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Alexander, Jeff (02 July 1910–23 December 1989), composer and conductor, was born Myer Alexander in Seattle, Washington, the son of Max Alexander, Jr., a salesman, and Della Goodhue, a pianist. His musical education was initiated by his mother and continued at Becker Institute of Music in Portland, Oregon, as well as under private tutors Edmund Ross in Los Angeles and ...

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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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Bernstein, Elmer (04 April 1922–18 August 2004), composer and conductor of film music, was born in New York City, the child of Ukrainian immigrants Edward Bernstein, a teacher, and Selma Feinstein. He displayed multiple artistic talents in childhood, studying at the King-Coit School and Children's Theatre and the Walden School. At age twelve he won a piano scholarship to study with Henrietta Michelson of the Juilliard School. Sensing the boy's potential, she brought him to the attention of ...

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Leonard Bernstein. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-90733).

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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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Carlos Chávez Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1937. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-103962).

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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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Tadd Dameron © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-0172 DLC).

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Dameron, Tadd (21 February 1917–08 March 1965), arranger, bandleader, and composer, was born Tadley Ewing Peake Dameron in Cleveland, Ohio. Information on his parents is not available. Dameron attended Oberlin College and took premed courses before deciding to become a musician. His career began rather inauspiciously as a singer in 1938 with Freddy Webster’s band. It then continued with several lesser-known groups that included Zach Whyte, Blanche Calloway ( ...

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Damrosch, Walter Johannes (30 January 1862–22 December 1950), conductor and composer, was born in Breslau, Prussia (now Wrocław, Poland), the son of Leopold Damrosch, a conductor, and Helene von Heimburg, an opera singer. His father, a converted Jew, and his mother had met in Weimar, where Leopold was concertmaster of the ducal court orchestra led by Franz Liszt and Helene was a leading singer of opera and lieder. Moving to Breslau in 1858 as chief of the Orchesterverein, Leopold soon became a conductor distinguished enough to attract the attention of such luminaries as Liszt, Peter Cornelius, Richard Wagner, Carl Tausig, Anton Rubinstein, Joseph Joachim, Hans von Bülow, and Clara Schumann, all of whom were Leopold’s personal friends. It was into this milieu that Walter Johannes was born....

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Dohnányi, Ernst von (27 July 1877–09 February 1960), composer, concert pianist, teacher, and conductor, also known as Ernó and baptized Dohnányi Erno Jeno Frigyes, was born in Pozsony, Hungary-later known as Pressberg, then Bratislava, Slovakia. (The population of Pozsony was approximately half Hungarian and half German, so Dohnányi was comfortable with the language and heritage of both.) He was the son of Frederick von Dohnányi (Dohnányi Frigyes), professor of mathematics and physics at the Royal Catholic Chief Gymnasium (Királyi Katolikus Fögimnásium) and an accomplished cellist and composer. Dohnányi's mother, Ottilia Szlabey, was tiny; she was sometimes referred to as fiercely determined and willing to sacrifice her comfort for others. Dohnányi embodied these characteristics as an adult helping family and friends survive the vicissitudes of wartime Europe. His sister, Mitzi, was a year younger. A brother died in infancy. When traveling outside of Hungary, he called himself Ernst von Dohnányi....

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Doráti, Antal (09 April 1906–13 November 1988), conductor and composer, was born in Budapest, Hungary, the son of Sándor Doráti, a violinist, and Margit Kunwald, a pianist, violinist, and violist. Doráti began his musical studies with his parents at an early age. Late in his life he remarked, “Since my earliest childhood the strongest impressions and influences which pointed my way, emanated from my father and mother. Both were musicians through and through” ( ...

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Dragon, Carmen Martin (28 July 1914–28 March 1984), arranger, conductor, and composer, was born in Antioch, California, the son of Frank Dragon, a building contractor, and Rose Dedio. Both parents were born in Italy. His background in music came naturally: Sunday evenings and holidays were spent making music, with his parents on violin and guitar and Dragon and his brothers Peter and Roland alternating on accordion, clarinet, piano, saxophone, string bass, trombone, and trumpet. Dragon also had perfect pitch. He attended San Jose State College, where his major was music and his minor was psychology. In order to make money, Dragon often interrupted his college education to work, and he did not return to complete his senior year....

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Duke Ellington. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-115052).

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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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Engel, Lehman (14 September 1910–29 August 1982), conductor, composer, and author, was born A. (for his two grandfathers, Aaron and Abraham) Lehman Engel, in Jackson, Mississippi, the son of Ellis Engel, a clothing salesman, and Juliette Lehman, a bookkeeper for the Lehman family’s laundry business. As a child Engel taught himself to play the piano and at age ten began taking piano lessons with local instructors. In 1926 he graduated from Central High School and enrolled at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in Ohio with a career as a concert pianist in mind. Engel later admitted that his performing talent did not warrant such ambition but neither he nor his instructors in Jackson were knowledgeable enough to realize this. For financial reasons, Engel transferred to the Cincinnati College of Music in 1927. Abandoning plans to be a concert pianist, he focused his studies on composition, opera, and theater. He also took general education courses at the University of Cincinnati....

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Erwin, Pee Wee (30 May 1913–20 June 1981), musician, composer, and bandleader, was born George Francis Erwin in Falls City, Nebraska, the son of James Oglesby Erwin, a barber, and Chloe Maxine Prater. Both parents were musicians. His father played trumpet and his mother the piano. Erwin learned to play the cornet and joined his father’s band, where he acquired the nickname “Pee Wee” because of his small stature. At the age of eight he played on the radio for the first time, with the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks....