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Ayler, Albert (12 July 1936–05 November 1970), composer and musician, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Edward Ayler, a semiprofessional violinist and tenor saxophonist, and Myrtle Hunter. Albert and his brother Donald, who later became a professional jazz trumpet player, received musical training early in life from their father. In second grade Albert performed alto saxophone recitals in school. He performed duets with his father (who also played alto saxophone) in church. Together they listened to a great deal of swing and bebop music, both on recordings and at jazz concerts....

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Bacon, Ernst (26 May 1898–16 March 1990), composer and pianist, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Charles S. Bacon, a physician, and Maria von Rosthorn. He was also active as a conductor, teacher, and writer. His music education included the study of music theory with P. C. Lutkin at Northwestern University (1915–1918) and with the composers ...

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Baermann, Carl (09 July 1839–17 January 1913), pianist and composer, was born in Munich, Germany, the son of Karl Bärmann (1811–1885), a noted clarinetist. His mother’s name is unknown. His grandfather, Heinrich Joseph Bärmann, also was a celebrated clarinetist, whose masterly playing inspired both Mendelssohn and Weber to compose works for him; his granduncle Karl Bärmann (1782–1842) was a famous bassoonist. Carl Baermann studied in Munich with Franz Lachner and Peter Cornelius, made his professional debut at age fifteen, playing Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G Minor, op. 25, and later studied with Liszt, with whom he formed a lasting friendship. Baermann and Beatrice von Dessauer, from an elite Bavarian family, married in Munich in 1865....

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Bartók, Béla (25 March 1881–26 September 1945), composer and pianist, was born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (now Sînnicolau Mare, Romania), the son of Béla Bartók, the headmaster of an agricultural school, and Paula Voit, a schoolteacher. Bartók received his first piano lessons at age five from his mother, who, after the death of Bartók’s father in 1888, supported the family through a succession of teaching positions. At age nine, Bartók began composing short pieces for piano, and in 1892 he made his first public appearance as a pianist. His family settled in Pozsony (Bratislava) for five years between 1894 and 1899, and Bartók studied harmony and piano there with László Erkel and Anton Hyrtl....

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Count Basie, c. 1946-1948. © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-0047 DLC).

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Basie, Count (21 August 1904–26 April 1984), jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader, was born William Basie in Red Bank, New Jersey, the son of African-American parents Harvey Lee Basie, an estate groundskeeper, and Lillian Ann Chiles, a laundress. Basie was first exposed to music through his mother’s piano playing. He took piano lessons, played the drums, and acted in school skits. An indifferent student, he left school after junior high and began performing. He organized bands with friends and played various jobs in Red Bank, among them working as a movie theater pianist. In his late teens he pursued work in nearby Asbury Park, but he met with little success. Then, in the early 1920s, he moved to Harlem, where he learned from the leading pianists of the New York “stride” style, ...

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Beck, Johann Heinrich (12 September 1856–26 May 1924), conductor, composer, and violinist, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Charles Beck, a businessman, and Rebecca Butler. He was one of five children, all boys, all of whom played the violin. He was educated in Cleveland and spent most of his life there, although he attended the Leipzig Conservatory from 1879 to 1882. He made his acclaimed European debut at the Leipzig Gewandhaus as violinist in his own String Quartet in C Minor. His diploma read in part: “In Theory Mr. Beck possesses highly advanced knowledge, in practical Composition, ...

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Bergmann, Carl (12 April 1821–10 August 1876), conductor, cellist, and composer, was born in Ebersbach, Saxony, the son of middle-class parents. His talent for music manifested itself early, and he was a pupil of Adolph Zimmerman at Zittau as early as 1827 and later studied with the organist-composer Adolph Hesse at Breslau. By 1842 he was playing cello and occasionally conducting the orchestra in Breslau and in these capacities toured central and eastern European cities between 1842 and 1848. His early compositions, written before 1848, apparently included an opera and a symphony....

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Denzil Best With Billy Bauer. © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-0075 DLC).

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Best, Denzil (27 April 1917–25 May 1965), jazz drummer and composer, was born Denzil de Costa Best in New York City, the son of immigrant parents from Barbados; his mother was Josephine Best (his father’s name is unknown). Best married Arline Riley (date unknown), with whom he had two daughters. Best began studying piano when he was six years old but later learned trumpet, which he played professionally in the mid-1930s with drummer Chris Columbus (Joe Morris). By the end of the decade he became associated with several seminal bop musicians playing at Minton’s nightclub in New York, including ...

