Olly Wilson

Olly Wilson was a celebrated composer who combined African and Western music traditions with his expertise in jazz and electronic music to create many unique compositions.

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Born in St. Louis Missouri in 1937, Wilson went on to receive his undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis, where he began as one of just ten African Americans enrolled at the university. He went on to receive his master in music composition from University of Illinois and his PhD in music composition from University of Iowa. After completing his degrees he became an esteemed educator himself, teaching briefly at Florida A&M and Oberlin Conservatory, and serving as a long time professor at University of California, Berkeley. 

A year after he began teaching at Berkeley he received his first Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to move to Ghana to study African music, which would highly influence his unique compositional style. During his time at Oberlin he also worked to establish a program in electronic music. Throughout his career, he continued to perform at a double bassist in local jazz ensembles and with orchestras including the St. Louis Philharmonic, the St. Louis Summer Chamber Players, and the Cedar Rapids Symphony. 

Wilson’s compositions are all deeply rooted in his scholarship and study, often combining his knowledge of African music, African American culture, other western influences, and even electronic music aspects to create music that was deeply his own. His compositions were performed in many major American orchestras including Atlanta, Baltimore, Saint Louis, Detroit, and Dallas symphonies, as well as by other major international forces. 

Olly Wilson died in 2018 due to complications of dementia, and his work is remembered for its unique combination of every aspect of his background to create soundscapes unlike any other.

Megan Maloney 

This profile was created in 2021 as part of the Song of America Fellowship Program, a project of the Classic Song Research Initiative between the Hampsong Foundation and the University of Michigan, School of Music, Theatre, and Dance.

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