Donal Fox is internationally acclaimed as composer, pianist, and improviser, whose career has daringly straddled two traditions - Western classical music and African-American jazz and blues.
Donal Fox was born into an artistic home where the music of J.S. Bach, Igor Stravinsky, Charlie Parker and Miles got equal hearing. His career is the story of that dialectic. He received early training in the Western classical piano repertoire at the New England Conservatory of Music, but began rebelling early. He began composing in mixed idioms of jazz and classical as a teenager, studied at Boston's famous "jazz college," Berklee and, at 17, received a scholarship to study at the Tanglewood Music Center, summer home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Fox continued to study composition and theory under an impressive series of tutors. One of them, Gunther Schuller, had early on proposed the blending of jazz and European classical idioms in a concept he called "Third Stream." Another early teacher was T. J. Anderson, who shared not only Fox's African-American background, but an equal interest in drawing techniques from varied traditions.
Fox's Refutation and Hypothesis I, A Treatise for Piano Solo (1981), established Donal Fox as an accomplished composer -- one who could draw not only on the standard repertoire of the Western classical tradition, from Bach and the German romantics to the great modernists Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Arnold Schoenberg, and Cage, but also on jazz's improvisational discipline and the shouts and field hollers of the blues. Fox's performances of that piece also clearly established him as a virtuoso pianist. He executed speedy, complexly written passages with crystal clear articulation and demonstrative physical force. He could play with jazz feeling but also had a Chopinesque sense of the instrument's tonal range and color that was uncommon for a jazz pianist in the post-bop era. What's more, the score's call for spontaneous shouts, body-slaps, even cursing, drew on Fox's unique emotional resources as a performer. It's safe to say that Fox's early performances of Refutation and Hypothesis I (later revised for piano and chamber orchestra) shook up some traditional concert hall audiences.
In 1990, Donal Fox began a series of collaborations that originated in Boston and were soon stunning audiences throughout the world. In August of 1990, Fox collaborated with the saxophonist/composer Oliver Lake, a founding member with David Murray of the World Saxophone Quartet. Their performance of original compositions and spontaneous improvisations at Cambridge's Regattabar Jazz Club was recorded and later released by Music and Arts as "Boston Duets." Other collaborations in the series followed. Fox performed with Murray, with the saxophonists Billy Pierce, John Stubblefield, and the poet Quincy Troupe. Several of these performances were recorded and broadcast on PBS television and public radio, including the Branford Marsalis-hosted "JazzSets."
Concurrently, Donal Fox served as the first African American composer-in-residence with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra for two seasons (1991-1993), where he worked with the St. Louis Chamber players and was commissioned to write a piano concerto. He participated in New York's "Bang on a Can" festival of new music, was invited to perform at the Library of Congress, and composed "Gone City" (New World, 1997) for Boston Ballet. Meanwhile, he created a stir in his work with the chamber groups Dinosaur Annex and Boston Musica Viva. Fox prepared traditionally trained chamber players for those performances with what he called "playing in the sandbox." Conducting from the piano, Fox prodded his colleagues to take the leap into improvisation based on his scores and cues. The performances impressed critics not only with their conceptual daring, but their cohesive integrity. In the l993-1994 season, Fox was a special guest artist at the Library of Congress in a program that was recorded by National Public Radio, and was a visiting artist at Harvard University where he received a Certificate of Recognition from the President of Harvard College for his contribution to the arts.
In the 1998-1999 season, Donal Fox was a featured concert artist with the Richmond Symphony (VA) where he gave the world premiere performance of Anthony Kelley's piano concerto Africamerica. The concerto asks for Fox to compose and improvise four cadenzas and many solo passages, bridging both jazz and classical styles inherent in the concerto. In the 2003-2004 season, he was a featured concert artist with the American Composer Orchestra Improvise Festival! where he gave the New York premiere performance of T.J. Anderson's piano concerto Boogie Woogie Concertante with the MSM Jazz Philharmonic at LaGuardia Concert Hall. The concerto was written especially for Fox and asks for him to improvise all the solo passages and cadenzas in the eight movement work with spontaneous interactive dialogue with the orchestra.
In 2003 and 2004, Donal Fox held artist-in-residence posts at the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Northern Ireland and the Oberfäzer Künstlerhaus in Schwandorf, Germany. Fox was named Top Ten Jazz Act in 2004 in the company of Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, and Ron Carter by jazz journalist Bill Beuttler of The Boston Globe. In the 2005-2006 season, Fox premiered his Monk and Bach Project at Jazz at Lincoln Center, his orchestra piece, Hear De Lambs A-Cyrin, commissioned by the Albany Symphony Orchestra for The Spiritual Project, and the world premiere of his composition Peace Out, My Brother at Carnegie Recital Hall.. In 2006-2007 season, he gave the world premiere performance of T.J. Anderson's second Piano Concerto Fragments (A Bach and Monk Fantasy, for Improvised Piano and Orchestra), written expressively for Fox and the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra, and The Bach Choir of Bethlehem - the oldest Bach Choir in USA - featured Fox in his Blues on Bach Project to celebrate their 100th anniversary.
Donal Fox's exciting and innovative “Jazz Duet Series” has included concerts, recordings, and collaborations with Oliver Lake, John Stubblefield, Billy Pierce, David Murray, Elliott Sharp, Regina Carter, Andrew Cyrille, Stefon Harris, Al Foster, Gary Burton, John Patitucci, and poet Quincy Troupe to name a few. He has recorded as composer and pianist for New World Records, Evidence Records, Music & Arts, Passin' Thru Records, Yamaha's Original Artist Series, and Wergo Records.
The tensions in Fox's career between two traditions has lead to a unique and original style. When Fox's pieces were released on the omnibus composers' album “Videmus” (New World, l992), the Pulitzer Prize winning critic Lloyd Schwartz wrote, "Fox is one of the most exciting musical personalities on the current scene. His four pieces are dazzlingly performed (or improvised) by the composer alone or with the marvelous young clarinetist Eric Thomas or the great alto-saxophonist Oliver Lake. The entire album achieves a vivid, even uncanny coherence - really an entire new and powerful work in itself."
Donal Fox’s numerous awards include a 1997 Guggenheim Fellowship in music composition, a 1998 Fellowship from the Bogliasco Foundation (Italy), and 1999, 2001, and 2003 nominations for a CalArts/Alpert Award in the Arts. In 2008, Mr. Fox was awarded the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters Academy Award in Music. The annual prize is awarded to composers of "exceptional accomplishment" and "outstanding artistic achievement."