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'Songs of Black America' celebrates Black classical composers and more

No matter what music comes to mind when you hear the words “Songs of Black America,” Brandon Patrick George hopes to expand your understanding of the phrase.

In the show, the touring duo of flutist George and pianist Aaron Diehl perform eight short instrumental works ranging from classical pieces by Black composers to newly arranged spirituals and even a world premiere by Grammy-winning jazz pianist Sullivan Fortner.

“I just thought it would be so important that we show the wide breadth in sounds that come from African-American composers,” said George, a classically trained, Grammy-nominated musician based in Brooklyn who has performed solo and with the Imani Winds Quintet.

“Songs of Black America” visits the Pittsburgh Playhouse on Mon., Sept. 11, courtesy of Chamber Music Pittsburgh. The program also features “Blues for Peter,” a work by jazz legend Mary Lou Williams, who grew up in Pittsburgh.

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Others whose work is honored include pioneering Black American classical composers William Grant Still (“Suite”), Florence Price (“Four Songs”) and Undine Smith Moore (“Three Pieces for Flute and Piano”).

Works by contemporary composers on the program includes two by Imani Winds’ Valerie Coleman, “Fanmi Imén” and “Wish Sonatine.” Fortner’s world premiere is “Time in Circular Motion,” which George said melds jazz and classical harmonies with African rhythms.

“I wanted to celebrate the beauty, the warm harmonies, the gorgeous melody that great Black composers are writing and have been writing forever,” George said.

Diehl, who has toured with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, has a particular connection to Williams. The famed musician grew up in East Liberty and went on to travel in the highest circles of 20th-century jazz, for instance writing and arranging for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.

George said Diehl is a student of Williams’ work and has performed her celebrated “Zodiac Suite” with a jazz ensemble.

Williams, born in 1910 in Atlanta, left Pittsburgh as a teenager who was already a seasoned professional musician. But she’s still identified with the city, and ranks among the legends who came up here in the early 20th century, including Billy Strayhorn, Billy Eckstine and Earl “Fatha” Hines.

“We can’t come to Pittsburgh and not have a piece by Mary Lou Williams on the program,” said George.

This will be just the third performance of “Songs of Black America,” which previously visited venues in Iowa and South Carolina.

The Sept. 11 show here begins at 7:30 p.m. More information is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: