Music of North America

In our ninth article following our armchair travels, we find ourselves at the shores of the final continent - North America, the third-largest continent after Asia and Africa.

North America was first populated via the Bering Strait after the end of the last Ice Age, where hunter-gatherers followed the game from the steppes and tundras of Asia into the plains of Canada and America. Indigenous tribes settled and began to both farm and hunt until the arrival of the Europeans ‘in 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue’.

It is generally agreed that the Americas were named after Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian merchant, explorer and navigator. He was the first European to suggest that America was not, in fact, the East Indies, but an entirely new and unknown landmass. The culture of North America is, therefore, a mix of indigenous tribes, European colonists, African slaves and various waves of immigrants and their descendants. In this article, we will briefly examine the music of North America past, the music of the present day and shine our spotlight on 3 pianists who are transforming the world of music.

Music of North America Past

The descendants of the original hunter-gatherers and farmers formed the indigenous tribes of the area and we will consider the Native Americans in the United States, Aboriginal peoples in Canada, indigenous peoples of Mexico, Pueblos and the Inuit.

Archaeological evidence of music dates back to 1000 BCE, the purpose of which was to pass on oral traditions and ancestral customs. Music and songs were believed to originate from the Creator and were given to the shamans in dreams and visions. These included songs about folk heroes as well as about harvests and courtships. Powwows and ceremonies often began with tribal flag songs and national anthems.

Music generally began with a slow and steady beat but then gained speed and momentum, with accompanying shouts and accents. Inuit music of the north (including Alaska, North West, Yukon, Nunavut and Greenland) was synonymous with throat singing. Instruments included: foot drums, percussion stones, leg rattles, bullroarers, whistles and shell trumpets. The wood flute and the drum were considered to be especially important instruments.

Native American

At the beginning of the 17th century, North America began to see an influx of settlers from the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Germany and Spain. Then the forced transport of West African slaves to the colonies saw a new wave of style and syncopated rhythm, drumming and call and response. Negro spirituals were an expression of faith sung by the slaves on the plantations in the South during The Great Awakening of the 1730s and 40s, which was a time of great religious fervour among both white and black populations (slave and free).

Later, there were more waves of immigrants including Russian, Ukrainian, Irish, Scottish, Polish, Hispanic, and Jews and the resulting cultural melting pot gave rise to the incredible fusion of musical styles including:

  • jazz
  • blues
  • country
  • bluegrass
  • rock
  • rock and roll
  • R&B
  • pop
  • salsa (begun in New York by the Latin American community)
  • hip hop
  • soul
  • funk
  • gospel
  • disco
  • house
  • techno
  • ragtime
  • doo-wop
  • folk music
  • americana
  • boogaloo
  • tejano
  • reggaeton
  • negro spirituals
  • Chinese music (in Canada)

Music of North America Present

In order for us to examine the music of the present day, we need to return to the ‘birth’ of modern music in the 1860s.  This originated in the Deep South and has its roots in African musical traditions, work songs and negro spirituals.


In 1903, people heard the first-ever blues street jams at a train station in Mississippi. The origins of the blues arrived with the slaves and showcased the melancholy that was a part of their day to day existence. One of the earliest recorded references to "the blues" was written by a free-born black teacher from  Pennsylvania (but working in South Carolina), a lady called Charlotte Forten. On December 14, 1862, at the age of 25, she wrote in her diary that she "came home with the blues" because she felt lonesome and pitied herself.

The blues were distinguished by a flattened third, fifth and seventh of the associated major scale. The shuffle and walking bass emphasised the trance-like rhythm and reinforced the call and response traditions of Africa. Black musicians used a wide variety of instruments and household items including drums, spoons, guitars, banjos and double basses.

Around the turn of the century, juke joints, which were informal establishments catering for music, dancing and gambling, began to spring up all over the South and become popular with the emancipated workforce. Blues legend BB King, who grew up on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta, described the blues as “the language we invented to let people know we had something to say”.



