There's that piece, “Crazy N*****.” For me, it's one of the most tough to digest. How can you title a piece like that? What? How can we put that on a program?
This is Isaac Jean-Francois. He’s talking about a piano piece by the composer Julius Eastman, who was part of the minimalist classical music scene of the 70s and 80s.
Julius was a Black gay man in the white world of classical music—much like Isaac is today.
It is incredibly exhausting to be someone who loves this music—classical music, opera—to go to performances, to see no one that looks like you in the audience, no one that looks like you on the stage, and no one that looks like you in the orchestra.
Isaac discovered Julius Eastman as an undergrad. And now, as a PhD student at Yale, he’s writing about Eastman as part of his dissertation. And one of the things Isaac loves about Julius’ compositions is that they demand a lot of you.
What's it like listening to an Eastman piece, like as a metaphor? Like if it were like a food, what would it be?
Uh, a casserole. Hot, bubbly, super comforting. And sometimes you, you've just eaten too much. You get like a gnarly stomach ache, but it's sitting in the fridge waiting for you at like one o'clock in the morning. And you're back, you're back with it.
That gnarly casserole, that food you want to gorge yourself on even if it makes you sick, that’s the music of Julius Eastman.
If you don’t know a lot about minimalist classical music, think: John Cage’s 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, or a single pianist improvising for five hours, or a symphony composed for just metronomes. Definitely boundary-pushing stuff. And Julius’ style of composition and performance was especially subversive.
At every turn, walking on stage barefoot, putting out cigarettes on piano keys, like convention is challenged.
But for Isaac, a lot of the stories about Julius in the mainstream press fall flat. For one thing, almost all of them lead with the circumstances of his death. Here’s a piece from NPR that aired in 2021.
When composer Julius Eastman died in a Buffalo, New York hospital in 1990, he was 49 years old, alone, and his music was scattered to the winds. Only recently friends and scholars have been slowly shedding light on Eastman’s music and the details of his final, erratic years. A new recording of the composer’s…[fade]
This version of the story goes like this: Julius Eastman was a great composer. He was also a skilled performer, with a beautiful baritone voice, and was nominated for a Grammy for his performance of “8 Songs for a Mad King.” But in his final years, he got caught up in, quote, “drugs, or mental illness, or both” as the New York Times put it. He was evicted from his apartment, and his scores blew into the street, many of them lost forever.
It’s a tragic tale: a misunderstood genius dying homeless and alone, finding recognition only after death.
But when we looked into Julius Eastman’s story, it became clear that it wasn’t pure tragedy. We also found mystery, drama, comedy, and even erotica. In Julius, we found a visionary whose work and personality were so provocative, so controversial, that even now, thirty years after his death, the people who knew him best disagree profoundly over who Julius was and how we should treat his work now that he’s gone.
I’m Sarah Esocoff and this is Sounds Gay, a podcast about the intersection of music and queerness. This week, we’re tackling the uncanny legacy of Julius Eastman, as told by those he left behind.
You’re going to hear from four people who each have a story about Julius. And all of their stories are very different.
I’m thinking of this episode like a symphony, where each story represents its own movement.
Movement 1: Mary Jane Leach
Mary Jane Leach:
I think he was one of those people that everybody thought they knew, but didn't really know.
Like Julius, Mary Jane Leach is an experimental composer. The two ran in the same circles back in the 1980s.
I'm there and he shows up and he's wearing black leather and chains and drinking scotch, and I'm just like, whoa. He was like, you know, kind of a larger than life personality.
They didn’t know each other well at the time, but after Julius died, Mary Jane went looking for a certain piece of his she remembered, a piece for 10 cellos. She knew a friend had it on cassette. But when she went to look for it…
It was missing, the box was empty.
Mary Jane’s friend suggested they try another composer, and he did have it.
So I went to his house and because those were the days where you made copies in real time, we were sitting around talking as he was making the, the copy. And that was the first inkling that I had that his music was missing.
Mary Jane is a musician by training, not an archivist. But she knew what a feat it would be to recover Julius' work. Finding these tapes—and later, Julius’ scores—has been a major part of Mary Jane’s work for almost 25 years. She arranged the release of several CDs of Julius’ pieces, and co-edited a book about him called Gay Guerilla, named for one of his compositions. She’s the reason why there are so many recordings and scores for people to reference. And she believes that honoring Julius’ legacy means performing his work as accurately as possible.
Some of the groups that are playing his music now, some are doing really fantastic jobs and others are like making it their own piece instead of making it Julius's piece.
