Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are known for their high-energy, show-stopping marching bands. And for good reason- the marching bands play a wide variety of music, include dance moves many colleges don’t even try to duplicate and afford an opportunity for the members to travel the country and, in some cases, the world.
But HBCU music is about more than the band. For more than 150 years, the musicians produced at HBCUs have been known across the globe. The Fisk Jubilee singers were perhaps the 1st to bring recognition to their college and the music of African-Americans, but since then numerous jazz musicians, opera and gospel singers, composers and performers have matriculated through HBCUs.
Learn more about some of the best HBCU music programs. (Schools selected for the listing were included based on diversity of the program, national recognition and notable alumni and/or faculty and are listed in no particular order).
Fisk employs full-time faculty for brass, organ, piano, voice, and woodwind instruction. It prides itself for having a sound history of combining conservatory-style training with African-American traditional music. Fisk’s music history includes the Jubilee Singers- who introduced 'slave songs' to the world and were key in preserving the musical tradition known today as Negro spirituals. Its history also includes alumni: Robert McFerrin Sr, the 1st black man to sing at the Metropolitan Opera; gospel and contemporary Christian recording artist, Mandisa, who was also a finalist on American Idol; saxophonist and swing band leader, Jimmy Lunceford; and record label owner, manager and father of Beyonce and Solange, Mathew Knowles.
Any college that produced Joe Sample, Yolanda Adams and Kirk Whalum has to be recognized. Texas Southern’s Jazz Program, once run by alum Sample, has several ensembles and has performed with and as the opening act for Phyllis Hyman, The Duke Ellington Orchestra and Nancy Wilson. Students can study music performance or composition and also have the opportunity to participate in an Opera Workshop.
When the award-winning faculty jazz combo of an #HBCU produces a holiday album, recorded in the campus’ own recording studio, you know it’s a great place to learn from the best. Without a doubt the jazz studies program at North Carolina Central University is one of the nation’s premiere programs. NCCU offers an undergrad and grad program in jazz studies, concentrations in ethnomusicology and music industry. For 27 years NCCU has hosted an annual jazz festival and has included Branford Marsalis on its faculty.
The nation’s only Seventh Day Adventist HBCU has one of the strongest music programs. Degrees are offered in Music Composition & Recording Arts, Music Education and Vocal Performance & Pedagogy. Talented students can participate in the Sinfonietta Orchestra or Oakwood’s world-famous Aeolians Chorus. The chorus is the four-peat national HBCU choral champion. Alumni of Oakwood include rock n roll icon Little Richard, R&B singer Brian McKnight, a capella group Take 6, actor and songwriter Clifton Davis, gospel singer Wintley Phipps and opera singer Angela Brown.
UDC was the first college in the nation and is the only university in the DC area to offer a concentration in gospel music studies. The university also offers classical and jazz music programs, and is home to the Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives, a jazz research and resource center. Alumni include jazz musicians Davey Yarborough, James King, Jr. and Allyn Johnson.
It should come as no surprise that one of the nation’s largest HBCUs also has a top-notch music program. Both jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and Prince saxophonist Bernard Jackson earned degrees from FAMU. FAMU offers nearly 20 music ensembles including the wind symphony which performed at Carnegie Hall two years ago. The university also operates the Institute for Research in Music and Entertainment Industry Studies.
Alumni include: Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter, Kendra Foster; music executive, television and film music supervisor, Amir Windom; and the director of the Count Basie Orchestra, Scotty Barnhart;
Howard boasts more than twenty music ensembles including jazz, gospel, a symphony orchestra and the a capella group, Afro Blue. Not limited to one area of success, Howard has produced alumni who have found success in every musical genre from hip hop to gospel to R&B to jazz. Shai, Robert Flack, Donnie Hathaway, Jessye Norman, Lillian Evanti, Crystal Waters, Richard Smallwood, Kenny Lattimore, Gerri Allen, Billy Eckstein, Eric Roberson, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Shirley Horn; and many more.
Both Leontyne Price and Nancy Wilson attended Central State University. If that’s not enough, its gospel choir has twice been nominated for a Grammy Award. Students can study jazz, classical performance or train to be music educators. It’s also an HBCU that offers an opera workshop. Central State gives back to the community through its Music Mentors program which provides free one-on-one music lessons, ensembles, and theory classes for anyone in the Miami Valley Community. Other alumni: William "Kedar" Massenburg, former CEO of Motown and jazz bassist, Cecil McBee.
Clark Atlanta music majors have the option of focusing in one of six areas: voice studies, piano studies, jazz studies, commercial composition, church music and music history. Courses include Piano Music from the African Diaspora and Music in the African American Church. Students can audition for vocal or instrumental ensembles like Jazz Orchestra, The Atlanta University Center-wide Symphony Orchestra and the CAU Jazztet. CAU boasts several venues for practice and performance. For more than 100 years Clark Atlanta University has produced musical standouts including bandleader Fletcher Henderson, Grammy Award-winning producer, keyboardist and engineer Phil Davis, percussionist, songwriter and record producer Hamilton Bohannon and Brand New Heavies singer N’Dea Davenport.
Tennessee State offers students the opportunity to study Music Education or Commercial Music (business, performance or technology). Its numerous ensemble includes its ‘flagship’ commercial ensemble that travels regularly across the country. The instrumental ensembles include guitar, percussion and trumpet groups. Tennessee State’s New Direction Choir has been recognized as the best college gospel group in the country, winning the National College Choir Explosion. The university also sponsors an HBCU piano competition. Alumni include: Hip hop artist Starlito, Gary "Lil G" Jenkins -the lead singer of the R&B group Silk, Jimmy Blanton who performed with Duke Ellington, and pianist and educator Jimmy Hamilton who may be best known as Prince’s first music teacher.
UAPB students can choose to focus on Music Education, Music Business, Music Theatre or Sound recording technology. Student performance opportunities include a nationally-known Vesper Choir and several instrumental ensembles.
Gospel recording artist Smokie Norful, jazz pianist Art Porter, Tower of Power lead singer Larry Braggs and Grammy Award-winning James H. Leary are among the alumnni of UAPB.
Morgan offers undergrad and graduate degree programs in music. Recent graduates have performed with opera companies throughout the US, recorded on soundtracks and written lyrics for gospel songs. Master Classes are available for assisting aspiring professional vocalists. These courses are led by classical vocal artists including Denyce Graves, Leontyne Price, Robert Honeysucker and alum Kevin Short. Morgan’s world-renowned chorus performs all over the world and was asked to perform at the White House during the Obama administration (twice). The college’s Opera Workshop produces fully-staged productions backed by regional orchestras. Alumni include: singer Maysa Leak, jazz pianist Lonnie Liston Smith and music arranger and producer Jae Deal.
With a highly-respected Glee Club and a long list of alumni that include Gang Starr's Guru, Grammy-nominated gospel singers Canton Jones and Byron Cage, there is no doubt that Morehouse produces top musical talent. Students focus their studies on performance, choral conducting or composition. In addition to the Glee Club students can participate in Jazz Ensemble and Concert Band. Other alumni include: Grammy-nominated Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, Harlem Renaissance composer Edmund Jenkins, opera singer Uzee Brown, Jr. as well as three members of Bruno Mars' Hooligans.