In the early 1900s cornet players like Buddy Bolden and pianists like Jelly Roll Morton, (both idols of Louis Armstrong) lived in New Orleans, Louisiana, a city which became known as the ‘cradle of jazz’. New Orleans was considered to be a unique melting pot of Creole, Cajun, African, French and English cultures and the music of ragtime, gospel and Dixieland was heard in the streets, honky-tonks, juke joints and bars. Another characteristic of music in the city were the wedding parades and big brass band funerals, which were an African tradition and saw huge brass bands parading along the streets of the city.

Jazz was synonymous with syncopated rhythms, swung notes and improvisation, and was cherished as a pillar for freedom of expression. Louis Armstrong was a driving force and a pioneer of jazz. He was the grandson of slaves and he grew up listening to his grandmother singing African work songs.

The 1920s  was also the time of The Great Migration where 6 million black people moved from the plantations of the south to the north and places like Chicago. This period also heralded prohibition, and but in the Chicago nightclubs, jazz continued to spill onto the streets causing the birth of a social revolution and a challenge to segregation.

Louis Armstrong

Famous jazz big bands and big band Leaders emerged over the years including Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Dizzy Gilespie, Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck.

More modern ‘greats’ of jazz piano include Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum, Bill Evans, Vince Guaraldi, Erroll Garner, Earl Hines, Ahmad Jamal, Hank Jones, Marian McPartland, Fats Waller, Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Cecil Taylor and Mary Lou Williams.


1925 saw the birth of country music - the fusion of English folk songs, Irish fiddle tunes, blues and negro spirituals. A key characteristic of country music was the bending of notes to create a blues note and this was often heard by using the African banjo and later the ukelele and string guitar.

White farming families listened to the radio and this saw the rise and popularity of the Hollywood singing cowboys. Weekly shows at The Grand Old Opry in Nashville, Tennessee helped to cement the city with this style of music.

Country Music

Rhythm & Blues

The 1930s – 1940s saw the rise of R&B (Rhythm and Blues), which was black music directed towards white teenagers. Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee became synonymous with this type of music and is still one of the city’s most iconic streets today.

Beale Street

Rock & Roll

The 1950s saw the rise of rock and roll encapsulated by the iconic Elvis Presley. He successfully combined gospel, country and R&B in imaginative and new ways and this saw the biggest revolution in music that the world has known. Elvis was the only singer to ever reach No.1 in rock, country and gospel charts. Chuck Berry was also a pioneer of the genre and equally famous for his duck walk.

The phrase "rocking and rolling" originally described the movement of a ship on the ocean, but now it was used both to describe the ‘spiritual fervour of black church rituals’ and as a sexual analogy. Rock and roll encouraged the rise of the 1960s youth culture and modern consumerism.

Elvis Presley


At the same time (the 1950s), soul music began to emerge as a fusion of gospel and R&B. James Brown is considered to be the godfather of soul, but the music was also embodied by musicians like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Otis Redding and Prince.

In 1959, Berry Gordy founded Motown Records in Detroit, Michigan and the Four Tops, the Temptations, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and the Jackson 5 were introduced to the world.

James Brown - By Godfried from Utrecht - James Brown. Kan ‘t me nog goed herinneren. Hij was net ontslagen uit de gevangenis en trad op bij North Sea Jazz. Om nooit meer te vergeten..., CC BY 2.0

Gospel and Doo Wop

Also in the 1950s, gospel music saw a revival and began to reach an international audience with singers like Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Dinah Washington and Dionne Warwick.


From the stylistic origins of rock & roll, blues, folk, country and R&B, classic rock emerged in the 1960s, with many variations of this genre. Rock music served as a vehicle for social change, including the mods and rockers of the UK and the hippie culture spreading out from 1960s San Fransisco.

The 1960s saw the invasion of the pop culture of the Brits, with groups such as The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Animals and The Kinks. This British invasion helped to internationalise the production of rock music.

