Death of an African-American composer, 80

Death of an African-American composer, 80


norman lebrecht

March 14, 2018

Friends are reporting the passing of Olly Wilson, American composer, bass player and musicologist.

Originating from St Louis, Missouri, Olly obtained commissions from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic. In 1995 he was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters.

You can read an interview with him here.


  • Anna says:

    This headline, like many of the others on this site concerning people of African heritage, is extremely disturbing. I can understand why some might be turned off by the Classical music culture.

    • Kevin Scott says:

      Maybe to some folks it is a turn-off, but until society accepts this chapter of American music, black composers who have devoted themselves to writing contemporary classical music will continue to be addressed by race. As a black composer-conductor, I can tell you that it is great to hear people address my music as that of an American composer with no reference to race, ethnicity, sexuality or gender, and that’s how it should be. But for many of us who chose this avenue, there are those in our community that can’t understand why we decided to write music that – and this is based more on cultural and societal mores – is reserved for white Europeans who have money in the bank.

      Stereotyping a certain avenue of the populace? Sure, just as many of us who have written symphonies, concertos, operas, ballets, chamber music and other works deemed “classical” and when we mention to performers or lay listeners that we compose, the first thing they assume is that we’re composing jazz, R&B, gospel, soul, gutbucket blues or rap. Well…we’re guardians of a legacy that stems back to the Chevalier de Saint-Georges (not American, but we still hold him as one of our founding fathers) to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (again not American, but he thought of settling here and taking up citizenship) to Scott Joplin, William Grant Still, R. Nathaniel Dett and the generations that followed up to the present. Some of us compose in a grand modernist tradition, and some of us infuse our personal vision of contemporary concert music with many of the styles that are a part of our musical heritage, and some of us have a very Eurocentric view, yet when it is all said and done, the music produced by a black composer should be viewed as something different and special.

      We should be known as American composers who happen to be of African ancestry and heritage, but until society can see that and accept us as American composers regardless of who or what we are, we’re just as proud to be known as black or African-American composers.

  • Anna says:

    It would be much better to just say “American Composer”. Why bring attention to race?

    • Jimmy Carl Black says:

      The phony indignation is piling up, and the foaming-at-the-mouth social justice army is amassing due to a slip of the pen.

    • Sharon says:

      Because in this case, for a man of his age being African American and making it in the classical music biz, especially as a composer, was a tremendous achievement, both because of barriers in the field and the expense of the training. Now if we are discussing a 40 year old I can understand that describing him as “African American” might be considered profiling

    • Bruce says:

      Anna – Read Kevin Scott’s response to your earlier comment. If you’re open to learning, you might learn something.

      • Anna says:

        I understand Kevin Scott’s comment.
        The thing that I was really objecting to was the original title, “Death of an Afro-American Composer.” “Afro-American” is a bit different than “African American”…….

  • Leonard Slatkin says:

    It was my pleasure to get to know Olly from my early days as assistant conductor with the St. Louis Symphony. His music sparkles with colorful instrumentation and a combination of contemporary as well as traditional harmonic and rhythmic intensity. He will be sorely missed.