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MacArthur fellow Courtney Bryan creates a ministry with music

todayNovember 15, 2023 2

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When Courtney Bryan was 5 years old, growing up in New Orleans as the youngest of three, the piano became another way to communicate without speaking. She calls it her first communication. 

Dr. Bryan, who dubs herself a “minister of music,” combines elements of jazz, classical, and gospel in ways that center Black lives. Her compositions have been featured in venues such as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, as well as orchestras around the world. 

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At a time when many people take to the streets to protest injustice, Courtney Bryan turns to her piano. The recently named MacArthur fellow calls music a way to grapple with the emotions of things, rather than become numb to others’ pain.

In 2020, the pianist and composer appeared on her first movie soundtrack when filmmaker Radha Blank featured Dr. Bryan’s song, “Oh Freedom,” in the award-winning film, “The 40-Year-Old Version.” This fall, Dr. Bryan joined the select list of composers to be awarded the MacArthur fellowship, often called the “genius grant.”

“Thinking about right now, there are ways to numb out from things, but also it’s sometimes important to face things. I feel like music gives a space to do that,” Dr. Bryan says. “Even if something is very unresolved, I like to still think about the hope element and that’s usually where the spiritual side comes into play – because sometimes it’s not like a hope knowing the answer of how things get better, but more like relying on more spiritual hope and faith.”

When Courtney Bryan was 5 years old, growing up in New Orleans as the youngest of three children, the piano became another way to communicate without speaking. She calls it her first communication. 

She has been faithful to it, as it has been to her, helping her find a unique voice. Dr. Bryan, who calls herself a “minister of music,” combines elements of jazz, classical, and gospel in ways that center Black lives. Her compositions have been featured in venues such as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, as well as orchestras around the world. 

In 2020, the pianist and composer appeared on her first movie soundtrack when filmmaker Radha Blank featured Dr. Bryan’s original song, “Oh Freedom,” in the award-winning film, “The 40-Year-Old Version.”

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

At a time when many people take to the streets to protest injustice, Courtney Bryan turns to her piano. The recently named MacArthur fellow calls music a way to grapple with the emotions of things, rather than become numb to others’ pain.

Dr. Bryan is the Albert and Linda Mintz Professor of Music at Tulane University and the composer-in-residence at Opera Philadelphia. She has been awarded several fellowships, including a yearlong program for the American Academy in Rome. None have been as big as the one she received this fall. She joins the select list of composers – including Raven Chacon, Mary Halvorson, Tomeka Reid, and Osvaldo Golijov – to be awarded the MacArthur fellowship.

The award, also known as the “genius grant,” comes with an $800,000 prize paid out over five years. Though virtually all of the recipients have a history of accomplishment, the fellowship is a commitment to their future work. The organization praised Dr. Bryan for her melding “of jazz, classical, and sacred music in works that reverberate with social and political issues of our time.”

Dr. Bryan recently spoke with the Monitor by phone. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 



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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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