The 1960s to the present day has seen the rise of Latin rock, surf rock, punk, goth, emo, indie, heavy metal, nu-metal, garage and grunge. These genres have become an avenue for young people who identify with these subcultures to state their beliefs of political activism, and desire for social change regarding attitudes such as sex, race and drug use.

Rolling Stones 1965

Hip Hop (Rap)

Hip hop or rap music began in the 1970s, originating in block or street parties in The Bronx, New York where black and Latino vocalists began to MC over instrumental beats. Scratching with turntables, break dancing, beatboxing and drum machines all accompanied the rhyming speech. This new genre spread across North America and then to the rest of the world, with further sub-genres including gangsta rap, trap and mumble rap. In fact, in 2017, hip hop usurped rock music to become the most popular music genre of the United States.

Rap Music

Pianists from North America

From the vast number of both classical and jazz pianists who call North America their home,  I could have chosen to name but a few:

Classical: Dominic Cheli, Kenny Broberg, Mackenzie Melemed, Michael Davidman, Sahun Sam Hong, Jonathan Biss, Eric Lu, Drew Petersen, Adam Golka, Marc-André Hamelin or  Angela Hewitt.

Jazz: Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Ahmad Jamal, Brad Mehldau, Sullivan Fortner, Aaron Diehl, Robert Glasper, Carla Bley or Jessica Williams.

I have chosen to focus on Murray Perahia, Chloe Flower and Herbie Hancock.

Murray Perahia

Perahia was born in The Bronx, New York, and began playing the piano at the age of 4. However, he didn’t enjoy learning with his first teacher and complained that she made him play a single piece again and again until it was perfect. It was only at the age of 15 that he rediscovered his love of music and committed to practising properly.

At the age of 17, he attended Mannes College of Music, New York where he studied keyboard, composition and conducting. During his summer breaks, he attended the Malboro Music School and Festival where he collaborated with musicians such as Rudolf Serkin, Pablo Casals, and the members of the Budapest String Quartet. He also studied with Mieczyslaw Horszowski and became friends with the inspirational Vladimir Horowitz.

In 1972 he was the first North American to win the Leeds International Piano Competition and in 1973 Perahai had the opportunity to work with English composer, conductor and legendary pianist Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears.

In 1990 Perahia cut his right thumb, which became septic. His health was impacted by the antibiotics he needed. Then in 1992, a bone abnormality in his hand became inflamed and he needed several operations and a long recuperation. As he couldn’t perform properly, he nevertheless used the time to study Bach’s works in great detail and on his recovery he recorded a series of award-winning Bach pieces.

Perahia is the winner of 2 Grammy Awards and he has won 9 Gramaphone Awards. He has been invited to teach at The International Piano Academy Lake Como, where only 7 pianists are selected each year from thousands of applicants. He has also given masterclasses at Juilliard School, Stanford University New York and Peabody Institute, Johns Hopkins University.

Perahia lives in London and is an honorary fellow of both the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music. He has been awarded honorary doctorates from Leeds University and Duke University. In 2004, he was awarded an honorary KBE (Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) by Her Majesty The Queen, in recognition of his outstanding service to music.

Chloe Flower

Chloe Flower was born in 1985 and started playing the piano at age 2. She studied music at both the Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard School, New York.

In 2006, Flower began working with The Somaly Mam Foundation, an organisation that focuses primarily on rescuing sex-trafficked children between the ages 3–17 and she also works with CAST LA, a Los Angeles based anti-human trafficking organisation.

In 2010 she was discovered by producer Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, who signed her to his record label. She has collaborated with  Questlove, Nas, Celine Dion and Deepak Chopra. She learned to produce music by watching Babyface and added this to her growing repertoire of skills.

In 2013, Flower performed and worked as a panellist on music education and human trafficking for the United Nations’ CTUAN Conference. That same year saw her presented with the Creative Impact Award for her work on Anti Human Trafficking and Music Education by Cast LA.