Mary Jane wrote in Gay Guerilla that she hopes people will focus on Julius’ music, and not on, quote, “his flamboyant life.” But since she knew Julius, I wondered if she felt the loss of him as a person, not just as a composer.
of course I feel horrible that he's, you know, gone, and that he didn't write more music, but would he have written more music if he had lived on? I don't know. You know, it's, it's, it's, um, I guess to be a Pollyanna, we're lucky that we have what we have.
So when you think about him, it really is mostly about the music, and like the possibility of him living longer is just about, is, is mostly about like, would he have written more?
Yeah, I think so.
Hmm. And when you're doing your work of recovering his music, how are you relating to him as a person while you're doing that? Like, how are you kind of thinking about him?
I'm not. Yeah, for me, I mean, it's, you know, superficial, but I'm really basically thinking about the music.
Movement 2: Tionna Nekkia McClodden
Tiona Nekkia McClodden:
This is the hardest thing ever to come up against people who have a particular sense of ownership over this man, but don't care about him. I think it's a coping mechanism for people who don't know how to deal with difficult Black things.
Tiona Nekkia McClodden is an artist and curator. While Mary Jane was tracking down Julius’ old recordings, learning about him as a composer, Tiona was also trying to get into his head, to learn about him as a person––a gay man living in New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
You have to think about the time that he was making work. The time of every Black gay man in New York city is every week, you're getting a phone call. Every day, you're getting a phone call. You're showing up to your concert and somebody's not there.
I met up with Tiona one afternoon outside The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, where she was installing a piece about subjugation and BDSM. We walked around the corner for a drink.
Can I get a table for two outside please?
Tiona never knew Julius personally. But I wanted to talk to her because she curated an exhibition about him back in 2018.
She sees Julius as a deeply political artist. For example, she mentioned that Julius performed at a prison near the university where he taught.
Julius when he was at, um, University of Buffalo would perform at Attica for the prisoners. And he performed, um, specifically because they were having racial riots and uh, hunger strikes and he wanted to give them some ease.
The Attica Correctional Facility is about 45 minutes from the University of Buffalo, where Julius studied and later taught.
So, in the summer of 1971, it’s possible Julius and his colleagues would have heard explosive reports like this one on the local news:
Excerpt from NBCUniversal Archives:
Just four days almost to the minute after the convict insurrection started, state police reinforced by…[fade]
For years, inmates at Attica had lived in horrible conditions and some were even used for medical experiments. There were months of peaceful protests, but on September 9th, 1971, things came to a boiling point, and inmates overwhelmed officers, taking over a section of the prison.
The state responded with dehumanizing and deadly force.
It used tear gas to disorient prisoners, then sent in 600 troopers and officers unleashed a barrage of bullets.
In the end, 39 people were killed—10 officers and 29 prisoners, including young Black protest leaders.
Prisoners who survived the massacre were tortured – burned, beaten, stripped and urinated on.
40 miles away, Julius and other composers began to create more explicitly political work. There are records of Julius performing at Attica Prison for years following the riots.
You see him playing for uh, Black, uh, choreographic productions that are in Buffalo and stuff like that that are dealing with political things. And you know, he's not coming in there just to play music.
In a 1976 interview, Julius said that he aspired to be, quote, “What I am to the fullest: Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, and a homosexual to the fullest.” Tiona believes that the classical music establishment shut Julius out because of who he was and how he expressed himself.
There are people who fucked him over. Okay? They didn't want him to be made a person because then it would complicate their proximity and their lack of care about understanding who he was.
Movement 3: R. Nemo Hill
R. Nemo Hill:
People say that, oh, he didn't have the opportunities because he was Black and he was gay and everything, but he actually had an amazing amount of opportunities.
R. Nemo Hill is Julius’ ex-boyfriend.
I don't understand why everyone says that he was a victim. He was not a victim.
The way Nemo sees it, Julius wasn’t shut out by the musical establishment. He shut himself out.
He got kicked out of the Henry Street Music Settlement, because he refused to lock the door of the practice room. Now this was ridiculous. He had no piano, he had no other place to compose or play. And yet he would repeat, they would say to him, look, the next time you do that, you're not gonna be able to come back. And he would do it again.
Nemo is white, and a poet. He dated Julius for a few years and they lived together during Julius’ time in New York.
A lot of the people who talk about him now don't know him. And, and it, I don't recognize who they're talking about
Nemo thinks that now people want to fit Julius into their narrative about what it was like to be him.
People are rediscovering him and they're talking about like, he's the poor, uh, underprivileged Black artist who was forced onto the street and he didn't get mental health help that he needed. That's like the opposite of him. He was, he knew exactly what he was doing all the time, I'm sure, until the moment of his death. It was all, like, according to his plan. And I kinda feel like he even knew this would happen later.
