Black History Month: Music Milestones

In a continuation of our Black History Month series, today we’ll be focusing on music milestones for and by Black Americans. There’s a lot to cover, and I’m sure I didn’t even get it all, so today we’re covering the late 1800s until the end of the 1940s. Let’s go!

Late 1800s

1892 – Sissieretta Jones performs at Carnegie Music Hall

In 1892, vocalist Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones became the first African American to perform at the Carnegie Music Hall in New York. She performed both opera and popular music over her career. Her other accomplishments include performing at Madison Square Garden, touring the world, and performing for 4 US presidents and various European royals.

The Carnegie Hall, which opened in 1891, is still around today.

Read more about Sissieretta Jones.

1900s – 1939

1920 – Mamie Smith records at Okeh Studios

In 1920, performer Mamie Smith went to Okeh Studios to record vocals on a number of songs for producer/composer Perry Bradford. The collection of songs is now considered one of the first blues records. The release, which sold over 75,000 copies in the first few months, helped spur the signing of more Black women to popular labels, as blues increased in popularity.

Read more about Mamie Smith.

1935 – The Benny Goodman Trio forms

In 1935, The Benny Goodman Trio formed, becoming one of the earliest known interracial performance groups. The band consisted of Benny Goodman on clarinet, Gene Krupa on drums, and Teddy Wilson on piano. The group’s first public performance took place in 1936, at The Congress Hotel. As such, Wilson became one of the first Black musicians to play prominently in an interracial group. In 1955, Wilson appeared as himself in The Benny Goodman Story. He also taught at Juilliard during the 1950s.

Read more about The Benny Goodman Trio.

1938 – From Spirituals to Swing concert takes over Carnegie Hall

On December 23, 1938, the first From Spirituals to Swing concert took place at Carnegie Hall. The event, produced by John Hammond, aimed to showcase African American musical history, from spirituals up to the current big band swing music. It featured performers such as The Count Basie Orchestra and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Hammond had difficulty finding funding, due to the lineup and integrated audience. The New Masses, a paper tied to the American Communist Party, funded the event. It sold out and due to the success, a second performance was held on December 24, 1939 featuring many of the same performers as the first event.

Read more about From Spirituals to Swing

1939 – Marian Anderson performs at the Lincoln Memorial

In 1939, The Daughters of the American Revolution prohibited Marian Anderson from performing to an integrated audience at Constitution Hall. The event pushed her into the spotlight, and First Lady Eleanor and President Franklin Roosevelt helped arrange for her to perform an Easter concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Over 75,000 people watched her performance, and millions tuned in on the radio.

The Easter concert is just one of Marian Anderson’s many accomplishments. In 1955, she became the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. In addition to being a successful performer, who performed both spirituals and operas, and performed with numerous renowned orchestras, she was also a UN delegate on the Human Rights Committee and a Goodwill Ambassador for the US Department of State. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, the Congressional Gold Medal in 1977, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, the National Medal of Arts in 1986, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991.

Read more about Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial

Join us on Friday are we continue our Black History Month: Music Milestones series through the 1900s.

If you haven’t already, be sure to read our other Black History Month content, including our Event Guide, Punk Rock Bookshelf BHM Edition, and our essential resource list.

What have you learned or shared this Black History Month? Let us know in the comments!

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