Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us, sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on till victory is won. ”

-James Weldon Johnson

"This Classical Roots concert is a unique outreach program to bring the orchestra to the people and trace the musical heritage of Black America," read the first program flier 44 years ago. It was 1978, and under the baton of Paul Freeman, the Brazeal Dennard Chorale and vocalists from Detroit's Black churches joined the DSO on stage for the inaugural Classical Roots concert.

Immediately popular, what began as a concert at Detroit’s historic Bethel A.M.E. Church has become a beloved annual tradition, held at Orchestra Hall since 1981. In 2001, Classical Roots expanded to include a black-tie gala and fundraiser, with luminary African American musicians, leaders, educators, businesspeople, and philanthropists honored each year.

For several decades, the Classical Roots mission has extended far beyond the concert program with composer residencies, recordings, and a fellowship program, and beyond Orchestra Hall, with school visits, chamber recitals, and community events.

“A memorable event which is now indelible history in these times of Detroit’s great renaissance – the Detroit Symphony Orchestra was awarded a king-sized greeting reception, plus a thunderous standing capacity audience ovation at the close of their recent Sunday evening ‘Classical Roots’ concert … this rare in-depth concert performance by our town’s major symphonic organ soared on wings of blessings from city and church fathers, including our honorable mayor Coleman A. Young whose salutation was impressively delivered by his representative, Khadejah Shelby.”
—Dean Nolan, Michigan Chronicle, 11/11/78


The Brazeal Dennard Chorale, founded in 1972, by Dr. Brazeal W. Dennard, is one of the longest standing organized choral groups in the country. For more than four decades, the Chorale has wooed Detroit audiences with its vocal excellence in the performance of choral music of all genres, while it continues to pursue the mission of its founder: to remember, discover, and preserve the spiritual music of the African American experience and culture. 

Classical Roots was co-founded by Brazeal Dennard and has always featured choral music at its core. The very first Classical Roots concert in 1978 featured a large choir of singers from several area churches with Brazeal Dennard Chorale members as a nucleus, described by the original program book as “representative of the interdenominational and community-wide aspect of the event.” Now led by Artistic Director Alice McAllister Tillman, the Chorale remains an important presence on each Classical Roots concert.

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“Lift Every Voice and Sing” has been sung by the Celebration Choir and audience at the beginning of every Classical Roots concert since the event’s inauguration in 1978. Voicing the cry for liberation and affirmation for African American people, the song was declared “The Negro National Anthem” by the NAACP in 1919. It gained new popularity as a protest song during the Civil Rights Movement and was entered into the Congressional Record in the 1990s as the official African American National Hymn.

The hymn was composed by John Rosamond Johnson with lyrics by Rosamond's brother, James Weldon Johnson, who in his second autobiography, Along This Way, describes the emotion in writing “Lift Every Voice and Sing”: “I could not keep back the tears, and made no effort to do so.” He later reported that creating the song’s lyrics was the greatest satisfaction of his life.

James Weldon

In 2001, the Classical Roots Celebration—a black-tie fundraiser gala and presentation of lifetime achievement award to Honoree(s)—was inaugurated. The first Honoree was Pulitzer-winning composer George Walker, whose Trombone Concerto was featuring on the concert program (with soloist Kenneth Thompkins, Principal Trombone and former African American Orchestra Fellow). Actor Danny Glover served as narrator of one of the pieces, Joseph Schwantner’s “New Morning for the World.”

During the 2019 concert, CEO Anne Parsons announced that Dr. William F. Pickard, who established the DSO’s Arthur L. Johnson Fund for African-American Artists with an initial contribution of $500,000 in 2012, was doubling his gift for a total of $1 million in support of the endowment fund.

Named for the late civil rights activist, co-founder of the Classical Roots Celebration, and mentor to Dr. Pickard, the Arthur Johnson Fund provides support for the DSO to perform, commission, and record works by African-American composers and to feature African-American guest artists—not just during Classical Roots, but throughout the year.

In recognition of Dr. Pickard’s generosity, the DSO announced that henceforth the annual Classical Roots Celebration would be named in honor of two of Dr. Pickard’s biggest mentors: the Dr. Arthur L. Johnson – Honorable Damon Jerome Keith Classical Roots Celebration.

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The DSO inaugurated its African American Orchestra Fellowship in 1990 and is proud to be a leader in celebrating the contributions of African American composers, nurturing the talents of young African American classical musicians, and increasing access and opportunity for African Americans within classical music.

The African American Orchestra Fellowship is designed to enhance the career development of African American musicians. Fellows perform in the orchestra, work closely with coaches and mentors, participate in mock auditions, and represent the DSO in the community.

The DSO’s current African American Orchestra Fellow is Jaquain Sloan, bassoon.

The African American Orchestra Fellowship is supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In 2018, the DSO was pleased to announce the expansion of the program from one Fellow position to two positions, thanks to the support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

For more information, please visit the fellowship program page here

Cole Randolph AAOF

George Walker was named the first Classical Roots Honoree in 2001. Walker, who passed away in 2018, was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, and his legacy has set the tone for every honoree that has been chosen since.

"My relationship with the DSO has been exceptional and very special."
-George Walker

Since George Walker over 20 years ago, Classical Roots Honorees have included heroes of African American music, culture, business, politics, and leadership. Many, like legendary judge Hon. Damon Keith and groundbreaking violinist Regina Carter, have roots in Detroit.

List of Classical Roots Honorees (since first Celebration in 2001): 

  • 2001: George Walker 
  • 2002: Undine Smith Moore* and Brazeal W. Dennard 
  • 2003: Adolphus Hailstork 
  • 2004: Wayne Brown, Ulysses Simpson Kay*, and Nellie Watts 
  • 2005: Hannibal Lokumbe 
  • 2006: Kathleen Battle 
  • 2007: Aaron P. Dworkin and Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson* 
  • 2008: Thomas Wilkins 
  • 2009: William Grant Still
  • 2010: Olly Wilson 
  • 2012: Arthur Johnson* and Hale Smith* 
  • 2013: James DePreist* (died 29 days before event) 
  • 2014: Dr. Robert E. L. Perkins and Dr. Willis C. Patterson 
  • 2015: Judge Damon Keith and Joseph Striplin 
  • 2016: Jessye Norman and Dr. Silas Norman, Jr.* 
  • 2017: Regina Carter and Terence Blanchard 
  • 2018: George Shirley and Dr. Earl Lewis 
  • 2019: Dr. Robert A. Harris and Dr. William F. Pickard
  • 2020: Chacona Baugh and André Watts
  • 2021: Vera Heidelberg and Wynton Marsalis
    • Special tribute: Marlowe Stoudamire 
  • 2022: Michael Morgan* and Dr. Glenda Price
    * posthumous
    • Marlowe Stoudamire Award for Innovation and Community Collaboration: Chris Harrington
  • 2023: Dr. Charles G. Adams and Anthony Davis
    • Marlowe Stoudamire Award for Innovation and Community Collaboration: Kris Johnson


The DSO prides itself on promoting and presenting new music, and this commitment extends to the Classical Roots mission in a few ways. Key among them is the African American Composer Residency, which was inaugurated in the early 1990s and revived within recent years to highlight the many African American composers working in today's music world.

2019's Composer in Residence was Jonathan Bailey Holland, whose piece "Forged Sanctuaries: String Quartet No. 2" was performed at a chamber recital at Plymouth United Church of Christ. Holland also visited classrooms to speak to Detroit schoolchildren and participated in the EarShot symposium.

