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Allen, Steve (26 December 1921–30 October 2000), comedian, author, songwriter, was born Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen in New York City, the son of vaudeville comedians Carroll William Allen and Isabelle Donohue, who performed under the stage names Billy Allen and Belle Montrose. Literally born into show business, Allen toured the vaudeville circuit with his parents from infancy until his father died suddenly when Allen was only eighteen months old. Because his mother chose to continue her career, she left her young son in the care of her eccentric family in Chicago. In his first autobiography, ...

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Arlen, Harold (15 February 1905–23 April 1986), songwriter, was born Hyman Arluck in Buffalo, New York, the son of Samuel Arluck, a cantor. His mother’s name is not known. Arlen began his singing career performing in his father’s synagogue’s choir. His musical performing career began at age fifteen when, as a ragtime pianist, he formed the local Snappy Trio, which performed at small clubs and parties and on scenic cruises of Lake Erie. The trio grew into the Yankee Six and then into the larger Buffalodians. With this enlarged band Arlen traveled in the mid-1920s to New York, where he soon found work as a singer-pianist on radio and record. He also wrote a few arrangements for the popular ...

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Barber, Samuel (09 March 1910–23 January 1981), composer, was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the son of Samuel LeRoy Barber, a physician, and Marguerite McLeod, an amateur pianist and sister of the noted opera singer Louise Homer. At age six, he first took lessons on the cello but quickly gave it up for piano study. In 1917 he wrote his first music composition, ...

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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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Berlin, Irving (11 May 1888–22 September 1989), songwriter and music publisher of the Tin Pan Alley era, was born Israel Baline in Tumen, in western Siberia, the son of Moses Baline, a cantor, and Leah Lipkin. Berlin was the youngest of eight children, six of whom emigrated with their parents to the United States in 1893 following a pogrom. After settling his family in a tenement on New York City’s Lower East Side, Berlin’s father could find only part-time employment as a kosher poultry inspector and manual laborer. The children were obliged to contribute to the family income. When not attending the local public school or receiving religious instruction at a ...

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Bernstein, Leonard (25 August 1918–14 October 1990), conductor and composer, was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the son of Samuel Bernstein, a supplier of barber and beauty products, and Jenny Resnick. He began to pursue musical activities with abandon at about the age of ten and as a teen performed in classical and popular venues, including staged operettas with friends, as a jazz pianist at parties, as piano soloist with the Boston Public School Orchestra, and by playing light classics on the radio for thirteen weeks in 1934. Bernstein’s consuming interest in music was not encouraged by his father, but he never seriously considered another career. In 1939 he received a B.A. cum laude in music from Harvard University, where his teachers included Heinrich Gebhard, ...

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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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Bloch, Ernest (24 July 1880–15 July 1959), composer and educator, was born in Geneva, Switzerland, the son of Maurice Bloch, a purveyor of tourist merchandise, and Sophie Brunschwig. Bloch senior, an official of the small Jewish community in Legnau, in the Canton of Aargau, provided his family with an Orthodox environment. Bloch exhibited an early interest in music, and during his teenage years he received training in violin from Albert Goss and Louis Etienne-Reyer and in solfège and composition from Émile Jaques-Dalcroze. He left school at the age of fourteen, shortly after his bar mitzvah. From 1896 to 1899 Bloch studied in Brussels, where his teachers included Eugène Ysaÿe, Franz Schörg, and François Rasse. Bloch’s compositions from this apprenticeship period reveal the influence of the Russian national school, particularly in matters of fluctuating meters, folk-flavored melodies, irregular rhythms, exotic scalar constructions, a propensity for modality, and coloristic scoring. His ...

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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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Caesar, Irving (04 July 1895–17 December 1996), songwriter, was born Isidore Caesar in New York City's Henry Street settlement, the son of Morris Caesar, the owner of a secondhand bookstore, and Sophia Selinger Caesar. He attended the Chappaqua Mountain Institute, graduated from New York City's Townsend Harris Hall High School in 1914, and was briefly enrolled at the City College of New York before going to Detroit in 1915 to work for the Ford Motor Company as a mechanic. Caesar also served as secretary to ...

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Carroll, Earl (16 September 1893–17 June 1948), theatrical producer and songwriter, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of James Carroll and Elizabeth Wills, hotelkeepers. At thirteen, Carroll became a program boy at a Pittsburgh theater. At seventeen, having graduated from Allegheny High School, he was assistant treasurer and box-office manager at another theater. He worked his passage around the world doing odd jobs, wrote for an English-language newspaper in the Orient, and, after visiting New York, became treasurer at Pittsburgh’s Nixon Theater....

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Carter, Elliott Cook, Jr. (11 Dec. 1908–5 Nov. 2012), composer, was born in New York City, the only child of Elliott Cook Carter, Sr. and Florence Chambers. His paternal grandfather, Eli C. Carter, started a business importing lace after the Civil War, and his father bought the highly successful business when Eli Carter retired. The young Elliott was expected to take over the family firm in due course, but he decided to pursue a career in music instead. Around ...

