Fused elements of jazz and classical into his works and teaching. He was among the 20th century's greatest African-American composers. His opera "Blood Wedding" premiered in Cleveland in 1953.
He began practicing piano at age seven. After high school, he served in the U.S. Army, helping to arrange the music of visiting shows to the camps.
He created orchestral works, jingles for television and radio, and even the soundtrack to a 1975 film over the course of a career spanning more than three decades.
He fathered a daughter and three sons with wife Juanita Hancock.
He worked with many jazz greats, including Dizzy Gillespie and Chico Hamilton.