In 2020, Composer in Residence Nkeiru Okoye's DSO commissioned work Black Bottom premiered on the annual Classical Roots Concert. Black Bottom was inspired by Okoye's research trip to Detroit prior to writing the work, during which she met with local historians and toured locations important to the story of Detroit's historic Black Bottom Neighborhood. Okoye's works were also performed at the annual Classical Roots chamber recital held at Detroit's Plymouth United Church of Christ, and Okoye was a guest speaker at the Detroit Association of Women's Clubs, where Michigan State Representative Isaac Robinson surprised her with a special tribute certificate from the state in honor of her extraordinary contributions to the history of Detroit.

2022 Composer in Residence, Quinn Mason's work Toast of the Town – Overture was played on the Classical Roots Coffee Concert. Mason's works were also presented at the chamber recital at Plymouth United Church of Christ. 

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The DSO commissions a new work—Dear Mrs. Parks—for Classical Roots, where it receives its world premiere. The piece, fully titled Dear Mrs. Parks: The Road to Musical Inspiration, was composed by Hannibal Lokumbe, who was also the 2005 Honoree. The oratorio features vocal parts based on imaginary letters (written by poet Naomi Long Madgett) thanking Rosa Parks for her actions and inspiration. Members of the public were encouraged to write and submit their own letters, which were shared with Lokumbe. Lokumbe also attended a special event (which included a lecture and performances) at the original Rosa Parks bus, which is on display at The Henry Ford in Dearborn.

“There were several remarkable things about Saturday’s world premiere … One was the intuition and skill with which the composer incorporated African and African-American idioms into an hour-long oratorio … Another was Lokumbe’s inspired text … DSO resident conductor Thomas Wilkins led a secure and focused reading of the often sprawling score.”

—Mark Stryker, Detroit Free Press, 2/21/05

**Note: 2005 marked the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
**Note also: Rosa Parks died later that year, on October 24, 2005.

The DSO commissions a new work—Detroit 67—for Classical Roots, where it receives its world premiere. The piece was composed by Fred A. & Barbara M. Erb Jazz Creative Chair Terence Blanchard in conjunction with the city-wide Detroit 67 project, spearheaded by the Detroit Historical Museum and meant to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Detroit’s summer of civil unrest in 1967.

The DSO commissions a new work—Black Bottom—for Classical Roots, where it receives its world premiere. Written by Composer in Residence Nkeiru Okoye, Black Bottom was inspired by Okoye's research trip to Detroit, during which she met with local historians and toured locations important to the story of Detroit's historic Black Bottom Neighborhood. 

Black Bottom Commission

List of DSO recordings of African American works:

  • 1993 – Chandos: William Grant Still, Symphony No. 1 (“African-American”); Ellington, “The River”
  • 1994 – Chandos: William Grant Still, Symphony No. 2; William Dawson, “Negro Folk Symphony”; Ellington, “Harlem”
  • 1999 – DSO…Duke Ellington and the Modern Masters: music by Anthony Davis, Alvin Singleton, Olly Wilson, and Jonathan Bailey Holland.
  • 1970s – CBS, reissued 2002 – DSO…Black Composers Series: The 2002 reissue, not comprehensive of the entire series, includes music by Hale Smith, Adolphus Hailstork, George Walker, and Roque Cordero.

Each year, the DSO makes stops at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church and Plymouth United Church of Christ in the weeks preceding the Classical Roots Celebration. Hartford features performances by the DSO African American Orchestra Fellows, and Plymouth is the site of the Classical Roots Chamber Recital, which features the Classical Roots Composer in Residence and DSO musicians performing works by African American composers.

Plymouth United2

In the week leading up to the Classical Roots concert in Orchestra Hall, guest artists, Honorees, and DSO African American Orchestra Fellows visit local classrooms. Students from across Metro Detroit have a chance to learn more about the musical traditions each musician was brought up in, why they chose to pursue music professionally, what they had to challenge or rethink along the way, and what they do to maintain excellence in their careers.

In 2021, 23 individual classrooms registered to take part, representing a total of 14 schools. Classroom attendance provided by teachers indicates that an estimated 470 students were reached.


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