The Julius that Nemo remembers isn’t an untouchable genius or a revolutionary. At first glance, he was just a hot leather daddy. Their first encounter was in the early 80s—Nemo says it must have been 1980 or 81.
We met in, um, in a place called The Bar, which is a, was a gay bar on fourth street and second avenue.
And how did you, did you like make eye contact across the room? Did you start talking?
We yeah made eye contact, I guess. I would assume—I was rather shy then, so I assume that he probably, uh, took the first step. And we talked, I mean, he was a, you know, he was obviously a, uh, a serious, serious guy, but he was also fucking hot as hell. So it was, it was a combination, but he was gorgeous Julius. He was a skinny Black guy in like, decked out in full leather. He always wore leather engineer boots and he was, he was a slob. And so was I. And the sexual encounter was memorable.
Yeah, how so?
Well, it was like, we licked his boots together. [laughs]
Julius was a dedicated part of the queer public sex and BDSM scene that thrived in Manhattan in the 1980s. It’s a part of his life the media tends to avoid. Nemo shared one story with me.
This is one that you're probably not gonna put on the radio. [laughs] He took me up to the subway bathroom at 125th Street. And like, we started having sex with the people in the bathroom. That's in the days, that's what was going on. That's what life was like, you know, his randiness and stuff, that was, everybody was like that in the seventies, in New York. It's not like it is now. And a cop came in and I was scared and I started to run and he completely ignored the policeman. Completely. And just started yelling at me: “Come back here and face it like a man!” [laughs] And the cop was so like, taken aback that he just kind of like, dissolved the situation and told everybody to get out. But I mean, it was like, I'll never forget that. I was like, I just stopped dead. Like, whoa. You know, his, his authority came from some other place than other people's authority, but it was so real that it was startling to everyone, even like a cop who thought he was the authority. And then of course, we went to a bar and then we went right back to the same place and had our way without anybody coming around.
Even though they shared a lot of fun, Nemo told me that Julius had an aggravating habit of making everything into a lesson.
He did fashion himself as my teacher, annoyingly so, in a way. He kept, he started calling me Ananda. Ananda was, uh, Buddha's disciple. And I just had to like, like nix that right in the bud, like please, gimme a break here. [laughs] He had a very, um, elevated sense of himself and his life. It was all very deliberate.
Nemo describes his time with Julius as tumultuous.
He never locked his door, ever, which led to like everything, the few things I owned being stolen. He would bring homeless people home to stay there. He didn't have any need for privacy or any respect for people who did. And when my typewriter got stolen and I was like, you know, furious, he said, “You call yourself a writer? Do you have a pencil?” He would say, I could write music sitting on the sidewalk on 42nd street during rush hour. No problem. He would always like try to, uh, impose his truth as the truth on someone else. And he wouldn't compromise. Ever.
Nemo loved Julius, but he also remembers him as rigid and critical—as a pain in the ass, basically. Which is an assessment that most people I interviewed seemed to agree with. One person I spoke with even described Julius making aggressive, unwanted sexual advances toward him. But even this person remembered Julius fondly, for the most part.
Julius was notorious for being careless with his possessions. In one famous story, he lined his cat’s litter box with his own musical scores.
And according to Nemo, Julius’ anti-materialism and carelessness about his belongings, extended to him not paying rent and getting evicted.
I mean, there's a story. I wasn't there at the time, but the marshals came and put all his stuff out on the sidewalk, including all his music scores that were in the apartment. And someone came up and offered him, like, I don't know, the rent wasn't very much in those days, it was probably like $250 or something, gave him enough money to pay his back rent. And he took it and he gave it to a homeless person standing nearby saying he needs it more. So it's not, you know what I mean? It's like, well, did he get evicted or did he just not care?
For Nemo, stories like these don’t match with today’s narratives around Julius. That as an outspoken, Black gay man in the 70s, he was pushed to the outskirts of society. Nemo thinks Julius would have rejected a narrative that made him into a victim.
He somehow just shook all that off at the end. Because he was a, a political crusader in a lot of the early pieces, he was crusading gayness. He was crusading Blackness. He was like, you know, a lot of the music was protest music, but gradually all—he was done with all that. And it was like, he couldn't be bothered with it anymore. It was like a fly! It's like brush off all that, you know, racism and like anti-gay stuff. It's like, whatever, like let them fuckin’ play their stupid games. They can't touch me.
According to Nemo, Julius became more and more interested in religion at the end of his life. Those spiritual beliefs, he says, were what led Julius to abandon his possessions, home, and career.
