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From Clark Johnsen's Diary - America's Greatest Living Composer, George Walker, 96, R.I.P.

09-04-2018 | By Clark Johnsen | Issue 99

The late George Walker was old school, a kindly gentleman with Southern-style manners and an immense musical talent that took many forms, most notably as composer and pianist. I was once honored to hear him perform a Beethoven sonata movement in his home on his own concert grand. It was grand!

How I came to know Mr. Walker is disclosed in the last paragraph of his Boston Globe obituary (see below): According to his son, "He was also an uncompromising audiophile with a living room full of futuristic stereo paraphernalia." George had been introduced to me through a mutual friend in New Jersey and I became one of his audio advisers, although I'm not sure how many others he had, if any. What the son describes as "futuristic" may have been the gorgeous, exotic Verdier turntable, or it may have been the various odd "tweaks" I had supplied. So far as I can recall the rest of his system was more-or-less regular: tube amplification and electrostatic loudspeakers.

I visited George perhaps half a dozen times and was always most graciously received. One trip sticks indelibly in memory. I've been beer shopping on Houston Street in Manhattan, so to arrive on time for my 4 o'clock appointment with him in Montclair, New Jersey, I head up Canal Street  to the Holland Tunnel; but at the entrance the police are erecting a barricade, no explanation given. And there I sit, first car to be halted but happy enough to be ahead of the angry honking New York mob behind me. Relaxing, I slide a cassette into the radio, pull out a clipboard to do some work on the manuscript of The Wood Effect, then hop outside to fetch a beer from the trunk. After half an hour or so the cops show up to remove the barrier and signal traffic to move on. 

Now comes the great part. As leader of the pack with a totally clear tunnel before me I floor it and maintain 65 per through the whole length. In Montclair George asks, "How was your trip over from Manhattan?"

"Not bad. Got through the tunnel in under two minutes."

"No!" So my story is told, and not for the last time.

Besides audio George and I always had plenty to discuss about music; thus our listening sessions concerned more the latter than the former. He was a huge fan of Victoria de los Angeles and Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, so there was a lot of their fine singing to be heard, with commentary and comparisons. He never played any recordings of his own material, however, and more's the pity

Occasionally through the mail I would receive a cassette of some performance or other of his music, and one time a two-hour interview feature on KUSC in L.A. Also I began acquiring LPs, then CDs, of George's recordings, including those of him as a pianist. The latter turned out to be on the very piano I had heard him play at home. The sound was cramped but the performances were thoughtful and beautiful. He made several recordings of his own music as well, some with his son Gregory on violin. (His other son is a playwright. What a family!)

Another notable event occurred in 1996 when George received the Pulitzer Prize in music for his composition "Lilacs", commissioned by the Boston Symphony. I attended its premier here in Boston courtesy of a ticket George sent me. It was widely noted that his was the first music Pulitzer to be rewarded to an "African-American," but George strenuously abjured that designation. (Paraphrase: I am not an African-American. At first I was colored, then I was a Negro, and then a black man. That's when I stopped changing the name used for my outer appearance.) He further insisted that his music was not reflective of any particular "black" style. Nor did he much care for, best I can recall him telling me, anything like jazz or "soul."

I feel specially privileged to have known the man whom I often referred to over the years as the greatest living American composer. God rest George Walker's beautiful soul.

George Walker: the great American composer you've never heard of HERE.

Boston Globe obituary, with a detailed life story HERE.

For an introduction to Walker's music, I recommend the great and very fine Concerto for Trombone HERE and HERE.