communities – has been really challenging, but I feel grateful that the work I do has a direct impact on what’s happening in the world around us.”
Sources and Further Reading
Harpist Ann Hobson Pilot on Overcoming Racism in Classical Music (Sarasota Magazine)
Honoring Boston Symphony’s pioneering harp legend Ann Hobson Pilot (League of American Orchestras)
Harpist pilots a ground-breaking career (Sarasota Herald-Tribune)
Challenge the Stats Official Website (Challenge the Stats)
Angelica Hairston Biography (Atlanta Symphony Orchestra)
Women Making a Mark: Angelica Hairston (Atlanta Magazine)
One of the earliest American guitar virtuosos; considered the United States’ first Black classical guitarist and Cleveland’s first Black professional musician
Classical guitarist and civil rights activist Justin Holland is remembered as one of the United States’ most important early classical music figures. Born in Virginia in 1819, Holland moved to Boston at 14 after the death of his parents and Nat Turner’s Insurrection, and there he discovered a knack for the guitar. He would go on to study with guitar masters at Oberlin College followed by two years in Mexico, where he honed his Spanish language skills to better understand classical guitar pedagogy “at its source.”
Holland returned to Ohio in 1845 and settled in Cleveland, quickly establishing himself as a well respected, no-nonsense guitar instructor; in his own words, he maintained “the most cautious and circumspect demeanor, considering the relation a mere business one that gave me no claims upon my pupils’ attention or hospitality beyond what any ordinary business matter would give.” In addition to his musical pursuits, Holland was known to work with Frederick Douglass as a member of the Underground Railroad and campaigned tirelessly for abolition and civil rights throughout his life.
Now considered Cleveland’s first Black professional musician, his reputation as a composer, performer, and teacher blossomed into fame. Holland played the guitar, piano, and flute professionally, and his many published works achieved national popularity (though he is credited with 35 original compositions and 300 arrangements, roughly ⅔ of those have been lost). His instructional texts, including his Comprehensive Method for the Guitar (1874), were some of the earliest of their kind in the United States and remain hugely influential in classical guitar instruction today.
For more information about Justin Holland, find a full bio and media sources on his life in the links below.
Hailed as a “tremendously versatile and sensitive player,” French classical guitarist Raphaël Feuillâtre was already well known in European circles when he entered the U.S. classical guitar scene with a splash: in 2018, he took first prize at the Guitar Foundation of America International Concert Artist Competition, the most important American competition of its kind. Born in 1996, Feuillâtre explains his childhood attraction to the guitar in an interview with Classical Guitar Magazine:
“I’ve no exact memories of why I chose the guitar, but it was this instrument or nothing! … First, I had an electric guitar toy and then a classical one. I would play it all the time, so my parents understood that it was not just some childish desire, but something I really wanted and probably needed.”
Feuillâtre started guitar lessons at the Cholet Conservatory at age nine, soon moving up to the Conservatory of Nantes and the Paris National Superior Conservatory of Music and Dance, where he earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Classical Guitar with highest honors. Now just 26 years old, his achievements – though remarkable – have only just begun. In addition to his landmark GFA competition win, he is the recipient of several major awards, including first prize at both the International Guitar Competition José Tomás and the Concours & Festival de Guitare. WQXR named his album “Guitar Recital: Raphaël Feuillâtre” one of the best classical recordings of 2019, praising his “virtuoso technique and elegant phrasing.”
Sources and Further Reading
Remembering Justin Holland, guitarist and crusader (Boston Globe)
HOLLAND, JUSTIN (Encyclopedia of Cleveland History)
Justin Holland (WUOL)
Justin Holland (Wikipedia)
Raphaël Feuillâtre Puts His Stamp on the Classical Guitar World (Classical Guitar Magazine)