Gary Graffman's Journey From Jewish Piano Virtuoso to Civil Rights Pioneer

Legendary Pianist Learned Justice From Grandparents

Piano Man: Gary Graffman is celebrating his birthday in October with the release of a 24 CD box set of his entire recorded output.
Carol Rosegg
Piano Man: Gary Graffman is celebrating his birthday in October with the release of a 24 CD box set of his entire recorded output.

By Stuart Isacoff

Published September 27, 2013, issue of October 04, 2013.
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Recent commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement’s landmark March on Washington might not appear to have much in common with the legacy of American Jewish pianist Gary Graffman, who celebrates his 85th birthday on October 14.

But history entwined the two in 1964, when one of this country’s most revered musicians and teachers unexpectedly found himself leading an anti-segregation campaign in the Deep South — and paid a steep price for his efforts.

Graffman — whose birthday is being marked with the release of a 24 CD box set on Sony of his entire recorded output — had not been politically active before he received a letter from a student in Jackson, Miss. named Austin C. Moore III, asking for help. Despite the 1954 Supreme Court desegregation ruling, African-Americans were excluded from the kind of concerts Graffman gave, or at best, forced to sit in designated areas, such as the balcony.

Moore, a student at Tougaloo College, was active in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. His letter was a plea for Graffman to boycott a February concert he was to give at Jackson’s Municipal Auditorium. It had been arranged by his management, the Columbia Artists’ “Community Concerts” division, which booked young up-and-coming musicians in venues around the country.

A recent incident in Jackson had set off a firestorm. Two black students who were standing in line for a concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London were barred from entering, even though they held tickets; when they protested, the two were arrested and held in jail overnight. Graffman said he was moved, pointing to his ancestry as the reason he couldn’t ignore the request.

“My grandfather, David Semyonovich Margolin, was prominent in the world of the Jews of Eastern Europe,” recalls Graffman as we sip dill-flavored vodka in his apartment near Carnegie Hall.

“He came from an extremely wealthy family. My great-grandfather owned most of the boats on the Dnieper River, and even though he was Jewish he became chairman of the gas and electric company of Kiev. And he introduced the street-car to Russia. He only believed in the Russian Ruble and the German Mark, otherwise I’d be a billionaire today.

“There were murders throughout the region in that period, and they were often blamed on Jews. This came to a head with Mendel Beiliss, who had been accused of the ritual murder of a Christian child. Some people got together and decided enough was enough — and not all of them were Jewish, by the way. My grandfather had an idea of what really had happened, became the defender of Beiliss, and found the guilty murderess. She ran away, but Beiliss was saved. It was the first time that a Jew defending a Jew had accomplished such a feat in Russia. He was disbarred for his efforts.

“But as a result of winning the case, he became a hero in the brief time that the Ukraine was independent after the First World War. He became a representative to England, in fact, and took my mother with him. Then the Bolsheviks took over. He moved to America with my mother.”


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