He would sabotage himself. You know, it's like all religions and all mystical disciplines have like a, a thing, a kind of a humility to them where you kind of, you build out of nothing. You know, in alchemy, you make gold out of shit. The last time I saw him, he told me, “I don't think I can suffer anymore.” He didn't say it like, um, like broken down. He said it like triumphantly. Like, I have reached the pinnacle of suffering. “I can't suffer anymore.” It's time to move on to the next stage.
The way Nemo sees it, death was part of the lore Julius created around himself.
He lived mythically, he lived symbolically. So I mean, now, people, you know, once you die, people weave myths about you, but they weave their own myths. So it, it is important to me to sort of like, offer up what he was weaving.
Movement 4: Gerry Eastman.
I've heard from people that Julius seemed like he was interested in kind of creating a mythology around himself.
A mythology around himself?
No. I know nothing about that. I'm gonna say that's bullshit.
Gerry Eastman is Julius Eastman’s brother. They grew up together in Ithaca, NY.
I never thought we were poor or anything. I, I kind of found that out maybe later, but, uh, we grew up in a house with three bedrooms. We each had a bedroom in a nice corner house with a big backyard that I had to cut the grass all the time. Our parents split up, I must have been five or six when that happened. To me it was pretty normal, good living. My, my mother, but both Julius and I, uh, great instruments when we were kids.
Gerry’s also a musician, and owns a jazz club in Brooklyn. I went to see him play one Friday night last summer.
The club is pretty small, just 5 round tables and a couch against the right wall. I sat on the couch and watched Gerry tear it up on the electric guitar. He was wearing all white. Leather sandals. Behind him, on the stage, was a baby grand piano.
As a matter of fact, the piano in my club was his piano.
Gerry and Julius played jazz together, and it was Gerry’s apartment that Julius was evicted from.
He didn't tell me that he didn't pay the rent. I would've paid it.
Julius also lived in the very club Gerry and I sit in now. But even though they’re family, Gerry still doesn’t have a clear picture of how Julius died.
One theory was that he had gone up to Buffalo cause he had, still had a lot of friends up in Buffalo. And might have been out partying and maybe passed out in the cold or something cuz he was found outside. So that's, I don't know how that happened, have no idea.
While Julius’ death is still a mystery to Gerry, there’s one thing he’s pretty sure did lead to his unraveling.
He just never quite figured out how to get along without white people. His whole existence was in the white community. He, he had very little contact with the Black community. He went to Curtis, which was probably 99.9% white.
Curtis Institute of Music is a highly competitive conservatory in Philadelphia.
And uh, he taught at University of Buffalo in the music department, which was 85% white. He played in a band that was all white except him. Only time he played with Black people was me that I knew about. Sometimes he would hire some local musicians in New York. But most of the time he was in a completely white world, which was part of the problem.
Is that what you feel like it was mostly? Like he was too dependent on the white people in that new music world?
Where else is, who else is promoting classical music? Or even avant garde, minimalist—that's all, you know what I'm saying? White people control all of it.
When I spoke with Gerry, he told me that his brother faced racist treatment in a number of situations— that, for example, as a college student, Julius had to sleep at the YMCA, while his white classmates lived comfortably with patrons of the arts.
They wouldn't even take the time to find a rich Black person for him to live with. That's how little they gave a shit about him.
We spoke with two white classmates of Julius’ who said that this wasn’t exactly true—they lived in off-campus apartments. But the spirit of what Gerry said is true—that Julius would have had a harder time finding and affording housing because of systemic racism. This was the ‘70s, post-civil rights movement, so while landlords could no longer write, “no Black individuals may apply” on their ads, housing discrimination was still rampant. And it was quite common for young Black and queer people to stay at the Y.
Later, as an assistant professor at the University of Buffalo, Julius was fired before he had the chance to go up for tenure. And Gerry said that Julius was repeatedly passed over for gigs that should have been his.
Gerry believes that, in the end, Julius was worn down by the racism of the classical music world.
He said fuck it. He said this is, I'm tired of this shit. And you know, I'm tired of it myself. I'm tired of the American way of living, the George Floyd things. The way the police operate, the way the penal system operates. I'm tired of all of it. In the classical world, the racism is twice as intense as it is anywhere else. I can name Grant Still and a bunch of other great Black composers that got overlooked. And then what happens is, they get very famous posthumously, just like Julius did. He got very—now he's the leading, he's the number one poster boy for this music. And it sucks.
Why do you think that is with Black artists that after they die, everyone starts wanting to celebrate them?
