George Walker was born in Washington, D.C. the summer of 1922. Coming from a West Indian-American family, his father emigrated from Jamaica to the United States and was a medical physician, and his mother supervised his piano lessons from the age of 5. Nine years later, George graduated from high school and began college studies at Oberlin College with a tennis scholarship in 1937. He initially went to college with the intent of playing on the tennis team, and had never heard of someone majoring in music composition, but throughout his four years at Oberlin became involved in the piano and organ departments and began composing from improvisations during his organ-playing gigs. During his senior year he discontinued organ studies to focus on preparing for his performance as a piano soloist with the Conservatory’s orchestra, and decided to try some composition classes with his extra time. He graduated from Oberlin at the age of 18 with the highest honors and was admitted into the Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied piano with Rudolf Serkin, chamber music with William Primrose and Gregor Piatigorsky, and composition with Rosario Scalero. He became not only the first Black graduate of Curtis, but also the first Black to receive a great many more honors and titles.
George Walker performed as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, being the first Black musician to share a performance with the ensemble, and became the first Black instrumentalist to be represented by a major management organization, National Concert Artists. He was the first Black recipient of a PhD from Eastman School of Music, and went on to teach at numerous colleges and conservatories around the U.S., most extensively at Rutgers University where he was appointed Chairman of the Music Department. He composed over 90 works and was commissioned by major institutions such as the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Boston Symphony, and Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He was awarded many honors for his work, often becoming the first Black artist to receive the titles, such as when he became the first Black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1996. Additionally, George received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship, and Whitney Fellowship, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and honorary doctorates from six institutions.
George Walker died in 2018 at the age of 96, survived by his two sons Gregory T.S. Walker and Ian Walker, born in 1961 and 1964, respectively, both of whom are artists, with Gregory writing and performing music, and Ian writing plays. -- By Emily Singleton. Narrated by Morgan Scott.