John Parsons Beach was born the nephew of Cyrus Northrop, then president of the University of Minnesota. Demonstrating an early facility for the piano, Beach studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, returning after graduation to become a piano instructor at the University of Minnesota. Not long after setting in Minneapolis, Beach published his first collection of songs, Songs for a Day (1900).
Beach came into contact with Arthur Farwell, the "American Indianist" publisher of the Wa-Wan Press, who took an interest in Beach's works although they were not Indianist by nature and betrayed the influence of Debussy; Beach was soon dubbed the "modernist" of the Wa-Wan group. During his years with the Wa-Wan Press, Beach published mostly songs, but also some short pieces for piano. His New Orleans Miniatures (1906) are interesting mood pieces -- derived from contemporary New Orleans scenery, and realized with a mildly impressionistic harmonic palette, spindly, Satie-like textures, and the slightest hint of syncopation.
The Wa-Wan Press closed up shop around 1910, and Beach went abroad to study. In Paris, Beach sharpened up his pianist skills with the help of expatriate American pianist Harold Bauer, and took André Gédalge's composition class at the Conservatoire. In 1915, Beach had his one-act opera Pippa's Holiday performed at the Théâtre Réjane in Paris. Beach also studied orchestration with Malipiero in Venice.
Upon returning to the United States, Beach continued his lessons with the aging composer George W. Chadwick as well as Charles M. Loeffler. Beach initially came to prominence in the United States through the premiere of his symphonic poem The Asolani under Henri Verbrugghen in Minneapolis on November 12, 1926. This was followed by Orleans Alley, which was successfully introduced in Philadelphia on April 22, 1927, under Leopold Stokowski. Orleans Alley was subtitled "New Orleans street cries at dawn" and briefly enjoyed popularity as a concert work programmed in conjunction with Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. To this end, Beach composed a Louisiana Rhapsody (1930); his other orchestral works include the ballets The Phantom Satyr (1925) and Mardi Gras (1926).
Despite his limited success, Beach seems to have altogether stopped composing by 1930. From that point until his death in Pasadena at age 76, Beach held a number of minor teaching positions in colleges throughout the United States. His manuscripts, encompassing only 38 works, reside at the New York Public Library. As John Parsons Beach was born in the 1870s, he belongs to the first generation of American modernist composers, along with Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, and Arthur Fickénscher.