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Gordon Parks: Musician 

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 Most known for his photography and filmmaking, Gordon Parks was also a fine composer of classical and popular music. He was a gigantic fan of Duke Ellington. Gordon had the same style and flair as the legendary jazz music icon he admired. And some of his music reflected that close identity. Sometimes, though, he’d play music by Rachmaninoff, seeping himself in the richness of that kind of complex, modern music with shifting harmonies and haunting melodies. Other times, he’d wear out a CD of a favorite singer, playing “The Look of Love” by Diana Kraal at least a thousand times a day for weeks or even months.


 A self-taught pianist, Parks composed Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1953). The Learning Tree was Gordon’s first Hollywood film and premiered in August of 1969. The Tree Symphony was written by Gordon in 1967. After directing Shaft, Gordon went on to direct and compose music for Shaft’s Big Score, released in 1972.  This film featured the very legendary song “Don’t Misunderstand” made popular by vocalist Nancy Wilson.  He also added music to another film he directed in 1984 “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey.”


Gordon composed music for the 1987 film Moments Without Proper Names and the 1990 film Martin – a film ballet.


In the year 2000, Gordon collaborated with master cellist Kermit Moore to produce the music for A Star For Noon Suite, composed to accompany a book of the same title.


New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield released an album entitled “Half-Past Autumn Suite” that features music by Gordon Parks.


Gordon Parks began his artistic career as a musician, starting out as a brothel pianist and traveling with a jazz band. He had been playing piano by ear since his childhood and, although he could not read or write music, he started composing his own piano pieces. While Parks would soon take up the camera more seriously and begin his accomplished career as a photographer, he continued to compose music. In 1956, a Vienna orchestra performed his piano concerto.  He also scored some of the films he directed, including the first major Hollywood film by a black American director, The Learning Tree (1969). In 1990, he composed the music and libretto for Martin, a ballet honoring the life of Martin Luther King Jr. 


  • The Learning Tree, 1969

  • Shaft’s Big Score, 1972

  • Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, 1984

  • Moments Without Proper Names, 1987

  • Run Sister Run, 1987


  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, 1953 

  • The Tree Symphony, 1967. Composed with themes by Parks; basis for music used in film The Learning Tree 

  • Martin, ballet released on film, 1990

  • A Star for Noon Suite, 2000. Companion to book A Star for Noon

  • Five piano sonatas

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