Hall Johnson was a violinist, composer, and musical director. Johnson was the founder of an acclaimed black choir that set the standard for the performance of African American spirituals.
Born on March 12, 1888, in Athens, Georgia, Hall Johnson was the son of William Decker Johnson, a minister, and Alice Virginia Sansom, a former slave. Johnson was given his first at age 14, with which he taught himself to play.
Athens was home to a large, prosperous African American middle class, with excellent schools, and Johnson did well. He graduated from the preparatory school in 1903 and then moved on to Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina, where his father had recently been named president. In 1908, Johnson switched his studies to the University of Pennsylvania. After receiving his college degree in 1912, Johnson returned to Athens.
Johnson gained a reputation as an excellent music teacher, and played violin in the orchestras of several Broadway productions, performing behind great entertainers such as Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, and Josephine Baker. He found additional work in more than one dance band, including a stint touring the United States with a group known as the Southern Syncopated Orchestra.
In 1923, he took the seat of the violinist in a chamber music group he helped form called the Negro String Quartet. The group performed pieces across a wide spectrum from the standard classical canon to contemporary pieces by African Americans. Johnson produced his own Broadway musical in 1933, Run Little Chillun, a production he called a folk opera.
Over his lifetime, Johnson was a consummate breaker of barriers, and not just between White and Black or between the world of churches and the world of mass entertainment. On April 30, 1970, Johnson died when a fire broke out in his New York apartment building.
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