Thomas Henderson Kerr, Jr. was born on January 3, 1915 in Baltimore, Maryland. Kerr was raised in a musical family. His father, Thomas Henderson Kerr, Sr., was a famous orchestra leader and composer. From a young age, Kerr played the piano, even teaching himself how to play the organ. At the age of 14, he was playing for churches and in nightclubs. He attended Douglass High School, whose famous alumni also include composer Mark Fax, jazz singer and bandleader Cab Calloway, and soprano Anne Brown, who originated the role of Bess in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.
Following high school, Kerr dreamed of attending the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, but African American students were not admitted during that period of time. He, instead, attended Howard University for one year before continuing his musical studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. At Eastman, he completed his Bachelor of Music degree in piano and theory, as well as his Master’s degree in theory.
Kerr began composing music while was a member of the music faculty at Knoxville College in Tennessee. In 1943, he returned to Howard University as a Professor of Piano and the Chairman of the Piano Department. He remained at Howard University until his retirement in 1976, after more than 30 years as a member of the faculty.
On August 26, 1988, Kerr was hit by a car in Adelphi, Maryland. In a statement issued by the county’s police department, it was reported the driver had a green light when he stuck Kerr. It was theorized that Kerr may not have been able to see the light change due to his cataracts. He was taken to the Washington Hospital Center where he died at the age of 73.
At the time of his death, Kerr had composed more than one hundred pieces, including works for piano, voice, organ, choir, and chamber ensembles. He had even begun composing an opera that was never completed about the life of Frederick Douglass. He was also the recipient of the Rosenwald Fellowship for Composition in 1942 as well as the first-place prize of the Composers and Authors of America Contest in 1944.
–Jasmine Mould (Christie Finn, ed.)
This biographical essay is made possible because of the Song of America Initiative for African-American Classic Song, a collaboration between the Hampsong Foundation and Dr. Scott Piper’s Winter 2016 course “The Art Songs of African American Composers” at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
“KENNETH B. ROLLINS DIES AT 52.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 30 Aug. 1988. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
Kerr, Hortense R., and Marva Cooper. “Selected Piano Music of Thomas H. Kerr, Jr.” Music Research Institute, Aug. 2002. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
Perkins Holly, Ellistine. Biographies of Black Composers and Songwriters: A Supplementary Textbook. Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1990.
“Thomas Henderson Kerr, Jr. Papers, 1931-2002.” ArchiveGrid. OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.