Black History Month: Influence of African-American musicians is undeniable

Hazel Scott was an accomplished classical and jazz pianist who stood up for racial justice.

Working as a composer and pianist, I draw inspiration from so many who have come before me. My early training was primarily classical. I studied the famous composers like Beethoven, Ravel and Mozart, whose work most people recognize. But, it was one thing to learn what my teachers gave me, and another thing to hear the popular music that was all around me. I learned quickly that the structure of much classical music was constantly being redefined and enhanced by musicians who pushed rhythm, form and melody in new directions. Many of these innovators were and are our Black brothers and sisters.

It’s February, Black History Month, and although we can’t contain the energy and beauty of their work in a mere month, we can pay homage to some of the greats. As a Colombian, I am fortunate to have been exposed to many diverse artists and have witnessed the fusion of many styles.

This month in my blog and on social media, I will be sharing the voices and works of some of my favorite African-American influences. Of course, you can expect familiar names like Count Bassie, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Art Tatum, Eroll Garner, and Etta James. But, I hope to share with you some lesser-known giants as well. In fact, I kicked off the month on my social media sites with a tribute to Ms. Hazel Scott, a talented lady who not only played across genres with style, she also stood up for social justice. Later, I’ll share the work of the late Joe Arroyo, whose salsa music carries a Caribbean tone that blends elements of jazz and rock. And, it’s this kind of slipstream music that I find exciting.

Today, it’s impossible to appreciate music without recognizing the influence of numerous cultures. My Colombian heritage and interaction with people in various communities has allowed me to interact with talent across the spectrum. I dedicate this month to all the African-American musicians – known and unknown – who have added to the musical pool. When I compose pieces like Ensamble Barlovento, I know that I’m drawing upon my appreciation of the work of people like Erroll Garner, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Jimi Hendrix.


Ultimately, we are all humans on the same planet. Black, white, whatever … We are all connected. We need to appreciate all the diversity around us. By focusing on the best that connects us, we can enjoy all the facets of a rich, varied experience. I am deeply thankful for the work of so many Black musicians who have carved the musical landscape of my life.

I leave you with one of the most uplifting tunes by anyone of any race: “Love Train” by the O’Jays.

Ray Charles’ music has inspired me for decades.

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