Because now they can be exploited by the industry. They didn’t want him while he was alive because they would have to pay him. But they have to pay me 50% of what they make now. They were playing his music all over the place and not paying his estate or anything. So I made sure he's getting paid now.
Gerry controls Julius’ estate, so anyone who performs his music needs to pay Gerry.
Gerry feels that the white music world that abandoned Julius the person, wants to profit off his music—music that is, at its core, Black.
It's polyrhythmic. That's totally an African thing. So although he's doing minimal minimalist, classical music, it's pol rhythmic. [demonstrates] Jing-JING, jing-JING. Jing-JING, jing-JING. Jing-JING, jing-JING. Jing-JING. Then you got bell: Jing-ka-jing-ka-jing-ka-jing-ka-jing. Then you got a tambourine. You know what I mean? It's all polyrhythmic. It's all West African. It's very simple. It's Black. And that’s what makes it so exciting to white people. Cuz white people just love Black music.
Julius Eastman is part of a long history of Black musicians whose work has been embraced by the white musical establishment after their death.
These cats are squares.
This is Tiona, again. The artist.
Like they're not, they're not cool. They're not like even really that good at what they do. They just have a particular following. And some of them are playing the music because to play Eastman, to be white and play “Crazy N*****,” to play “Evil N*****” gives you an edge.
What do we do when the white classical music world wants to play edgy music by Black musicians who aren’t around to benefit from it? Gerry’s solution is to make them pay for that edge—whether Julius would have liked it or not.
In the symphony that is Julius’ life, we’ve heard four movements from four people. And each highlights a different part of Julius’ legacy. It’s easy to see how each storyteller relates to certain aspects of Julius. As a fellow composer, Mary Jane Leach chooses to focus on his music.
As a Black artist who’s navigating the art world, Tiona understands how hard it would have been for Julius to do the same.
As a former lover, Nemo believes that rather than being a victim of time and place, Julius was in control of his life. After all, that’s how he was in their relationship.
But I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that Nemo and Mary Jane Leach, who are both white, tend to de-emphasize the racism Julius experienced and its effects on him.
Nor do I think it’s a coincidence that Gerry, who is straight, de-emphasized the political nature of his brother’s sexual identity.
There's so much bullshit about his gay lifestyle and why there's so many guys that come out and say, “Before Julius Eastman, I was never going to come out. But after I heard “Gay Guerilla” and I knew that he was fighting for our rights,” and I was like, you gotta be kidding. He wasn't fighting for your rights. He was just talking about the shit that he's doing.
It’s possible to have four different, even contrasting views of the same person, especially if you’re a marginalized person like Julius. Being Black and queer means showing a different side of yourself in each room that you’re in, whether it's the uptown classical music scene or the downtown leather community. The story of Julius’ life unfolds like a piece of music: the composer might have a clear intention on the page, but every person who listens comes away with something different.
And here lies the issue: In order to make something palatable to the masses, you have to simplify and shave off the edges. When orchestras play Gay Guerilla, are they engaging with music on a surface level, or are they considering the fullness of Julius’ Black, queer self? The more marginalized the artist, the more often this simplification occurs. Like a cardboard cutout of a human being, a simple shadow cast on a wall.
When I started learning about Julius Eastman, it was like that shadow was all I could see. But listening to these four accounts, the person who cast the shadow began to appear. I pictured each story as a beam of light, illuminating a small portion of Julius’ form. Not the whole person, but more than I had before.
I’ve come to believe there is no “truth” of who someone is, especially after they die. All we have are the stories people tell about them.
This is something Tiona, the artist, thinks about a lot. Especially having spent so much time researching Julius and his work.
I think that it's really important to be in conversation with your peers because they may very well be the people that will tell others who you are.
Are you like, uhoh, who's gonna be my Mary Jane Leach?
Yeah, the homie. I mean I just—[laughs]. Listen. Who? We all gotta do it. We all gotta worry!
In the end, though we won’t be able to find the “true” Julius Eastman, we don’t have to settle for a shadow. Instead, we can try to find as much light as we can, and not turn away from what might show up.
Sounds Gay is created and produced by me, Sarah Esocoff.
Our story editor is JT Green of Molten Heart.
Cass Adair is our consulting producer.
Additional editing by Gianna Palmer.
Original music by Kris McCormick.
Mixing and sound design by Casey Holford.
Fact-checking by Serena Solin.
Our program manager is Sam Termine.
Sounds Gay is a Stitcher Studios production, and is executive produced by Sarah Bentley, Bill Crandall, Jen Derwin, Mike Spinella, Kameel Stanley, and myself.
You can find Sounds Gay on the SiriusXM App, Pandora, Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen. If you like the show, please rate, review and share so other people can find us.