Olly Woodrow Wilson, Jr.

Photographer unknown. Handout photo originally ran 02-06-2007 on SFgate.com

African American, Music, Ethnography

Olly Woodrow Wilson, Jr.


Composer and music professor Olly Wilson wrote several foundational articles illuminating key structural aesthetic practices commonly found in African derived musics. 

Olly Woodrow Wilson, Jr was born in 1937 to Alma Grace Peoples Wilson, a seamstress and domestic worker, and Olly Woodrow Wilson, Sr., a butler and insurance salesman, in St. Louis, Missouri. His father, a recognized tenor in his community, insisted that his children learn to play the piano, as part of a well-rounded middle-class education. Wilson began piano lessons at age 7, studying clarinet and string bass as he grew older, and playing in small jazz and rhythm and blues groups in high school and college. After graduating from high school (1955), he became one of the first African Americans enrolled at Washington University (St. Louis), where he majored in music theory, and graduated with a BM (1959). He earned a MM in Music Composition (1960) from the University of Illinois and a PhD in Music Composition (1964) from the University of Iowa. 

In the early 1960s, Wilson taught music theory at Florida A & M University (FAMU). From 1965 to 1970, he worked at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he established the first undergraduate program in electronic music and helped to develop the Black Studies Program. From 1970, he joined the music faculty at the University of California at Berkeley to teach music theory, composition, and courses in African American music. There he served as department chairperson from 1993 to 1997, and he taught there until his retirement in 2002.  

Best known for his contemporary classical music compositions that use serial and electronic techniques, several of Wilson’s compositions incorporate conceptual music making approaches from African American traditional music and content from African American life. Simultaneously with his formidable compositions, Wilson’s scholarship on Black music was holistic, humanistic, and global, drawing out connections between music and its cultural, aesthetic, and historical groundings. Believing that music is a force, as believed in West African cultures, Wilson’s examination of performance and compositional practices has revealed underlying conceptual frameworks that connect West African and African American music-making traditions.

In addition to numerous commissioned compositions and recorded performances by major symphonies, among Wilson’s awards were a Guggenheim Fellowship for study of music and languages in West Africa; election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and appointment to the Jerry and Evelyn Hemmings Chambers Professorship in Music at UC Berkeley. 

Among his publications of significance to folklorists are:

“The significance of the relationship between Afro-American music and West African music.” The Black Perspective in Music (1974): 3-22.

“Heterogeneous Sound Ideal” New perspectives on music: Essays in honor of Eileen Southern (1992): 327-338.

Phyllis M. May-Machunda

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