The Jacksonville Symphony Celebrates Black History Month


Marianne Rice, Lory Doolittle Endowed Vice President of Music Education & DEI Initiatives 

The Jacksonville Symphony shines a spotlight on the artistic innovations of African Americans who have left a resounding impact on symphonic music. Discover more about how the Symphony celebrates Black History Month by following our weekly posts on Instagram, @jaxsymphony 

From Then

Pictured left to right: Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Photo Credit: Glenn Ricci

Creating History Through New Music: Duke Ellington and Courtney Bryan

The Jacksonville Symphony reflects on the past and looks toward the present with a dedication and commitment to the living symphonic art form. By commissioning today’s brightest composers, the Symphony honors its past by looking at the 1971/72 season.

In 1971, the Jacksonville Symphony commissioned a new work from Duke Ellington. This commission premiered in Jacksonville before being performed in Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center and New York’s Carnegie Hall, which aided in the emergence of a new prosperous period for the Symphony. Historically, the role of new music from living composers like Duke Ellington has been instrumental to the Jacksonville Symphony’s livelihood. Today, living composers play that same role in launching the next era in Jacoby Symphony Hall.  

In January 2023, Assistant Conductor Grant O’Brien, the Symphony and award-winning vocalist Bernard Holcomb performed the big band compositions of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn to great acclaim. The collaboration between Ellington and Strayhorn produced cherished classics like Take the A Train, Satin Doll, Lush Life and even their renditions of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, creating a legacy that lives on with just as much vibrance as when it first began. It was truly an unforgettable experience in Jacoby Symphony Hall getting to hear the musical genius of these artists come to life.  

Pictured: Courtney Bryan

As the Mary Carr Patton Composer-in-Residence for the Jacksonville Symphony’s 2018/19 season, Courtney Bryan composed an original commission for the Symphony titled Bridges, which had its world premiere in 2019. Heralded as “a pianist and composer of panoramic interests” (New York Times), her music spans various musical genres including jazz, gospel, spirituals and hymns. Bryan’s work has been presented in a wide range of venues including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and Symphony Space. When composing this piece for the Symphony, Bryan had in mind that it would show off the talents of an orchestra that she found excellent and that was inspired by the majestic bridges of Jacksonville and the interconnectivity they bring to all communities throughout the city. Bryan is lined up to compose another commission for the Symphony, which will premiere in 2024.


Other Musical Voices in Jacoby Symphony Hall:

Pictured: Florence Price. Photo Credit: University of Arkansas Libraries Special Collections

In addition to these impactful jazz icons, the Symphony has spotlighted many award-winning guest artists who have captivated our audiences with their talent. In January 2023, an exceptional moment took place in the classical series when the Symphony performed Florence Price’s monumental Third Symphony in Copland’s Rodeo. Price’s compositions are cherished all around the world, and she was the first female, African American composer to have a symphony performed by an American orchestra. Filled with the sounds of African American spirituals, Appalachian melodies and dance rhythms, her piece represents a culturally rich journey through America’s diverse cultures. Paired with other unique works, her melodies left our listeners inspired and in awe of her musical voice.  



Pictured: Jonothan Heyward

In the 2021/22 season, we welcomed compelling conductor Jonothan Heyward for two breathtaking performances of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Among his many achievements, Heyward was the winner of the 2015 Besançon International Conducting Competition and was selected as a Los Angeles Philharmonic Dudamel Conducting Fellow for the 2017/18 season. His stage presence beamed with skill, energy and sophistication, and reviewer Tim Tuller wrote,Heyward is clearly a great communicator with both orchestra and audience. It was obvious how well he clicked with the orchestra, and one could readily tell there was a high level of mutual admiration and respect.” Filled with truly remarkable moments, having Heyward lead the Symphony was a shining highlight of the Florida Blue Classical Series last season.  



Pictured: Tamika Lawrence

Pictured: N’Kenge

In the spring of 2022, we were also privileged to be joined by distinguished female vocalists Tamika Lawrence for the 2022 Gala: The Mirror Ball and N’Kenge for The Music of Whitney Houston. Two-time Grammy Award-winner Tamika Lawrence has starred in The Wiz Live!, Rent among many other musicals. N’Kenge is also famous for her successful roles on Broadway, releasing seven albums (every one having gone gold, platinum or multi-platinum) and earning the title as the only artist to chart seven consecutive Billboard #1 hits. Experiencing the sheer talent of these artists and seeing audiences brought to their feet in these concerts was outstanding to see. 


To Now

Fostering Fieldwide Change:

The Jacksonville Symphony is committed to supporting a culture that values and embraces diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) as its core principles. We continuously strive to ensure DEI is reflected in the makeup of our patrons, orchestra, professional staff and board as we mirror the community we serve. Our strategic plan sets an ambitious agenda through June 2027 where we will diversify our programming, acquire financial resources for long-term financial sustainability, expand music education, accelerate audience growth and increase community engagement. This plan provides tools to track progress, and we have already made so many strides so far.  

In April 2022, we were chosen as one of 20 U.S. orchestras to receive the prestigious League of American Orchestras’ Catalyst Fund Incubator Grant. To be selected for this grant, the Symphony was required to demonstrate strength of vision, institutional commitment and readiness. This grant has enabled us to continue advancing our DEI efforts and further our strong commitment to achieving our goals.  

Click here to learn more about the Symphony’s specific DEI goals, strategies and accomplishments within this field.  

Turning Towards the Future:
Students at the Symphony

Pictured: Students from the 5,000 Role Models of Excellence Project

As part of providing equitable musical access to students in our community, we have hosted numerous Title I schools, extracurricular programs and other institutions at our concerts. Sixty students from the 5,000 Role Models of Excellence Project recently joined us for our Lush Life: Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn performances, and over 100 of these students also attended our Paul Simon concerts. Their mission is to be “a dropout prevention, mentoring program committed to closing the minority male achievement (access) gap by guiding minority male students along a carefully charted path” It is our goal to continue expanding our outreach to programs like these so that students and community members are given the opportunity to experience the transformative art that is symphonic music. 




Pictured: Shaleah Adkisson

In our exciting lineup of upcoming performances is a tribute to the Queens of Rock and Soul: Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin, which features Broadway star Shaleah Adkisson and returning guest artist Tamika Lawrence. These two performances are an electric, heart-warming homage to two women who created the golden ages of Rock, Roll and Soul, and we cannot wait to see you in the Hall to enjoy it.






Pictured: James Jenkins

We are also excited to announce a new addition to next season’s programming: our very first Jazz Series! This three-program series, curated by our very own Principal Tubist James Jenkins, will feature the finest jazz selections performed by our magnificent musicians and some of the biggest names in the music scene today. We are offering a tantalizing sneak peek of what’s in store for this series with a special concert on June 4, 2023. Be sure to follow our social media for the latest updates and learn how to secure tickets to this performance.  

Along with the premiere of the new Jazz Series, the Jacksonville Symphony Youth Orchestras (JSYO) program is adding a Jazz ensemble for the 2023/24 music education season. This ensemble will align with the Symphony’s mission to feature a wide variety of concert programming, expand accessibility so that young musicians from diverse backgrounds can participate and transform even more lives through expansive genres of symphonic music.  

Explore Outside Jacoby Symphony Hall:

Jacksonville holds a rich and vibrant history of African Americans. For more ways to join the Jacksonville Symphony in celebrating this special month, venture upon Florida’s Black Heritage Trail and visit inspirational sites including the Ritz Theatre and Museum and the Eartha M.M. White Museum at the Clara White Mission, visit