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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The sense of justice instilled in Graffman by family and Jewish tradition made the plea he received from Moore particularly poignant. But the answer was not so simple.

“If the issue of human rights determines whether or not one will play in a particular country, then there would be very few places to play,” Graffman wrote in his charming 1981 autobiography, “I Really Should Be Practicing.”

And that’s not all. He knew that if he canceled the recital claiming illness, nothing would be gained. But if he announced the real reason, he would be violating the terms of his legally binding contract. There could be serious consequences.

He considered other possibilities: If he played the concert and publicly donated the money to SNCC, it would make quite a statement. So he sought advice from civil rights leaders like Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King, Jr., who told him they would be grateful for anything he did. But Moore stood firm: Only a boycott would make a difference.

Ultimately, the mayor of Jackson, Allen C. Thompson sealed his fate. When actor Dan Blocker of the television show “Bonanza” canceled an appearance out of sympathy for the plight of Jackson’s African-Americans, the mayor went on TV calling for a boycott of the sponsors of “Bonanza,” asserting that he only wanted people in his town who agreed with Jackson’s way of life. “For me, this was clearly a formal invitation to stay away,” says Graffman.

Still, it was not easy. Lawyers went into overtime, negotiating, posturing and pointing out the dangers of not showing up. But when it was time to travel to Jackson for the concert, Graffman instead returned to New York, where he found an urgent message from pianist David Bar-Illan. Bar-Illan had received a call asking if he would replace an ailing Graffman in Jackson.

“What’s going on?” he asked. “And how do you feel?”

When Graffman told him the details, he decided he wouldn’t go either. By this time, the news began to spread. Journalists picked up the story. And one by one, every musician on the Columbia Artists list declined to perform in Jackson.

During the hubbub, the NAACP circulated a plea to every artist under United States management to refuse to perform in segregated halls. The headlines screamed names like Arthur Rubinstein, Vladmir Horowitz, Leonard Bernstein and Erich Leinsdorf, who all joined in the effort. “A dinosaur was awakening, yawning, stretching and shaking himself (and splattering mud on everything in sight),” wrote Graffman. And a new era was beginning to emerge.

In the end, Graffman’s long-standing manager dropped him. And the pianist lost a year’s worth of concert dates. But he went on to become an internationally acclaimed artist, a director and teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and mentor of two new generations of piano superstars, including Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. One thing’s for sure: his grandfather would have been proud.

Stuart Isacoff’s latest book is “A Natural History of the Piano” (Knopf/Vintage).


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