21 Best Black Piano Players That Deserve Respect

Discover Some of the Best Black Piano Players that Deserve Massive Respect

The number of amazing black piano players is infinite and the struggles they had to overcome to become the best in their field is just as immense.

However, those struggles are the reason these players deserve to never be forgotten. In this article, I’ve gathered a list of the 21 best black piano players that deserve the utmost respect due to their incredible talent and impact of popular culture.

Black Classical Pianists

Let’s first begin this list by discussing black classical pianists.  So we’ll kick off this list with Anne Kennedy.

21. Anne Gamble Kennedy

Anne Kennedy had to face much racism in her career. Early on, she was slated to appear as a piano soloist with the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, but the contract was cancelled a few months before the performance because the conductor was replaced with someone who is believed to hold racist beliefs.

However, Duke Ellington invited her to perform in New York with him and she soon launched a career after serving on the piano faculties of various institutions. Eventually she went back to her teaching roots serving a 32-year tenure as Fisk University.

After she married, her and her husband Matthew Kennedy traveled and performed widely as duo pianists specially known for their rendition of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos. After her retirement from teaching, she continued to play and was widely praised for many of her arrangements and performances.

Talented pianist Nina Kennedy is the daughter of Anne and Matthew Kennedy.

20. Donal Fox

One of the more contemporary classical pianists, Donal Fox tackles jazz and baroque pieces. He fuses jazz, Afro-latin and classical pieces and improvisations together to create intricate new works. Through this work he became an internationally acclaimed as a pianist and a composer.

Donal Fox

Fox enjoyed playing on Steinway pianos to do is de- and reconstruction of baroque pieces. Through the adding of grooves and usage of composed themes to spring his improvisational genius, Fox was able to blend well-known classical pieces with bebops, twelve-tone techniques and even blues. Fox is still composing and creating to this day inspiring a new generation’s love and intrigue of classical pieces.

19. Florence Price

One of the most hidden figures in classical compositions in Florence Price. Born during the peak of segregation, her success was steeped in struggle and was hard-earned. Picking the piano up at the age of 4, Price had her first composition published at 11. She was the first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer and have one of her compositions performed by a major orchestra.

Florence Price

Price found her composition stride while in college when a fellow composer and professor encouraged her to express Black folk melodies and rhythms within her music. That is what her symphonies are meant to be, the story of the African American people.

Price had to fight through much segregation during her life and career including relocating her family to Chicago after a series of lynchings within her hometown. During her time in Chicago she was unable to find employment and was denied admission to the all-white Arkansas Music Teacher Association. Thanks to that she established her own music studio teaching piano, music theory and composing pieces for her students that were eventually published in lesson books.

Her big break came in 1932 after having some success entering composing competitions. She entered and won the Wanamaker Music Composition Contest for multiple pieces which attracted the attention of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director. From there her work continued to be recognized until its decline in the late 1950s leading to her relatively unknown status today.

18. Margaret Bonds

Margaret Bonds is yet another hidden gem within the classical music industry. Taught by the formerly mentioned Florence Price, Margaret was a young success completing her first composition at 5 years old. She continued to play and compose until she became the first African American soloist to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at 20.

Margaret Bonds

After moving to New York six years later, Bonds developed her performance and compositional style until she reached the pinnacle of her career in the 1950s. While she was educated as a classical musician, her work was strongly influenced by jazz and blues.

Her most performed work, The Ballad of Brown King, combines the styles with African origin like Jazz, calypso and African spirituals. Bonds is credited with creating interest in traditional African American musical forms, history and culture despite her music remaining largely uncirculated.

17. Julius Eastman

Julius Eastman was almost forgotten by society. He died alone and without any of his music, so it is only thanks to his fan base and a researcher friend did his music survive to today.

Julius Eastman

Eastman came to recognition with Buffalo University’s 70s avant-garde SEM ensemble and made a name for himself through bravura piano and vocal recitals. However, working in a predominantly straight, white environment as an out gay, black man made him increasingly uncomfortable.

He went to immerse himself in the 1976 downtown scene of New York as the lower east gay side was beginning to emerge. Unfortunately he struggled with drugs and alcohol and was eventually evicted from his apartment, his belongings and music being brought to the city dump.

His music challenged the social norms and beliefs of the late 1970s. With titles such as Gay Guerrilla and Evil N******, Eastman brought complexities to the music scene and jarred all of his audiences. The music itself was challenging, irreverent and occasionally ecstatic and was almost lost to us. Thankfully his fan base and composer friends have begun to revive it with a new look so that we can enjoy it too.

16. Thomas Wiggins

Thomas Wiggins was born into slavery, blind, and autistic in the late 19th century. Despite these perceived shortcomings, his gift and talent for music was quickly noticed by others as he was able to perform any musical piece to its entirety with little effort or repetitive hearings.

