Julius Eastman (1940–1990) was an African-American composer, pianist, vocalist and dancer who was born and spent the majority of his life in New York. He started playing the piano at the relatively late age of 14 but quickly progressed and went on to study first at Ithaca College and then at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he switched majors from piano to composition. After graduating from Curtis, Eastman made a successful debut as a pianist in New York City, and was then offered a coveted position on a programme for avant-garde artists at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo. During this time, Eastman divided his attention between experimental composition and piano and vocal performance, making numerous recordings and helping to found the S.E.M. Ensemble for contemporary classical music with Petr Kotik.
In both his compositions and performances, Eastman often courted controversy by exploring topics like homosexuality and racism. After leaving SUNY, Eastman settled in New York City and worked across the uptown and downtown music scenes, playing jazz, experimental classical and avant-garde pop, working on an outreach programme with other composers of colour with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, and touring the USA for concerts and recordings. Despite his music’s reputation, Eastman did not manage to secure a permanent job in composition and lived his last years in financial difficulty and with his mental and physical health declining. Since his death, many initiatives have been set up to study, reconstruct and commemorate his work.
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