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Nora Douglas Holt (November 8, 1884 or 1885 – January 25, 1974) was an American singer, composer and music critic, who was born in Kansas and was the first African American to receive a master's degree in the United States. Nora Holt, a good friend of Carl Van Vechten's by the mid-1920s, was a singer and nightclub hostess and at the time a hit in Paris, where she was known as "la Creole blonde." She was also the model for the character Lasca Sartoris in Van Vechten's controversial novel Nigger Heaven (1926). Holt was also a close friend of Anita Thompson.
Holt composed more than 200 works of music and was associated with the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance and the co-founder of the National Association of Negro Musicians.
She was born Lena or Lora Douglas in Kansas City, Kansas, in either 1884 or 1885 (the exact year of her birth is contested) to Calvin Douglas, an African Methodist Episcopal Church minister, and Gracie Brown Douglas. Her mother encouraged her to start piano lessons at age four, giving her an early affinity for music and leading to her playing organ for several years in St. Augustine's Episcopal Church in Kansas City. Her father Calvin was a presiding elder with the AME Church and was on the board of trustees for Western University, eventually writing the words for the school song, "O Western U." for the dedication of Grant Hall in 1907. Nora Holt wrote the music for this song but destroyed the score in a dispute for authorship between her and her music professor who only helped with some of the harmonies.
She graduated valedictorian from Western University at Quindaro, Kansas in 1917 with a bachelor's degree in music. In 1918 she earned her master's degree in music at Chicago Musical College, becoming the first African-American person to earn a master's degree in music composition in the United States. In the late 1930s, Douglas also studied music education at the University of Southern California. At the Chicago Musical College, her thesis composition was an orchestral work called Rhapsody on Negro Themes. She later studied Fountainbleau, France.
Douglas was married five times. At the age of 15 she married a musician called Sky James, then two years later married politician Philip Scroggins, followed not long afterwards by a marriage to a barber named Bruce Jones. In 1916, she married her fourth husband, white hotel owner George Holt, taking his name and changing her first name to "Nora". In August 1913 the Pekin Theatre, famous queer venue, was sold to George Holt, white, who was the proprietor of the Brunswick Hotel (demolished in 1910) in Chicago. When George Holt died in 1921, Nora inherited his fortune.
From 1917 to 1921 Holt contributed music criticism to the Chicago Defender, a black daily newspaper. She published and edited a journal, Music and Poetry, for a brief period in 1921 and in the magazine, Nora Douglas Holt contributed an essay, “The chronological history of the NANM,” that placed her in history as the co-founder of two of the most important organizations of black classical musicians in America, the Chicago Music Association and the National Association of Negro Musicians(1919).
Holt then spent 12 years abroad in Europe and Asia, where she sang at night clubs and private parties. By 1926, when she left for Europe, she had composed more than 200 works of orchestral music and chamber songs, which she placed in storage before departure. Upon returning, she discovered that all her works had been stolen. Only one piece survived, as it had already been published. It was called Negro Dance, a ragtime-like piano piece.
During the 1920s, Holt was known as a wild socialite. She was wealthy due to her inheritance from her late husband George Holt. In 1923 she married Joseph Ray, assistant to tycoon Charles Schwab, in her fifth marriage. They moved to Pennsylvania.
Carl Van Vechten. Gladys Bentley, Prentiss Taylor, and Nora Holt, 1932 Feb. 27. Prentiss Taylor papers, 1885-1991. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
After the break-up of this marriage 19 months later, she took the name of her former husband, changing it from Ray to Holt. She moved to Harlem in the early 1920s, where she became an important part of the Harlem Renaissance. She became good friends with novelist and critic Carl Van Vechten.
While studying music at the University of Southern California in the 1930s, she also taught music in Los Angeles for several years, and also ran a beauty shop, and became involved with the Los Angeles school board. In 1943 she took a position as an editor and music critic with a black-oriented publication Amsterdam News.
In 1945, she began the annual “American Negro Artists” festival on radio station WNYC, and from 1953 through 1964 she was the producer and musical director of a weekly program, “Nora Holt’s Concert Showcase” on Harlem’s WLIB radio station. In 1966 she was a member of the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. Among many of the honors she receive during her lifetime, one of the most prestigious was her election to the Music Critics Circle of New York.
Nora Holt died January 25, 1974, in Los Angeles.
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