01 February 2022
By Ellie Palmer
February marks Black History Month across North America; a time to remember the important events that have happened throughout black history.
There are a whole host of names that could have been included on this list: Herbie Hancock, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum, Count Basie, Dorothy Donegan and so many more.
It was almost impossible for us to only highlight five, but we wanted to put a spotlight on those pianists that were the 'first' to achieve something as an African/Caribbean American!
W.T Talbert (Birth date unknown)
Carnegie Hall in 1895. ©Byron Bros.
We start with a pianist who, despite being relatively unknown (information about him on Google is sparse, as are pictures of him!), played a pivotal role in the 19th- 20th-century fight towards breaking racial boundaries in classical music.
Around 1892 Talbert became the first ever black pianist to appear at New York's Carnegie Hall, according to Carnegie Hall Archivist Rob Hudson, who comments, "While little is known about Talbert, we believe he may have been Thad Talbert, brother-in-law to Mary Burnett Talbert, a founder of the NAACP. Talbert was the headliner [at Carnegie Hall, pictured], and he was joined by a band of other African American performers."
Thomas Wiggins (1849-1908)
©Golder & Robinson, N.Y
Wiggins, also known as 'Blind Tom', was a musical prodigy and one of the best known performing pianists of the 19th century. He was born into slavery in 1850, medically blind, and very quickly it became obvious just how musically talented he was.
Whilst he may not have notably been the 'first' to achieve a specific thing, he was something of a young genius, and a huge role model for other pianists and music lovers that were trapped in slavery.
Unfortunately over his early life, he became a 'prized possession' of the family that had bought him, and was used up and down the country for entertainment – similar to a 'circus act'. He even appeared at a private concert at Willard Hall in Washington DC at the age of just 10. He spent the majority of his career under the legal guardianship of his slave owner, Colonel Bethune, who continued to control his performances and his earnings (Southall, Geneva H 2002).
Wiggins' musical genius, race and disability makes him one of classical music history's most important black pianists. His ability to work through the stigmatization of his race and disability in order to perform music is of huge importance to the history of music.
Scott Joplin (1868-1917)
Joplin, circa. 1900
How can we not include the King of Ragtime? Whilst Joplin was not the first pianist to compose a piece of ragtime music – Joplin said in 1913, "Ragtime music in America [has existed] ever since the Negro race has been here, but the white people took no notice of it until about twenty years ago [in the 1890s]" – he was responsible for writing the genre's first and most influential hit called 'The Maple Leaf Rag'. Joplin went on to composer over 100 ragtime pieces.
The success of the genre bled into the European classical music scene at the time. Composer Debussy famously utilised Ragtime in three of his piano pieces. Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky, Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud were also lovers of Ragtime and used elements of the genre in their works.
Florence Price (1887-1953)
© 'Who's Who of Colored America' (Thomas Yenser 1942): 417
Not only was Price a pianist, she was also a composer, organist and music teacher. She was in fact recognised as the first ever black woman to have her music played by a major orchestra. The piece that was chosen was her First Symphony, which won the orchestral category in the Wanamaker Music Composition Contest. That caught the attention of conductor Frederick Stock, who premiered the symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra the following year.
Price's music fell into obscurity in the years after her death in 1953. However, in 2009, a huge chunk of her works was found in her former summer house in Chicago. Thank goodness!
Hazel Scott (1920-1981)
Hazel Scott pictured in 1947. ©James Kriegsmann, New York
Trinidadian-born Scott was hugely influential; not just for her piano playing but also for her work during the civil rights movement as well as her work in the film industry.
As a child, she was something of a prodigy, notably gaining a scholarship to Juilliard at the age of eight. Her piano playing was all about stretching the boundaries and breaking the rules, and she would often break down familiar compositions by the likes of Beethoven and create something new from them. In a 1942 profile, TIME gave her a fascinating description: "Strange notes and rhythms creep in, the melody is tortured with hints of boogie-woogie, until finally, happily, Hazel Scott surrenders to her worse nature and beats the keyboard into a rack of bones."
She famously played two pianos at the same time in 1943, in a film called The Heat's On. The scene has since been viewed millions of times over the years around the world.
By 1945, she was earning the equivalent today of almost a million dollars a year. She used the platform she had to both advocate for the civil rights movement and to advance the role of black actors in the film industry, so much so that in 1950 she became the first ever black American to host her own TV show, The Hazel Scott Show.
Black History Month is an event that has been celebrated worldwide for decades. The UK first celebrated it in October 1987, and they continue to celebrate it each year in the month of October. The USA first celebrated it in 1970, with Canada also later recognising it in 1995.
You can find out more about Black History Month here.