Thomas Wiggins

Due to his and his family’s enslavement, he was taken advantage of from an early age, touring the U.S. at only 8 years old. At 10, he became the first Black musician to give a headline performance at the White House.

Eventually he was taken to Europe and became an internationally recognized performer. His published compositions embodied the 19th century romanticism movement with a wide range of emotion and narrative detail.

You can read more about the incredible life and genius of Thomas Wiggins here.

Best Blues Piano Players

Let’s now move onto some of the top Blues piano players.

15. Scott Joplin

Born in the late 1860s, Scott Joplin fundamentally changed the American music scene with his ragtime compositions. Taking up the piano as a child, Joplin became a travelling musician in his teenage years playing in bars and dance halls. It was in these places Joplin found new musical forms featured that would form the basis of ragtime.

Scott Joplin

Joplin’s biggest hit, The Maple Leaf Rag is one of the biggest selling ragtime songs in history with more than a million copies sold. With its success, Joplin continued to focus on composing more ragtime pieces earning acclaim for himself as the genre quickly took the country by storm. Even though white critics made comments about the genre’s African American origins and radical forms, Joplin made sure the genre received its proper due.

While Joplin died in 1917, the ragtime genre was resurrected in the 1940s and again in the 70s thanks to his composition The Entertainer becoming the theme song for the hit movie The Sting. Joplin received a post humorous Pulitzer Prize as an honor for shaping the genre that influenced decades of music. Known as the “king of ragtime” Joplin earned his place on this list of best black piano players.

14. Ray Charles

Often called the ‘father of soul’ Ray Charles is best known for his pioneering of the soul sound in the 1950’s by combining the R&B, pop, country, gospel and jazz genres. He began his piano career in a neighborhood café at 5 years old before he lost his sight to glaucoma two years later. It was at the state school for the blind and deaf that he learned to read, write, and arrange music in braille before leaving at the age of 15 to play piano professionally.

Ray Charles

His early performances were influenced by the works of Nat King Cole and Charles Brown before Charles developed his own distinctive sound in his first single Confession Blues. With its success on the R&B charts, Charles continued to release songs until a year later his song I Got a Woman which was the first soul fusion of gospel and R&B. He played on many different pianos, but his was most commonly known as a Yamaha artist.

Charles was able to touch music of all genres, including a No. 6 success in pop. He built his career on the immediacy of emotion in his music and performances eventually winning numerous Grammys including the lifetime achievement award. He was ranked #10 in the Rolling Stones magazine’s Top 100 Artists of all time and was inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame.

13. Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys is one of the most well-known contemporary black female pianists. After being gifted a piano and starting her studies at the age of 7 Keys focused on classical and jazz music. Eventually she began composing her own musical masterpieces on her piano of choice, the Yamaha silent pianos (C6S and C7S), seven years later. Her compositions include modern influences with roots in the sounds of soul artists like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

Alicia Keys

Her blend of R&B and soul music found her enormous success in the early 2000’s with her debut album Songs in A Minor which went platinum 5 times over and earned 5 Grammys including best new artist. Keys continued to release No. 1 albums and grow as a musician and performer. Another stand out album was the release of Unplugged which featured acoustic stripped-down versions of new songs, past hits, and covers of Aretha Franklin and Rolling Stones.

Alicia Keys stands out in today’s era of music. Her songs continue to explore topical issues within their lyrics and she infuses them with optimistic tones. She uses her platform to bring awareness to the issues that she believes like participating in the women’s march of 2017.

12. Otis Spann

Otis Spann liked to hide in the background remaining an accompanist for most of his career additionally spending most of it with the Muddy Waters band. However, that did not stop him from becoming considered one of Chicago’s leading post-war blues pianists.

Otis Spann

Beginning his piano studies at the age of 5 and learning the rudiments from Friday Ford, Spann was hired to play professionally after winning an Alamo talent show at 8 years old. He found inspiration within Big Maceo and was playing with bands around Chicago by 14 eventually replacing him in the Muddy Waters.

It was with this band that Otis Spann gained him fame developing a unique and formidable blues approach in his boogie-woogie rooted playing style. He was known as one of the best accompanists of all time with the ability to make anyone sound great.

Eventually in 1969, Spann decided to leave the band and go solo with his release of Cryin’ Time. One of his most notable songs, A Left Hand Like A God, is considered the ultimate development of the boogie-woogie piano. Spann recorded his final solo album only a year later before dying a few weeks later from cancer. Despite his short solo career and majority of time spent in the background, he is one of the best black pianists of all time.

11. Champion Jack Dupree

Earning his nickname “Champion” from his previous career as a prizefighter, Jack Dupree may be another hidden name to appear on this list as a blues pioneer. He was notoriously vague about his beginnings, the only explicit detail being that he grew up as an orphan.

