In honor of African American Music Appreciation Month, we at Media Services have put together a list of six Black film and TV composers every film and music enthusiast should know. This list is in no particular order and focuses primarily on artists who are known for writing film scores, so musicians like Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, who certainly contributed to film but are better known for their work in jazz, will be excluded.
Michael Abels discovered his love for music at a young age, starting to compose at age 8 and completing his first piece for orchestra at 13. He later attended the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and studied West African drumming at the California Institute for the Arts. He has worked extensively with Jordan Peele and is best known for his score for the film Get Out (2017). He also collaborated with Peele on Us (2019) and Nope, which is set to release later this year. Other projects Abels has worked on include Netflix films See You Yesterday (2019), All Day and a Night (2020), and Nightbooks (2021), as well as the films Bad Education (2020) and 892 (2022). Besides film scores, Abels has also written his fair share of classical works, including a ballet entitled Falling Sky (2020) and the opera Omar. His best-known orchestral work, Global Warming (1991), has been performed by orchestras around the country. He is also a co-founder of the Composers Diversity Collective and is currently the Director of Music for the New Roads School in Santa Monica.
Like Miles Davis and Duke Ellington before him, Terence Blanchard got his start in jazz. Also like Miles Davis, Blanchard plays the trumpet. His first major gigs as a professional musician had him touring with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and performing with The Jazz Messengers. But while his career may have started with jazz, he soon made a name for himself writing for film, collaborating frequently with Spike Lee. Many of these projects included films such as Malcom X (1992), Clockers (1995), Summer of Sam (1999), 25th Hour (2002), and Inside Man (2006), as well as many other films from other filmmakers. He is best known for his scores for the critically acclaimed Spike Lee films, BlacKkKlansman (2018), and Da 5 Bloods (2020), both of which earned him Oscar nominations. Even with his success in film, Blanchard never gave up his love for jazz, and has received many accolades for his work. From 2000 to 2011 he was the artistic director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz before taking a similar post at the Henry Mancini Institute at the University of Miami. In 2015 he was a visiting scholar in jazz composition at the Berklee College of Music, and in 2019 he took on the Endowed Chair of Jazz Studies position at UCLA. In 2019 he also completed his opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which the Metropolitan Opera performed for their 2021-2022 season. It was the first opera by an African American composer the Met has performed in the history of the organization.
Kathryn Bostic is a name that doesn’t receive quite as much recognition as the previous two entries, as many of her projects are a bit lower profile. She has scored several different documentaries (making up the bulk of her work), including the critically acclaimed Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (2019), for which she received an Emmy nomination. She also wrote and performed the documentary’s song “High Above the Water.” Other projects Bostic worked on include Clemency (2019), Dear White People (2014), the TV series Women of the Movement (2022) and other documentaries Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America (2021), and Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir (2021), for which she received another Emmy nomination. She is currently working on another documentary, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Bostic has also written for Broadway, collaborating with playwright August Wilson on both Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf. She also wrote the music for Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. While Bostic may not be as well-known as some of the others on this list, her contributions are no less valuable. She was the first female African American composer to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and from 2016 to 2018 she served as the vice president of the Alliance for Women Film Composers.
Kris Bowers got his start as a pianist, taking lessons at a young age. While attending the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, he began to study jazz piano, and later went on to earn both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in jazz performance from Juilliard. Bowers soon started performing in high-profile projects in a variety of genres, and in 2011 he won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition. He got started writing for film by scoring documentaries, the first of which was a film called Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (2013). He went on to write music for Kobe Bryant’s Muse (2015), I Am Giant (2015), Play It Forward (2015), and Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. He also scored the film Little Boxes (2016) and contributed to the television shows Religion of Sports (2016) and Dear White People (2014). In 2017 he won the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Musical Direction and Composition for his work on Amazon’s Christmas Special The Snowy Day (2017). His first big project was the film Green Book (2018), for which he wrote the score and acted as piano teacher for Mahershala Ali as well as standing in for some close-up piano scenes. From there, Bowers went on to work on other high-profile projects such as TV series When They See Us (2019) and Bridgerton (2020), as well as films The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021), Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021), Respect (2021), and King Richard (2021). Bowers is also currently working with Disney on Haunted Mansion, which is set to release March of 2023.
More of an up-and-coming artist than some of our previous entries, composer Amanda Jones is starting to make waves in the entertainment industry. She earned a BA in Music from Vassar College where she studied composition, music production, and classical guitar, and earned certificates in film scoring and orchestration from Berklee College of Music. With the intention of starting a career in music production, Jones worked as a music production assistant for big-name film composers Hans Zimmer, Henry Jackson, and John Powell. In 2018, Jones tried her hand at composing for film with her first feature, One Angry Black Man. She has since gone on to write for numerous TV series, short films, and feature films. She was the first African American woman to be nominated for an Emmy for Best Score for her work on the Apple TV+ series, Home (2020), and she helped co-found the Composers Diversity Collective. Besides writing for film and TV, Jones also plays guitar with her LA indie rock band, The Anti-Job. We have no doubt that we’ll be seeing much more from Amanda Jones in the near future, so make sure to keep her on your radar.
This next entry on our list is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Amanda Jones. Over his impressive 70-year-long career, he has earned 80 Grammy nominations—28 of which he won—a Grammy Legend Award, two honorary doctorates—one from Berklee College of Music and one from the London Royal Academy of Music—the National Medal of Arts, awarded to him by President Barack Obama, and has been recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors. He has worked as a jazz arranger, conductor, performer, record producer, songwriter, composer, arranger, and film and television producer. He has collaborated with legends like Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan, and Michael Jackson, just to name a few, and is one of three composers besides John Williams to score a Stephen Spielberg film. Quincy Jones has inarguably become one of the most influential black figures in the entertainment industry and his work speaks for itself. While that work spans a variety of mediums, his film scores are often overlooked. Some of these include scores for films such as The Italian Job (1969), In the Heat of the Night (1967), In Cold Blood (1967), They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970), and Stephen Spielberg’s critically acclaimed The Color Purple (1985), for which Jones received an Oscar nomination. All of these accolades and achievements only represent a fraction of the legacy Quincy Jones has left in his wake and there is no doubt that he has left a mark on the entertainment industry that will never be erased.
Did we miss any of your favorite black film and television composers? Make sure to let us know in the comments. KE
Kathryn Edom is a composer and aspiring music librarian going into her second year of IU’s MLS (Library Sciences) program. She previously attended Sacramento State University and University of Oregon where she received her BM and MM (respectively) in music composition. On top of her courses, she currently juggles three different library jobs, and in her limited spare time, enjoys reading, writing music, playing Animal Crossing, and watching Oregon football. Kathryn has been a Media Services part-time staff member since 2021.