Happy Black History Month! This is the 15th blog of a series of blogs called “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know”. Each blog focuses on the life and career of a Black American whose life has shaped American history.
The focus of today’s blog is Julius Eastman, the openly gay Black composer and musician known for his minimalist style.
Born in 1940 in New York City, Julius Eastman grew up as a naturally talented pianist (NPR). He nourished his musical talent, first attending Ithaca College, then the prestigious Philadelphia campus of Curtis Institute of Music. While taking classes, Eastman worked alongside Mieczysław Horszowski and Constant Vauclain. After graduating, he taught music for a few years at the University of Buffalo (NPR).
A Creative in the 1970s
In the early ’70s, Eastman took the position of Creative Associate at SUNY Buffalo’s Center for the Creative and Performing Arts (Mary Jane Leach). Soon after, he helped found S.E.M Ensemble and toured around the U.S. During this time, he also performed with the Count Basie Orchestra and Brooklyn’s Philharmonia’s Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) Orchestra. While working with the CETA Orchestra, he set up an outreach program for composers of color (Mary Jane Leach).
“To The Fullest”
In a 1976 interview with Buffalo Evening News, Eastman said, “What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest. Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest.” Eastman, unfortunately, developed a drug addiction and contracted HIV in the 1980s (Vogue). He also experienced homelessness for a while on top of his declining health. Julius Eastman died alone in a Buffalo hospital at the age of 49 in 1990 (NPR).
Much of his music has been released posthumously. Most recently, in June 2021, the music collective called Wild Up released Eastman’s previously unreleased Femenine album (NPR). The music director at Wild Up Christopher Rountree said, “Femenine…represents Julius’ work at its most ecstatic, most revelatory, and most transcendental” (Vogue). Listen to it below.