In 2014 Flower began working with LA County Detention and Probation, to encourage music education among high-risk young people and on July 30, 2014, she worked with The United Nations Office of Drug and Crime on the launch of the first UN recognized World Day Against Trafficking of Persons. At this event, Flower performed and spoke alongside the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon and the President of the General Assembly, John Ashe.

In 2014 she scored the music for ‘Choose’ a short film by AnnaLynne McCord, in 2015 she scored both ‘A Ballerina's Tale’, a documentary on the American Ballet Theatre ballerina Misty Copeland and the music for Nike and Kevin Hart's ‘Health is Wealth’ campaign. In 2015, Flower partnered with Art for Amnesty, a division of Amnesty International, which brings together world-renowned artists for musical projects.

In the past 2 years, Flower has gained an enormous online following since her breakout performance at the Grammys, accompanying Cardi B. for the song ‘Money’. She performed the song on a glass piano, on loan from the Liberace Museum. That same year she was selected as a Steinway Pianist and she has recently released a single called ‘Flower Through Concrete’ from her debut album.

Herbie Hancock

Hancock was born in 1940 in Chicago and named after the jazz singer and actor Herb Jeffries. He started studying music at the age of 7 and was quickly recognised as a child prodigy. At the age of 11, he performed a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In high school, he was influenced by jazz greats like Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans and in 1960, he begged jazz pianist Chris Anderson to accept him as a student. He was then discovered by jazz and R&B trumpeter Donald Byrd.

In 1963 his debut album was an immediate success – particularly the single ‘Watermelon Man’. In May of the same year, Miles Davis the legendary jazz bandleader invited Hancock to join his Second Great Quintet, which is often regarded as one of the finest quintets ever. Hancock spent 5 years in the quintet and simultaneously found time to record solo sessions for the Blue Note record label as well as solo albums. It was also during this period that he scored the music for the 1966 film ‘Blow Up’, which then led to a successful career in television and film music.

In 1968 Hancock formed his band called The Headhunters and by the mid-seventies, they were playing for audiences in stadiums all over the world. During this time Hancock had 11 albums in the pop charts all the while becoming fascinated with electronic instruments.

In 1980 Hancock discovered jazz trumpeter Winton Marsalis. He produced Marsalis’s debut album and also toured with him.  In 1983 Hancock had a pop hit with the Grammy-award single ‘Rockit’ – this was the first jazz-hip hop song to feature ‘scratching’. ‘Rockit’ was accompanied by an animated music video and the song became a worldwide anthem for breakdancers. The video also won in 5 categories at the annual MTV Video Music Awards. During the 80s Hancock also appeared at the Grammy Awards with musicians such as Stevie Wonder and Howard Jones. In 1986 he won an Oscar for the score of the film ‘Round Midnight’, in which he also appeared as an actor.

Hancock has worked on many film scores, written music for TV commercials, written and performed over 40 studio albums and worked with musicians like John Legend, Sting, Annie Lennox, John Mayer, Christina Aguilera, Paul Simon, Carlos Santana, Joss Stone, Damien Rice and Snoop Dog. Furthermore, he has appeared in 11 films, won 14 Grammy Awards and won 18 other awards including the prestigious Kennedy Center Honour.

In 2009 he performed at the Obama Inaugural ‘We Are One’ concert and that same year he performed George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at the Classical Brit Awards with Lang Lang.

In 2011 at a ceremony in Paris, Hancock was designated a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador with the focus on promoting peace through the arts and culture. In 2014 he published his memoirs called ‘Herbie Hancock, Possibilities’. He has been awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 2016, he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

And so in our armchair travels across the final continent of North America, we have briefly examined the music of the past. We have seen how this melting pot of cultures across the ages has led to the creativity and diversity of the music of the present day. Finally, we have looked into the lives of three pianists who are sharing their love of music and also using their talents to promote peace and a better world for all people.