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Francis Johnson: A Collection of New Cotillions (1818)

Updated: Apr 24, 2021

Francis Johnson (1792-1844)

pianist Donald Lee III

(special thanks to Awadagin Pratt and the Art of the Piano Foundation for their support of this recording)

This work is the oldest surviving published composition written by a Black American composer.

Francis Johnson (16 June 1792 - 6 April 1844) was a well rounded, popular and successful Black musician in a time where this was extremely difficult to even imagine, let alone accomplish. A virtuoso on a number of instruments, including but not limited to the cornet, two kinds of bugle and the violin, Johnson established himself in Philadelphia’s music scene during the early 1800s, directing military bands and dance orchestras as well as teaching and performing. He holds the distinction of being the first Black composer to have their music published as sheet music and authored hundreds of pieces of music in an impressive variety of genres: operatic arias, dances, songs, marches, cotillions etc. Mr. Johnson was also the first Black bandleader to tour beyond the Appalachian Mountains, the first Black musician to give public concerts and to participate in racially integrated concerts in the US. He is the first American bandleader to tour Europe, performing for Queen Victoria in 1838 - she was so pleased that she gave him a silver bugle as a gift. The Philadelphia Public Ledger, a newspaper of the day, credits him with inventing the technique of singing while playing a wind instrument.

The composition that put Johnson on the map, A Collection of New Cotillions, was published by George Willig in 1818 and even performed for General Lafayette during his visit to America in 1824.

- Charles "Eddie" Charlton


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