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Blake, Eubie (07 February 1883–12 February 1983), composer and pianist, was born James Hubert Blake in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of John Sumner Blake, a stevedore, and Emily Johnston, a launderer. His father was a Civil War veteran, and both parents were former slaves. While the young Blake was a mediocre student during several years of public schooling, he showed early signs of musical interest and talent, picking out tunes on an organ in a department store at about age six. As a result, his parents rented an organ for twenty-five cents a week, and he soon began basic keyboard lessons with Margaret Marshall, a neighbor and church organist. At about age twelve he learned cornet and buck dancing and was earning pocket change singing with friends on the street. When he was thirteen he received encouragement from ragtime pianist Jesse Pickett, whom he had watched through the window of a bawdy house in order to learn his fingering. By 1898 he had steady work as a piano player in Aggie Shelton’s sporting house, a job that necessitated the lad’s sneaking out of his home after his parents went to bed. The objections of his deeply religious mother when she learned of his new career were only overcome by the pragmatism of his sporadically employed father, once he discovered how much his son was making in tips....

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Blind Tom (25 May 1849–13 June 1908), pianist and composer, was born Thomas Grimes in Harris County, Georgia, the son of Mingo Wiggins and Charity, slaves on the Wiley Jones plantation. His first master’s teenage daughter named him “Grimes” for an admirer of hers. Blind from birth, he was included when James N. Bethune, a Columbus, Georgia, lawyer-journalist who was referred to as either “Colonel” or “General” Bethune because of his service in the Georgia militia in 1830, purchased Tom’s parents in 1850. According to most accounts, Tom demonstrated his aptitude for music at age four, when he slipped into the big house and picked out several tunes on the piano he had heard Bethune’s daughters playing. Thereafter he was allowed access to the piano and received informal instruction from Bethune’s wife and daughter. When professional performers gave concerts in Columbus, the Bethunes hired them to play for Tom, thus enabling him to increase his repertoire. By his sixth birthday Tom had become a “prized possession,” with Bethune’s children exhibiting him to their neighbors....

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Bristow, George Frederick (19 December 1825–13 December 1898), violinist and composer, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of William Richard Bristow, a musician, and Anna Tapp. His musical training began at an early age with piano and violin lessons from his father, supplemented by instruction from one of the premier violinists of the day, ...

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Buck, Dudley (10 March 1839–06 October 1909), organist and composer, was born in Hartford, Connecticut, the son of Dudley Buck and Martha Church Adams. He grew up in the nineteenth-century small-town culture he would serve and develop. Unlike many masters of keyboard instruments, Buck began piano study relatively late (at age sixteen), and indeed his playing, while always solid, was never considered spectacular. His contributions lay in composition and, even more, in the organizational and entrepreneurial aspects of music making....

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Buckner, Milt (10 July 1915–27 July 1977), jazz pianist, organist, and arranger, was born Milton Brent Buckner in St. Louis, Missouri. Details of his parentage are unknown. His brother Ted was a jazz saxophonist who became a member of Jimmie Lunceford’s big band (the brothers were not related to jazz trumpeter Teddy Buckner)....

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Ole Bull. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-102595).

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Bull, Ole (05 February 1810–17 August 1880), concert violinist, composer, and patriot, was born Ole Bornemann Bull in Bergen, Norway, the son of Johan Storm Bull, an apothecary, and Anna Dorothea Geelmuyden. Musically precocious by age three, he was encouraged by his mother and his uncle, a good amateur cellist, who bought the child his first violin and persuaded the parents to engage an instructor, the closest brush Bull would have with formal violin study. Two years were spent with Johan H. Paulson, followed in 1822 by a six-year stint with Mathias Lundholm. Beyond this early foundation, Bull remained almost entirely self-taught, although he sometimes sought informal help from artists like Torgeir Augundson, the legendary Norwegian folk fiddler....

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Carr, Benjamin (12 September 1768–24 May 1831), composer, organist, and music publisher, was born in Holborn, England, the son of Joseph Carr, the owner of a music store in London, and Mary Jordan. Born into a musical family, Carr studied music with Samuel Arnold, a well-known opera composer, and Charles Wesley, an organist and composer of Methodist hymns. In addition to singing in concerts, Carr was involved with the London musical stage and wrote an opera, ...

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Charles, Ray (23 September 1930–10 June 2004), pop and jazz singer, pianist, and composer, was born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Georgia, the son of Bailey Robinson, a laborer, and Aretha Williams. Williams, a teenage orphan, lived in Greenville, Florida, with Robinson's mother and his wife, Mary Jane Robinson. The Robinson family had informally adopted her, and she became known as Aretha Robinson. Scandalously Aretha became pregnant by Bailey Robinson, and she briefly left Greenville late in the summer of 1930 to be with relatives in Albany for the baby's birth. Mother and child then returned to Greenville, and Aretha and Mary Jane shared Ray Charles's upbringing. He was deeply devoted to his mother and later recalled her perseverance, self-sufficiency, and pride as guiding lights in his life. His father abandoned the family and took another wife elsewhere....

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Ray Charles. Gelatin silver print, c. 1961, by Michel Salou. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.