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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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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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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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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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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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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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Cowell, Henry (11 March 1897–10 December 1965), composer, pianist, writer, and educator, was born Henry Dixon Cowell in Menlo Park, California, the son of Harry Cowell and Clarissa Dixon Cowell. Both parents were aspiring poets and writers; Harry, an Irish immigrant, worked as a linotypist. At the age of five Cowell began studying violin and showed signs of talent, but the lessons seemed to affect his health adversely and were discontinued. His parents divorced in 1903. Between 1907 and 1910 he and his mother lived in New York, penniless while she tried to earn a living by her writing, and stayed with relatives in Iowa and Kansas. In 1910 they returned to Menlo Park, where Cowell took jobs such as herding cows to support himself and his mother. Around this time Cowell came to the attention of the psychologist ...

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Ellington, Duke (29 April 1899–24 May 1974), jazz musician and composer, was born Edward Kennedy Ellington in Washington, D.C., the son of James Edward Ellington, a butler, waiter, and later printmaker, and Daisy Kennedy. The Ellingtons were middle-class people who struggled at times to make ends meet. Ellington grew up surrounded by a large, concerned family. His mother was particularly attached to him; in her eyes he could do no wrong. They belonged to Washington’s black elite, who put much stock in racial pride. Ellington developed a strong sense of his own worth and a belief in his destiny, which at times shaded over into egocentricity. Because of this attitude, and his almost royal bearing, his schoolmates early named him “Duke.”...

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Garner, Erroll (15 June 1921–02 January 1977), jazz pianist and composer, was born Earl (as “Erroll” was pronounced) Garner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of Louis Ernest Garner, an electrical worker, cook, musician, and dance- and pool-hall entrepreneur, and Estella Darcus, a dressmaker. At around age two Garner began reproducing on the piano the tunes he heard on the family piano rolls and phonograph. He never learned to read music and could imitate nonmusical sounds on the piano. Fellow musician Eddie Calhoun insisted that Garner could hear sounds “up into an animal range.” At age ten Garner became a soloist with the Kan D Kids, an African-American children’s troupe performing on radio station KQV. He played for church socials and in neighborhood houses on Friday nights (admission was ten cents). He played tuba for his high school band and tried all the other instruments. Garner later said that he loved big bands so much that he wanted to make his piano sound like an orchestra. By the time he withdrew from Westinghouse High School in 1939, Garner was locally famous. Playing “for no money, hour after hour” at clubs such as the Crawford Grill, run by the owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, a leading baseball team in the black leagues, Garner made two local recordings at age sixteen; he joined LeRoy Brown’s small band and visited New York. By 1939 he had briefly led a sextet and was working for Brown’s big band....

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Gershwin, George (26 September 1898–11 July 1937), pianist and composer of popular and classical music, was born Jacob Gershvin in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Morris Gershovitz and Rose Bruskin, Russian Jewish immigrants. Gershwin’s father, who changed the family name to Gershvin and later Gershwin, worked in the leather industry and at various times owned or operated a restaurant, bakery, cigar store, bookmaking establishment, and Russian bath. During Gershwin’s boyhood, his family moved more than twenty-five times within the poor neighborhoods of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn....

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Gillespie, Dizzy (21 October 1917–06 January 1993), jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and composer, was born John Birks Gillespie in Cheraw, South Carolina, the son of James Gillespie, a mason and musician, and Lottie Powe. Gillespie’s father kept his fellow band members’ instruments at their home, and thus from his toddler years onward Gillespie had an opportunity to experiment with sounds. He entered Robert Smalls public school in 1922. He was as naughty as he was brilliant, and accounts of fighting, showing off, and mischief extend from his youth into adulthood....

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Godowsky, Leopold (13 February 1870–21 November 1938), pianist, teacher, and composer, was born in Soshly, a small town not far from Wilno (now Vilnius) in Lithuania, the son of Mathew Godowsky, a physician, and Anna Lewin, both Polish Jews. When his father died of cholera eighteen months after Godowsky was born, the boy and his mother moved to nearby Schirwinty. There Godowsky came under the influence of Louis and Minna Passinock, who were friends of his mother’s. Neither of Godowsky’s parents was musical; the childless Passinocks, however, were amateur musicians and enthusiastic music lovers, and they immediately recognized Godowsky’s nascent musical ability. Louis Passinock, a violinist who ran a secondhand piano shop, began teaching Godowsky to play the violin when he was seven years old. Passinock discouraged him from learning to play the piano, on the theory that there were too many pianists, but his wife recognized Godowsky’s affinity for the instrument and encouraged his keyboard explorations. Godowsky basically taught himself to play the piano; by the age of five he was so advanced that he could play the transcription of Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor. He later vividly described his early attraction to the piano. “With me,” he wrote in ...

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Johnson, Francis (16 June 1792–06 April 1844), musician, bandleader, and composer, also known as Frank Johnson, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Little is known of his youth and parentage. Most sources cite Martinique as his birthplace, but Stephen Charpié's (1999) work with baptismal records establishes his birth date, birthplace, and status as a free African American. Though skilled at a number of instruments, Johnson seems to have first attained local prominence as a fiddler at dances, parties, and the like; there is some evidence that he played with Matthew “Matt” Black's band in the late 1810s. Johnson also seems to have received some limited instruction during this period from Richard Willis, an Irish immigrant who later directed the West Point military band and who introduced the keyed bugle (also known as a Kent bugle) to the United States....

