Huffpost Arts

Black Classical Musicians: A Case Study In Beating The Odds

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ROY EATON
as part of a special series celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation., Pianist Roy Eaton performs at a live taping at the music station WQXR | Still from WQXR

Black men and women have built practically every musical tradition in the West: jazz, blues, rock and roll, funk. But when it comes to classical music, both onstage and in the crowd, they're few and far between.

Probing the question of why this is inevitably leads to the odds-defying stories of those black talents who do make their way into the great music halls. Take Roy Eaton. Eaton grew up in Sugar Hill, New York in the 1930s, a once-black neighborhood famous for producing a dizzying number of artists, musicians and actors. Eaton eventually rose to the ranks of his fellow alumni, but he did so with a disfigured hand, a result of gangrene brought on by hospital negligence.

Now a white-haired pianist and motivational speaker, Eaton recounted this story in the WQXR studio in New York City last night, as part of a series celebrating the 150th year of the Emancipation Proclamation. The odds, already stacked against him as a black man in early 20th century America, only got worse: while playing a game inspired by the many summonses being pushed under the doors of his apartment building, demanding evictions, three-year-old Eaton wound up with a jammed finger. He was shuttled to the closest place for help, a disinterested "private white hospital," where his injury worsened, he told co-hosts Terrance McKnight and Helga Davis. He eventually lost half of the first joint of his right ring finger -- what one might call part of his money-maker, in hindsight.

Eaton framed this handicap as a metaphor for the larger one facing young black musicians:

Most African American homes do not as a habit listen to classical music. They haven’t been shown the possibility and also they don’t see role models. That is something that has infuriated me -- I was going to say ‘irked,’ but it’s not ‘irked’ -- it’s infuriated me...Julius Watkins was one of the greatest French Horn players I have ever met in my entire life. But he was black, so he couldn’t get a hearing at the New York Philharmonic.”

Of course, that the night was intercut with performances by first rate black classicists -- including a French Hornist -- made the point that the world has changed in some key ways. We highly recommend the full broadcast for the rest of Eaton's segments and those that followed, all of which pretty much give a beautifully cocked half-finger to the odds.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the part of Roy Eaton's hand that was lost to gangrene. We apologize for the error.

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