Nora Douglas Holt, a musical pioneer

Nora Holt
Tue, 1885-05-26

*The birth of Nora Douglas Holt in 1885 is celebrated on this date. She was an African American singer, composer and music critic.

Born Lena Douglas in Kansas City, Kansas; she was the daughter of Calvin Douglas, an African Methodist Episcopal Church minister and Gracie Brown Douglas. She graduated from Western University at Quindaro, Kansas and later earned a Bachelors degree in music in 1917. In 1918 she earned her Masters Degree in music at Chicago Musical College, becoming one of the first African American woman to complete a Masters program in United States. Her thesis composition was an orchestral work called Rhapsody on Negro Themes.

She was married five times and in 1916 married her fourth husband, hotel owner George Holt, taking his name and changing her first name to "Nora". From 1917-1921 she contributed to the Chicago Defender, a black daily newspaper, contributing musical criticism pieces. In 1919 she co-founded the National Association of Negro Musicians and then spent 12 years abroad in Europe and Asia singing at night clubs and private parties. She composed over 200 works of orchestral music and chamber songs; however upon leaving for Europe in 1926 she placed her manuscripts in storage and upon returning discovered that they had all been stolen. Only one piece survived because it was published prior to the theft and is called Negro Dance, (ragtime based piano piece).

During the 1920's Holt was known as a wild socialite and was fairly wealthy due to her inheritance from her late (fourth) husband. In 1923 she married her last husband Joseph Ray, assistant to tycoon Charles Schwab. They moved to Pennsylvania, but the marriage did not last and she soon moved to Harlem and became an important part of the Harlem Renaissance and became good friends with novelist and critic Carl Van Vechten. During the 1930's she studied at the University of Southern California and taught music in Los Angeles for several years.

In 1943 she took a position as an editor and music critic with the Amsterdam News. During the early 1950's to early 1960's Holt began hosting radio concert series called "Nora Holt's Concert Showcase" which ended in 1964. In 1966 she was a member of the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. She was the first African American to receive a Master’s Degree in the United States. She also was the co-founder of the National Association of Negro Musicians. Nora Holt died January 25, 1974 in Los Angeles.

ACSAP Biographical Dictionary
R. R. Bowker Co., Copyright 1980
ISBN 0-8351-1283-1

To Become a Musician or Singer

Person / name: 

Holt, Nora Douglas