Jessie Montgomery
Jessie Montgomery curates a Chicago Symphony MusicNOW concert on Dec. 3 spotlighting the Blacknificent 7 | Credit: Todd Rosenberg

Composer collectives are created for a variety of reasons and could include a shared political or artistic outlook. But ultimately, they provide the opportunity for feedback, collaboration, and friendship, the three reasons that fortuitously brought together the Blacknificent 7 during the extreme isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The genesis of this group of seven highly accomplished composers was a Facebook Live talk show called #KikiKonversations, created and hosted by soprano Karen Slack “as a way for artists and industry leaders to connect during a time when the entire performing arts sector had been hit with devastating loss.” On April 30, 2020, her guest was seven-time Grammy winner and two-time Academy Award nominee Terence Blanchard, a composer, bandleader, and trumpeter who was appointed the new executive artistic director of SFJAZZ in June 2023.

Jasmine Barnes
Jasmine Barnes | Courtesy of the Chicago Symphony

The other panelists, all Black composers Slack had worked with before, included Shawn E. Okpebholo, a composer and professor at Wheaton College Conservatory of Music; Damien Geter, a bass-baritone and composer who has been commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Glimmerglass Festival, and Washington National Opera; Dave Ragland, a composer, vocalist, pianist, and conductor; Joel Thompson, a composer, conductor, and pianist best known for the choral work Seven Last Words of the Unarmed (2015); Jasmine Barnes, a soprano and composer who is currently a resident artist in Opera Theater of Saint Louis’s 2024 New Works Collective; and Jessie Montgomery, a composer and violinist who is currently the Chicago Symphony’s Mead composer-in-residence.

After meeting that day, they decided to continue the conversation and support and help each other through this difficult period of the pandemic. The group also decided to add a seventh member, Carlos Simon, a Grammy-nominated composer, curator, and activist who is currently the composer-in residence at The Kennedy Center.

One of the outcomes of this collaboration was the creation of the opening program in the Chicago Symphony’s 2023–2034 MusicNOW Series, taking place on Dec. 3 and curated by Montgomery. It will feature compositions by members of the Blacknificent 7, including the world premiere of The United States Welcomes You, commissioned and written for MusicNOW by Barnes, who will be performing the work along with Geter and a chamber orchestra.

“The text is by Tracy K. Smith, who is a former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and author,” said Barnes in a recent phone chat. “I have set text for her before, and I love her work. What drew me to this poem is that its entire text is all questions — it’s like an interrogation, which I thought was a pretty cool concept to play with musically.”

Barnes talked about how much she loves being part of the Blacknificent 7 and how it evolved. She explained that after the panel discussion, the chemistry was so strong that these composers all decided to stay connected through social media, since they all live in different places. They have since become good friends as well as colleagues.

“We have all been so supportive of each other. I love the camaraderie that we all share and how much we respect each other,” Barnes exclaimed.I’ll ask them questions, and they are so gracious, full of resources and experience, and selflessly giving. We talk about our careers and give each other feedback on compositions,” she added. “I cherish everyone in the Blacknificent 7 so much.”

When asked about how the group came up with its name, Barnes replied, “It was a joke. We were laughing and joking around about what we should call ourselves. We played around with the Magnificent 7, but Blacknificent 7 — that was it. We all loved it, and it just stuck.”

Since its inception, the group has worked on projects together in different configurations, and they are currently working on a recital titled African Queens, which was commissioned by none other than Slack. Scheduled to premiere in August 2024, the program will feature the soprano performing vocal compositions by each member of the Blacknificent 7 and will celebrate “the history and legacy of seven African queens, revered as rulers but not widely heralded in the Western world.”

Regarding the future of the group and whether it will pursue more projects together, Barnes stated, “We talk about a ton of things, but we want to take it a step at a time. We’re planning. We’re figuring out what that looks like and how that happens. It’s really cool to dream and plan, and I’m pretty sure we’ll be doing more things together. We have talked about it since inception.”