The Forgotten Black Composer: Julius Eastman

Other | Monday 5th June 2017 | Pasha

Julius Eastman, a little-known minimalist musician, dancer and composer died alone on 28th May 1980. It took eight months before any public notice was published.


His works and manuscripts appeared to have vanished with him until the 2005 record ‘Unjust Malaise’ and last years ‘Feminin’ were released. 


Eastman is significant, not just for being an acclaimed composer with a tragic story, but for being an openly gay African-American coming up in the 1970s and 80s America. Eastman’s existence, which is having a resurgence in popularity, contradicts the often presumed idea that minorities, particularly African-Americans do not have a place in the discourse and development of classical music, which is simply untrue.


The legendary composer is a name among many other black brilliant black composers.Such as George Walker, the African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1996,  and William Grant nicknamed ‘The Dean’ of African-American composers who was the first black musician to have a composition played by a leading orchestra. 



Eastman’s Unjust Malais, (an anagram of his name), is an assembly of truly fascinating and complex scores. His scattered approach to early minimalism is romantic at times but oppressive, jarring, dark and threatening at others. With provocative titles such as ‘Evil Nigger’ and ‘Gay Guerrilla,’ Eastman is truly a one of a kind artist who deserves to be credited for his place in history and music. 



Despondent at the lack of worthy opportunities that Eastman was being offered in his lifetime, he found himself falling into drug dependency and was evicted from his apartment in 1980. A friend Rocco Di Pietro described Eastman as alien to ‘self-promotion’, who was not willing to compromise or soften his provocations, which were seen as inaccessible to the contemporary audiences. 


Pietro recalls that the last time he saw Julius, he was ragged and dishevelled, compositions stuffed into his pockets, desiring only one thing, to play the piano.