Influential African-American Musicians

Browse our library of top African-American Musicians

Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971)

Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971)

Having grown up in extreme poverty with an absent father, Louis Armstrong (affectionately known as “Satchmo”) acquired a cornet at a young age with the help of his surrogate family. This clearly sparked something within Armstrong, who had grown up hearing jazz music on the streets of New Orleans. Before long, he was pioneering the transformation of jazz from ensemble music to the solo art form we still recognize today. 

Billie Holiday (1915 – 1959)

Billie Holiday (1915 – 1959)

Born Eleanora Fagan, Billie Holiday grew up in Philadelphia in extreme poverty and endured a very difficult upbringing. Finding her solace in music, Holiday began singing in local clubs as a teenager in her adopted hometown of New York City. It didn’t take long for Holiday’s talent to be recognized in the jazz world. She broke new ground in the late 30s by becoming the first female African-American vocalist to work with a white orchestra. It was at the end of this decade that Holiday sang and recorded the song "Strange Fruit," (a protest of racism in America, particularly the lynching of African-Americans) which was crucial in the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Miles Davis (1926 – 1991)

Miles Davis (1926 – 1991)

Even among this list of musical talent, there are few people in history who can legitimately be referred to as a “musical genius,” but Miles Davis might just be one. Born in Illinois in 1926, Davis traveled to New York City at the age of 18 where he was to study at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music before dropping out in order to become a full-time jazz musician. Davis played nightclubs in the city alongside Charlie “Bird” Parker (with whom he recorded for several years), during which time he developed his unique improvisational style. Albums such as Birth of the Cool and Kind of Blue followed soon after – the latter becoming the biggest-selling jazz album of all time and cited by most critics as the finest in jazz history. 

Jimi Hendrix (1942 – 1970)

Jimi Hendrix (1942 – 1970)

There may be no musician in history who had the impact on their instrument that Jimi Hendrix had on the electric guitar during his lifetime – one that was sadly cut short at the young age of 27. During his short career, Hendrix completely redefined the role of the guitar in popular music, pioneering new musical technologies, styles and techniques. Hendrix also possessed the kind of flamboyant and commanding stage presence which has rarely been seen since. While blues musicians before him had pioneered some of the more outlandish styles of guitar playing (behind the back, between the legs, over the head), Hendrix pushed the boundaries even further – famously setting his guitar on fire at the end of his set at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. 

Michael Jackson (1958 – 2009)

Michael Jackson (1958 – 2009)

The “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson experienced a level of fame that no other musician will likely ever come close to. Joining his brothers to form what eventually become the Jackson 5 at the age of five, Michael Jackson had his first number one with the group at just 11 years old. Three more number one singles ensued before Michael Jackson went solo in 1971.