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Chadwick, George Whitefield (13 November 1854–04 April 1931), composer and music educator, was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, the son of Alonzo Calvin Chadwick, an insurance agent, and Hannah Godfrey Fitts. Both his parents were musically inclined. His father had been the president of the Martin Luther Music Association of Boscawen, New Hampshire, and was a sponsor of a singing school, where he had met his wife. Chadwick’s mother died eleven days after he was born. His father remarried and sent Chadwick, still an infant, to live with his grandparents for the next three years. When Chadwick was reunited with his father and stepmother, the family moved downriver to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where Alonzo became an insurance agent and participated in the local choral society, which performed at ...

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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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Chávez, Carlos (13 June 1899–02 August 1978), influential Mexican composer/conductor, author, and educator, of Spanish and some Indian descent, was born Carlos Antonio de Padua Chávez y Ramírez in Mexico City, the seventh son of Augustin Chávez, an inventor, and Juvencia Ramírez, a teacher. His mother supported the children after her husband’s death in 1902. Chávez began his musical studies at an early age and studied piano, first with his elder brother Manuel, then with Asunción Parra, and later with composer and pianist Manuel M. Ponce (1910–1914) and pianist and teacher Pedro Luis Ogazón (1915–1920). Chávez credited Ogazón with introducing him to the best classical and Romantic music and with developing his musical taste and technical formation. He received little formal training in composition, concentrating instead on the piano, analysis of musical scores, and orchestration. Chávez’s maternal grandfather was Indian, and from the time Chávez was five or six his family frequently vacationed in the ancient city-state of Tlaxcala, the home of a tribe that opposed the Aztecs. He later visited such diverse Indian centers as Puebla, Jalisco, Nayarit, and Michoacan in pursuit of Indian culture, which proved a significant influence on his early works....

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Clayton, Buck (12 November 1911–08 December 1991), jazz trumpeter and arranger, was born Wilbur Dorsey Clayton in Parsons, Kansas, the son of Simeon Oliver Clayton, a musician, and Aritha Anne Dorsey, a schoolteacher, pianist, and singer. His father’s church orchestra rehearsed at their home, and in his youth Clayton experimented with different instruments, learning their basic scales. He took piano lessons from ages six to eighteen. At about age sixteen he was deeply impressed by a trumpeter in ...

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Cohan, George M. (3 or 4 July 1878–05 November 1942), performer, writer of songs, musicals, and plays, and producer, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of Jeremiah “Jerry” John Cohan and Helen “Nellie” Frances Costigan. (Cohan’s middle initial stands for Michael.) At the age of seven, Cohan was sent to the E Street School in Providence. His formal schooling lasted six weeks, after which the school sent him to rejoin his parents and sister, Josie, in their theatrical travels. He took violin lessons and played the instrument both in the theater orchestra and in a trick violin act he devised. The Cohans went on their first road show as a family in 1889; when the show failed they went back to ...

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Coltrane, John (23 September 1926–17 July 1967), jazz saxophonist and composer, was born John William Coltrane in Hamlet, North Carolina, the son of John Robert Coltrane, a tailor, and Alice Blair. Coltrane grew up in the High Point, North Carolina, home of his maternal grandfather, the Rev. William Blair, a distinguished figure in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. Coltrane’s mother studied music in college, and his father was a country violinist; at age twelve Coltrane began to play the E-flat horn, then the clarinet in a community band, and he immersed himself in practice and study. In high school he discovered jazz and turned to the alto saxophone, influenced by the recorded work of ...

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Cooke, Sam (22 January 1931–11 December 1964), singer-songwriter, was born Samuel Cook in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the son of Charles Cook, a minister in the Church of Christ (Holiness), and Annie May Carl. After Sam’s father lost his position as houseboy for a wealthy cotton farmer as a result of the Great Depression, the family migrated to Chicago, where Reverend Cook became assistant pastor of Christ Temple (Holiness) and a laborer in the stockyards. The family lived in Bronzeville, Chicago’s severely overcrowded and impoverished black section. Young Sam was educated at nearby schools and gained musical experience by sneaking into taverns to hear pop tunes but mostly by hearing and singing gospel music at church. There he started a gospel group, the Singing Children; later he joined the Teenage Highway QC’s and became more widely known throughout the nation. He graduated from Wendell Phillips High School in 1948. About that time he spent ninety days in jail on a morals charge that stemmed from a paternity suit....

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Copland, Aaron (14 November 1900–02 December 1990), composer, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His mother, Sarah Mittenthall, and father, Harris Morris Copland, were shopkeepers and had little background in music. Indeed, Copland recalled that when he wanted to take piano lessons “my parents were of a mind that enough money had been invested in the musical training of four older children with meager results and had no intention of squandering further funds on me.” His parents relented, however, and Copland began his musical studies, starting piano lessons at age seven. While his pianistic talents were fine, Copland also developed an interest in piano improvisation, a proclivity that, as a teenager, led him into composition....