This Week in Piano History: National Black Women in Jazz and the Arts Day

Happy National Black Women in Jazz and the Arts Day! Created by the organization Black Women in Jazz, this day celebrates the remarkable impact of Black women in jazz and all the arts. Today, we are highlighting several Black women pianists and composers who have made special contributions to our field.

Nina Simone, born February 21, 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, was a jazz singer, pianist, and civil rights leader. A child prodigy, Simone studied at the Juilliard School of Music as a classical pianist before becoming interested in jazz composition. Simone recorded over forty albums and received four nominations for a Grammy Award. She received multiple honorary degrees from institutions including Amherst College, Malcolm X College, and The Curtis Institute of Music. One of her most significant works is “Mississippi Goddam, a song which reflected on murders of multiple Black people including Emmett Till. The song challenges listeners to consider the atrocities of racism in the United States. Interested to hear Simone perform this important song? Listen to this recording from 1964. Also, check out this article below about the Nina Simone Piano Competition, founded by pianist Awadagin Pratt.

Nina Simone performs “Mississippi Goddam.
Margaret Bonds’ Troubled Waters performed by pianist Samantha Ege.

Composer, pianist, and teacher Margaret Bonds was born on March 3, 1913 in Chicago, Illinois. Bonds is often connected to composer Florence Price, with whom she studied piano and composition throughout high school. She later performed Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, becoming the first African American soloist to perform with the orchestra.1 Bonds studied at Northwestern University as well as the Juilliard School of Music. While in New York City and Los Angeles, Bonds was active as a teacher and arts leader, creating performance opportunities for Black musicians in her community. She is well known especially for her spirituals, songs, and choral works. Interested to hear Bond’s famous composition Troubled Waters? Listen to this recording by pianist Samantha Ege.

Dr. Valerie Capers is a pianist, composer, and arts advisor. The first person to graduate from the Juilliard School of Music with a bachelor and master’s degree who is also blind, Capers has served as a faculty member for multiple important conservatories including the Manhattan School of Music and the City University of New York. She has received four honorary doctorates including an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Susquehanna University, recognizing her tremendous contributions to jazz and classical music. Capers is well-known for her intermediate-level collection titled Portraits in Jazz, which contains twelve pieces in varying jazz styles. Want to learn more about Caper’s life as a musician and composer? Watch this video in which she shares her experiences.

Dr. Valerie Capers shares about her life and her music.
The New York Philharmonic rehearses Tania León’s Pulitzer-Prize winning piece, Stride.

Originally from Havana, Cuba, Tania León is a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer as well as a conductor and educator. Among her many other awards are four honorary doctorates from conservatories such as Oberlin Conservatory of Music and The Curtis Institute of Music. Beginning in September 2023, León will serve as Composer-in-Residence for the London Philharmonic Orchestra for two seasons. Her compositions can be heard by top-tier orchestras around the world including the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In addition to her accomplishments as a composer, León has served as a founding member of several important arts organizations including Composers Now, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Son Sonora Ensemble. Interested in hearing some of her work? Listen to this excerpt from rehearsals for her Pulitzer Prize-winning work Stride, performed by the New York Philharmonic.

Currently serving as the Eleanor Sokoloff Chair in Piano Studies at The Curtis Institute of Music, Michelle Cann has performed with orchestras around the world including the Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and many others. In 2022, the Sphinx Organization recognized her accomplishments, awarding her their 2022 Sphinx Medal of Excellence. Since 2016, Cann has championed the Piano Concerto in One Movement by Florence Price, whose music she frequently performs. Besides maintaining an active performance and teaching career, Cann helps create opportunities for young musicians in Philadelphia. She has served in the organization Play on Philly, directing multiple children’s choruses. Want to hear one of Cann’s performances? Listen to this recording of her performing Florence Price’s Sonata in E Minor.

Michelle Cann performs Florence Price’s Piano Sonata in E Minor.


  1. Barbara Garvey Jackson and Dominique-René de Lerma, “Bonds [Richardson], Margaret Allison,” Grove Music Online, 30 Sep. 2020; Accessed 17 Feb. 2023,

Jackson, Barbara Garvey, and Dominique-René de Lerma. “Bonds [Richardson], Margaret Allison.” Grove Music Online. 30 Sep. 2020; Accessed 17 Feb. 2023. 

Neal, Mark Anthony. “Simone, Nina.” Grove Music Online. 31 Jan. 2014; Accessed 17 Feb. 2023. 

Tucker, Sherrie. “Women in jazz.” Grove Music Online. 2003; Accessed 17 Feb. 2023.

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