top of page

Classical Music’s Racial Awakening – Was It All a Mirage?

Jennifer Grim

Nov 16, 2022

Until very recently, the long-established tradition of classical music organizations has been to base their programming on music of the Western European canon. From small chamber music series to large performing arts venues, most programming has centered around works and artists that are “bankable” with audience members. Perhaps we would see a piece or two by an underrepresented composer, or a separate series that presented artists of color. But still, those moments felt rare within the general landscape of the performing arts.

The racial awakening after the killing of George Floyd in 2020 sparked a knee-jerk reaction among white arts organizations to program underrepresented composers and performers. And with venues closed due to Covid, and no concert seats to fill, why not take a “risk” and present a virtual concert of works by Jessie Montgomery, Carlos Simon, or William Grant Still? What’s the harm?

But why did it take a brutal police killing and a global pandemic for presenters to start programming musicians of color on their series? And now, two years later, where do we stand?


I am a professional flutist who almost didn’t become one due to a lack of role models. Even though my classes were diverse, my extracurricular activities alternated between ballet, flute lessons, and Jack and Jill of America, a membership organization of mothers with children ages 2-19 dedicated to nurturing future African-American leaders. I never thought that being a professional musician was something someone like me could do.

As a young freelancer in New York in the early 2000s, I rarely encountered other instrumentalists who looked like me. My first professional encounter with a Black composer wasn’t until I worked with David Sanford and the New York-based ensemble Speculum Musicae in 2008. I played his piece, Dogma 74, and completely identified with it. David’s music is both serious and playful, taking elements of jazz improvisation and modernism and fusing them in a lively yet virtuosic style that is unique and accessible. The work is imbued with sonorities reminiscent of avant-garde jazz and playful improvisation, and it brought back the music I listened to throughout college: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Cecil Taylor.


bottom of page