The First African American, Musician and Youngest Person to be inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame

By Ken Dooley

Musical prodigy, concert pianist, and educator Raymond Thompson Jackson, Jr. became the first African American, first musician, and youngest person to be inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame at that time (1966). He was born on December 11, 1933, in Providence, Rhode Island. His mother and father were beauticians and ran a successful beauty business out of their Providence home. Jackson’s musical talent surfaced at an early age. By the time he was six years old, he could play the piano and read music. Beginning to outgrow the piano lessons of Providence’s local teachers, his parents enrolled him in piano lessons at The New England Conservatory of Music while still in junior high school. Each Saturday for five years, he waited at a corner bus stop to board the Greyhound bus for a 43-mile journey to Boston. His parents encouraged him to study the organ, which expanded his musical knowledge and keyboard skills. His mastery of this new instrument allowed him to play on the newly installed pipe organ in his church, where he served as both organist and choir director for six years, playing and conducting choral masterpieces that included Handel’s “Messiah,” and Stainer’s “Seven Last Words of Christ.” Sunday mornings found him riding in the family’s 1938 Buick, seated beside his mother, Beulah, ready to jump out to open the car door for the neighborhood elderly who were provided transportation to the church. On other occasions, he delivered his mother’s homemade pies, cakes, or hot rolls to neighbors. Jackson found immense satisfaction playing the piano for a Providence retirement community.

Those earlier roles earned him money, which, along with his parents’ financial support, enabled him to pay for future college expenses. When he graduated from Hope High School in 1951, he played the bass, violin, and organ in addition to the piano. While at Hope, he also was active in the orchestra, the band, and the Young Artists Club. He was awarded the Hope Key for his many musical activities and achievements during high school.  From 1951 until 1955, Jackson attended the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. He and his classmate, Coretta Scott King, were among a handful of African Americans who attended the Conservatory. Jackson earned a Bachelor of Music degree in Piano Performance in 1955. In addition to graduating first in his class, he received the Conservatory’s highest award, the “George Whitfield Chadwick Medal.” In 1957, Jackson earned a Bachelor of Science in Piano from the renowned Julliard School of Music in New York. He received his Master of Science and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees from Julliard in 1959 and 1973, respectively. His doctoral document, “The Piano Music of Twentieth Century Black Composers,” became the Julliard Library’s most requested title then. His highly entertaining lectures introduced keyboard works by little-known composers of African descent, illuminating their ties to the great masters of Europe and America. Jackson studied in France at the American Conservatory of Music from 1960 until 1961. After studying in France, he worked as an organist and choir director for several churches in New Jersey until 1973. In 1963, Jackson received a fellowship that allowed him to perform a series of debut piano recitals in Vienna, London, Stockholm, Geneva, and Munich. He immediately captured the hearts and applause of European audiences. In praise of his performance of Chopin’s Sonata No. 2, a critic from the Berlin Courier wrote: “It was like hearing it for the first time.” Performances before standing-room-only audiences in the Soviet Union received similar acclamation. 

Jackson’s impact on the music community extended beyond his performances. His hometown of Providence recognized his achievements by awarding him the Black Heritage Society’s Matilda ‘Sissieretta’ Jones Award for the Humanities, focusing on Cultural Literacy and the Arts. His reputation as a lecturer and inspiring teacher began to grow, earning him recognition as an academician. In 1970, he began teaching music at the collegiate level as an adjunct professor at The Mannes College of Music in New York City and Concordia College in Bronxville, NY. In 1977, he was offered a faculty position at Howard University, Washington, D.C., where he served as a Full Professor, taught piano, and coordinated student and faculty performances. After 36 years of distinguished service, he retired from Howard University in 2013. His teaching career also included positions at Concordia College, the Mannes College of Music, Catholic University, and several summers at the University of Rhode Island, leaving a lasting impact on the next generation of musicians. Fifty years after graduating, The New England Conservatory of Music awarded Jackson an Outstanding Alumni Award.

Ken Dooley is a director of The Heritage Harbor Foundation.

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