Summing up Justin Elie as a musician in a book about Haiti, Edna Taft, wrote: “His work is predominantly classical in form, but Creole in inspiration.” Elie was born in Cap Haitian on September 1, 1883 and showed so much promise that his parents first enrolled him in piano classes with the Haitian pianist Ermine Faubert, before taking him to France, where he studied with world renowned French masters as Antoine François Marmontel, Émile Pessard and Paul Vital.
In 1905, Elie returned to his native country and toured it alongside Ludovic Lamothe, with tour stops that included the cities of St. Marc, Gonaïves, Port-de-Paix, Jacmel, Jérémie, Les Cayes, and that included a stop in the Dominican Republic. Elie also did a tour of Latin America that included performances in Venezuela, Cuba, and Jamaica.
Elie gained considerable renown not only among Haitians in Haiti, but among black Americans in the United States, to the point where he was selected as a Man of the Month in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) journal The Crisis in an issue in 1915.
In 1920, Elie published Meringues populaires haitiennes arrangées et harmonisées pour piano par Justin Elie (Popular Haitian Meringues Arranged and Harmonized by Justin Elie) in New York. Elie ended up producing his celebrated works during this decade: Chants de la montagne (Songs of the Mountains), and Danse de L’homme des Grottes (Dance of the Man of the Caves).
According to the book Brass Music of Black Composers: a Bibliography by Aaron Horne, Elie toured the United States as a concert pianist, and had a concert studio in Port-au-Prince. According to Michael D. Largey, Elie gained mass acceptance, and performed in such prestigious venues as Carnegie Hall in 1923, because he was being marketed as an exotic “Haytian”, who was part of a Latin American aboriginal culture revival. According to Largey, Elie was the arranger for several silent films, including for a musical segment of the 1926 silent version of Phantom of the Opera.
Elie died in New York in 1931, of a brain hemorrhage, his biggest triumph—that of composing for a show on NBC radio—never realizing. His wife Lily, who had been traveling with him, took the body to Haiti, where the composer’s funeral was held. Occide Jeanty, one of his mentors, and a great composer in his own right, presided over the funeral.