Jessie Montgomery aims to bring Black voices to classical music

by Erika DuBose
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Jessie Montgomery aims to change classical music through her talents – and her identity. The world-renowned composer and violinist is having a moment, along with other Black and Brown musicians. 

Ms. Montgomery knows that classical music has room for improvement in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Most well-known composers are old White men, most of whom died decades ago, if not centuries. 

Her works, on the other hand, are contemporary and fresh. In fact, her music will be performed this year across many well-known stages, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  

Unsurprisingly, Ms. Montgomery has won accolades for both her music and her vision. She is currently the composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony orchestra, after being chosen by Music Director Riccardo Muti.

She is also part of the Sphinx organization, a music collective that focuses on the contributions of Black and Brown musicians. Ms. Montgomery knows that while audiences are used to Bach and Beethoven, times are changing, and so is classical music. 

In an interview with NPR, Ms. Montgomery said, “With any new kind of programming and endeavor, you take a leap of faith that the audiences are going to be into it. I find audiences show up because they want to experience live music, live theater, something that sparks their imagination and soothes their pain.”

Jessie Montgomery: An American composer

She continued, “I think this moment is really great. It’s exciting to see more different kinds of music being embraced and presented.”

Her own music has received rave reviews. Her piece “Starburst” was performed over 100 times in 2021. 

Ms. Montgomery began composing piano tunes at the age of 11. She then took music lessons, while continuing to write tracks throughout high school.

Now Ms. Montgomery is the face of a new brand of classical musicians. She knows that audiences may be skeptical – but she isn’t afraid to branch out.

“They know that programming 54 white male composers works, so why reinvent the wheel? And it’s the same with Black composers and other minority composers. It’s the field of classical music itself, and its history. It’s shown its face, pretty overtly, and we’re trying to adapt to a new world.”

That new world includes her role teaching students, the men and women who will become the next generation of composers and musicians. She encourages her students to break away from the classical musical “canon” and write more personal and heartfelt pieces. 

Ms. Montgomery is also aware of her place in history, as a Black female composer and violinist. “I feel a responsibility, but also a joy. I feel excited about the opportunity and I hope that this moment becomes more of a model for how we move forward and who we celebrate and how we celebrate music in general.”

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