Champion Jack Dupree

He learned the piano from Willie Hall and eventually made his recording debut in 1940 for OKeh Records. Dupree’s music is said to have had a strong New Orleans touch despite his professional move to Chicago. His lyrics  had a rowdy sense of down-home humor.

After his recording debut, Dupree spent much of his time in New York and quickly became a prolific recording artist. He had an earthy soul to his works that captured the spirit of the vanished New Orleans music age that went unrecorded. This age of music was only preserved by Dupree’s playing, earning him a spot on this list of the best black piano players.

Black Jazz Players

10. Bud Powell

Bud Powell is one of the most influential jazz pianists of his time and the present style as well despite the immense amount of adversity he had to overcome. He was one of the first pianists to play lines originally conceived by the bebop horn players and created a style that exuded emotion and power. He also was one of the first to ditch the normal left-hand notions and replace it with quick two- or three- note syncopated rhythms to support the longer right hand melodies.

Bud Powell

Beginning to study piano at the age of 5, Powell quickly learned how to imitate the legendary artists of his time including his biggest inspiration, Art Tatum. In 1941 he was landing gigs in Harlem clubs and making a name for himself until trumpeter Cootie Williams invited him on tour. While on tour Powell was brutally beaten by the police, an even that altered his life and career forever.

After the beating Powell went from hospital to hospital and was eventually institutionalized for months. Despite this, after his release he was still able to play the piano and continued his rise to fame into the peak releasing some of his most brilliant work such as Un Poco Loco, Wail, and Oblivion.

However, his 1951 arrest for drug possession sent him to another mental institution for a year and a half and after that Powell’s playing was never the same. A few years after his release he lapsed back into self-destructive tendencies like alcohol dependency. Unfortunately, his life ended prematurely at the age of 41, although if he had been able to grow there’s no predicting what he would have developed into.

9. Hazel Scott

Hazel Scott’s life was full of music from the start, so while she may be another surprise name on this list, she definitely deserves to be here. Her mother was a pianist and the single greatest influence in Scott’s life. Scott was able to play piano by ear since the age of 3, and thanks to her mother’s connections had the opportunity to learn from musical greats like Art Tatum and Lester Young.

Hazel Scott

Scott auditioned for prestigious Julliard at 8 years old and was given a scholarship to be instructed privately by Oscar Wagner. By 13 she was playing professionally with her mother’s jazz band and going off on her own at 15. Scott was able to bring audiences thanks to her penchant for “jazzing the classics” and creating her own flair.

Throughout her career Hazel Scott had to fight racism, refusing to play for segregated audiences and having a short stint in Hollywood as the first African American woman to have her own TV show before being accused of communist ties. After this she moved to Paris and joined the Black expatriate community opening her house as a meeting place for Black artists and musicians.

While Scott returned to the US in 1967, her fame was now behind her. The American music scene had moved on from jazz to Motown and British pop, but Scott continued to play in small clubs and made a few recordings for her fan base before sadly passing away in 1981.

8. Duke Ellington

With a career spanning more than half a century, most of the documented history of jazz, and known as one of the greatest American pianists, jazz composers and band leads of his time, it’s know question that Duke Ellington makes it onto this list. As one of the originators of the big band jazz sound, he created one of the most distinctive ensemble sounds in western music becoming the star of the swing era in the early 1930s.

Duke Ellington

Beginning piano lessons at 7 and ten years later playing professionally, Ellington began leading a sextet that eventually grew to a 10 and later 14 piece band. It was with this band he developed his early “jungle style” influenced by ragtime and adapting his style for the orchestral purpose.

By selecting his bandmates for their individuality, the expertise of Ellington’s ensemble allowed him to break away from the normal conventions of band-section scoring using new harmonies to blend his musician’s individual sounds. This succession of soloists accompanied by the ensemble colors led Ellington to the high point of his career in the 1940s. It was then he composed several of his brilliant pieces and began to experiment with genres outside of jazz such as composing within classical forms.

Ellington and his band toured the world and spread music throughout. He led his band until shortly before his death in 1974.

7. Herbie Hancock

Another young prodigy, Herbie Hancock played the first movement of a Mozart concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the age of 11. After graduating college, he joined trumpeter Donald Byrd’s group before moving on to tour with Miles Davis. His clever accompaniments and straightforward bebops were in high demand.

Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock was all about the fusion of styles. After playing in Davis’s first jazz-rock experiments, he began to lead fusion bands and play electronic keyboards. It was the combination of rhythms and layers of sounds on the synthesizer characterized most of his work.

He composed many songs extensively in the bebop and modal jazz settings, however his experimentation never ceased in jazz-rock. Since the mid-1970s he has favored the Fasioli pianos and been more focused on the acoustic piano duets with former Davis associates and projects with the likes of Chick Corea.

6. Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams was an obvious choice for this list as she touched the musical styles and lives of many other influential black pianists. In the 1930s she was arranging for all of the greats including Duke Ellington before moving in the 1940s to be involved with the younger group such as Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk.

Mary Lou Williams

As a child prodigy, Williams was trained by her pianist mother to be able to pick out a simple tune by the age of 2, was performing at 10 and made her big bands debut at 12. She was able to play for artists like Fats Waller before moving to Oklahoma with her husband and devoting her arranging skills to his band. She became well known for her amazing piano solos and originality within composition even being widely credited as a major influence for the Southwest Big Band sound.

5. Art Tatum

Art Tatum was all about the improvisations. Despite being visually impaired from childhood, he displayed an early aptitude for music and began performing on local radio programs at 13. He moved to New York at 21 where he made his most impressive recordings during the 1930s and 40s helping him become considered as one of the greatest technical virtuosos in jazz.

Art Tatum

What really set Tatum apart from all other piano players was his improvisation techniques. He was known for the spontaneous insertion of new chord progressions into one or two measures and cascading notes that would weave in and out of time.

Tatum’s reharmonization oof pop tunes became a standard practice among modern jazz musicians. There are few jazz pianists after Tatum’s career that don’t incorporate at least one of Tatum’s favorite runs or embellishments in their own playing. He changed the improvisation game forever.

4. Hank Jones

One of the most underrated soloists, Hank Jones was always known for his accompanist performances. He worked with many different groups in many different styles and was known as one of the most accomplished sight readers in the jazz industry.\

Hank Jones

After beginning to play piano at the age of 13, in 1944 he was invited to New York by Lucky Thompson where he played with many different groups and artists before starting to tour three years later. He toured with many labels from the late 40’s and early 50s before moving on to work for CBS. It was here he discovered his passion for shows moving on eventually to work for Broadway before touring again worldwide in Japan.

Hank Jones kept his recordings going into the digital era of the 80s. He has earned several awards including ASCAP Jazz Living Legend and the lifetime achievement award at the Grammys, including being put on this list.

3. Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk changed the jazz game forever. It is interesting to say given that he was almost invisible for the first half of his career until his 1956 album Brilliant Corners. This album’s innovative, technically demanding and complex sound gained Monk his popularity and national recognition.

Thelonious Monk

In classical Monk fashion, he began studying piano at 11 and by 13 was banned from entering the Apollo talent competition for winning too many times. He dropped out of high school at 17 to pursue his music career. He assembled a quartet to perform with despite the popularity of big band sounds at the time, he enjoyed the more intimate working environment that would allow him to experiment more freely with his music.

In 1941 he began playing at Minton’s playhouse with the band and helped to develop the school of jazz known as bebop. His first known recording was made three years later, but it wasn’t under his own name until he became the leader of the sextet in 1947 and recorded Blue Note.

Even though it took him a while to build up fame and recognition, once earned he stayed at the top for years. He went on tour of the U.S. and even made appearances in Europe before becoming one of four jazz musicians to ever be on the cover of Time Magazine

He retired in the 1970s and spent his final years in seclusion before passing away. Since he has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, featured on a postage stamp and added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.

2. Nat King Cole

Despite his eventual move to the singing industry and near-abandonment of his piano playing skills, Nat King Cole was one of the most influential pianists and small-group leaders of the swing era. He inspired great artists such as Oscar Peterson with his piano playing style.

Nat King Cole

Cole formed his first jazz group, The Royal Dukes, at 17 and in 1937 began playing in jazz clubs. Eventually he formed the King Cole trio that specialized in swing music, uniquely without a drummer. Cole’s playing was known for his compact and syncopated style with clean, spare and melodic phrases.

Even though his singing career took over his piano playing for most of his career, it was a regret the populace held as he was a beloved piano player. He would occasionally revisit his jazz roots on an outstanding album, but unfortunately never went fully back.

1) Stevie Wonder

Blind from birth, Stevie wonder became a skilled musician by the age of 8. He was a child prodigy that would be seen to develop into one of the most creative musical figures of the late 20th century.

Stevie Wonder

His recording debut at the age of 12 launched him into popularity with Motown Records backing him. He was a compelling performer and composer who by his mid-20s seemed to have conquered every idiom of African-American popular music.

His best work formed a link between the R&B and soul performers of the 50s and 60s, however in 1979 his recordings began to be sporadic and often felt as if they lacked focus leading to his decrease in popularity.

However, Wonder has won numerous awards for his lifetime career including 2 lifetime achievement awards and an induction into the rock and roll hall of fame. His is certain to be on this list of the best black piano players.

Check out this New York Times arrived articles about Stevie Wonder from 1976.

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