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Johnson, James P. (01 February 1894–17 November 1955), jazz and popular pianist, composer, and songwriter, was born James Price Johnson in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the son of William H. Johnson, a store helper and mechanic, and Josephine Harrison, a maid. Johnson’s mother sang in the Methodist church choir and was a self-taught pianist. He later cited popular songs and African-American ring-shout dances at home and local brass bands in the streets as early influences. When his mother’s piano was sold to help pay for their move to Jersey City in 1902, Johnson turned to singing, dancing, and playing the guitar but played piano whenever possible. In 1908 the family moved to Manhattan, at which point he enrolled at P.S. 69, and in 1911 the family moved uptown....

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Kreisler, Fritz (02 February 1875–29 January 1962), violinist and composer, was born Friedrich Kreisler in Vienna, Austria, the son of Samuel Severin Kreisler, a general medical practitioner and amateur violinist, and Anna (maiden name unknown). Fritz’s father and musical friends devoted Saturday afternoons to string quartet playing. Young Fritz listened, and at age four, having successfully played the national anthem on a toy violin for the Saturday group, he received a genuine small violin from his father. Jacques Auber, concertmaster at the Ring Theater and a friend of Dr. Kreisler, agreed to teach Fritz, who made rapid progress. In 1882 Kreisler was admitted to the Vienna Conservatory. He studied violin with Joseph Hellmesberger, Jr., and studied harmony and theory with Anton Bruckner. Kreisler’s piano skills, much lauded by colleagues in later years, were self-taught while he was at the conservatory. Kreisler gave his first public violin performance in 1884 in a conservatory concert, and in 1885 he won first prize for violinists, the conservatory’s gold medal, which was an unprecedented accomplishment for a ten-year-old....

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Leginska, Ethel (13 April 1886–26 February 1970), concert pianist, conductor, and composer, was born Ethel Liggins in Hull, Yorkshire, England, the daughter of Thomas Liggins and Annie Peck. A child prodigy, Leginska gave her first public piano recital at the age of seven. In 1900 she won a scholarship to study the piano at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt under James Kwast and theory under Bernhard Sekles and Ivan Knorr. In 1904 she began a three-year period of study with Theodor Leschetizky in Vienna and in Berlin. In 1907, the year of her London debut, she married Roy Emerson Whittern, an American who was studying composition; he later changed his name to Emerson Whithorne....

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Loeffler, Charles Martin (30 January 1861–19 May 1935), composer and violinist, was born near Berlin, Germany, the son of Dr. Karl Löffler, a writer and agricultural scientist, and Helena Schwerdtmann. His father’s professional expertise was in demand in various sugar-producing regions of Europe. Thus, as he was growing up, Loeffler lived with his family in several towns in Germany and in France, Hungary, and Russia. As a child he was educated principally at home, although he recalled receiving his first violin lessons in Smela in Ukraine. Loeffler attended the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin from 1874 to 1877; there he studied violin with Joseph Joachim. In Paris he studied violin with Lambert Joseph Massart and composition with Ernest Guiraud. Loeffler played for one year in the Pasdeloup Orchestra in Paris, after which he was a member of the private orchestra of Baron Paul von Derwies in France and Switzerland from 1879 to 1881....

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McGhee, Howard B. (06 March 1918–17 July 1987), jazz trumpeter, arranger, and composer, known as “Maggie” in the jazz community, was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His parents’ names are unknown. His father, seeking factory work, moved the family to Detroit when McGhee was an infant, but his mother died soon thereafter, and he was raised by his grandmother in Bristow and Sapulpa, Oklahoma. His father returned from Detroit but died when McGhee was about five years old. After moving with his grandmother to Boley, Oklahoma, McGhee attended a boys’ school, where he learned to play a scale on trumpet; then, to his disappointment, he was started on clarinet, so as not to be ahead of the rest of the class. McGhee lost an eye in a childhood accident and thereafter always wore dark glasses. Perhaps the fashion among beboppers of the 1940s for wearing dark shades in dingy nightclubs has in McGhee’s experience a practical origin independent of ...

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Monk, Thelonious (10 October 1917–17 February 1982), composer and pianist, was born Thelonious Sphere Monk in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the son of Thelonious Monk and Barbara Batts. Raised in the San Juan Hill area of New York City, Monk became interested in the piano around age six. A largely self-taught musician who only later studied formally, Monk played piano and organ in church while in his teens and toured briefly with an evangelist. By age seventeen he began performing in jazz groups around New York....

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Mulligan, Gerry (06 April 1927–20 January 1996), baritone saxophonist, composer, and arranger, nicknamed Jeru, was born Gerald Joseph Mulligan in Queens, New York City, the son of George Mulligan, a management engineer, and Louise Shannon Mulligan. The father's occupation required that the family move frequently up and down the East Coast and throughout the Midwest. Mulligan later claimed that his jazz career was spawned when he was in the third or fourth grade in Marion, Ohio, and saw ...