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Remembering André Watts, the American pianist who opened doors of possibility

Pianist André Watts, age 16, in rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic for one of Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts.
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Pianist André Watts, age 16, in rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic for one of Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts.

At age 7, I'm still so little that I have to tuck my legs underneath me to make myself taller in my seat. I need a clear view of the stage because André Watts, my favorite pianist, is about to make his entrance. He passes through San Francisco every year, and my mother always takes my sisters and me to his concerts. We're all dressed up, three girls in matching dresses with white tights and Mary Janes, so excited to be here this evening. The stage door opens and he strolls out confidently, elegant in his tux and completely at home in the spotlight. He sits at the piano and my sisters and I lean in, enthralled by this dazzling young man who looks like he could be related to us, little brown girls who never see anyone who looks like us up on that big stage.

Watts died last week of prostate cancer at age 77. He was a legend, from the star-is-born launch of his career in 1963 when Leonard Bernstein presented him at age 16 with the New York Philharmonic to his long presence as one of the most beloved American artists of his generation. As a kid, it all looked so glamorous and exciting — the fairytale origin story, the old-school Romantic virtuosity, the awards and accolades, the autograph-seekers. Back then, I had no clue about the reality of a life in music, how much it tests you, demands endless devotion and determination. And I didn't know how lonely it is to be the only brown person on the stage. I know that now.

Like me, Watts was mixed: Black father, white mother. Reading interviews and articles from early in his career, I realize that he was no more able to sidestep the minefields of race than anyone else in 20th century America. He told The Christian Science Monitor in 1982: "When I was young, I was in the peculiar position with my school chums of not being white and not being Black either. Somehow I didn't fit in very well at all." And in a New York Times profile from 1971, I find this cringe-worthy description: "Depending upon mood and lighting, Watts is capable of appearing as variously as an austere mulatto dominating one of man's most exclusive professions, a wistful pa'san surveying some Mediterranean terrace, or a bookish adolescent confronting his bar mitzvah." Granted, times (and language) have changed since 1971, but my own identity has been similarly debated as I've navigated an industry that's found me "exotic" and hard to place.

I never had the chance to talk with Watts about the very recent changes in our field — the long-overdue appreciation of Black composers; some progress, finally, toward diversity in American orchestras, opera houses and concert halls. I hope it made him happy to witness those developments. But this I know: Just like me, every single Black and brown musician who is active on those stages today looked to André Watts as a guiding light. He inspired us with his gorgeous artistry, and he allowed us to see ourselves in his world, to hope and dream and work as hard as we could to follow in his footsteps. He led by example, and later in his life he actively mentored the next generation of pianists as a Distinguished Professor of Piano at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music. He cared about his students on a deeply personal level; he wrote to me some years ago recommending one of them for a young artists program I directed, describing the young man as "an altogether wonderful human being."

Watts loved music with what Bernstein called "a total embrace." In his later years, he tried to keep performing despite injury and illness. The last time I saw him was in 2016, his first recital after a two-year hiatus, in a marathon program that included no less than Schubert's monumental "Wanderer" Fantasy. The cancer was already taking a toll. Backstage after the concert, he was tired and unhappy with his performance. I don't remember what I said that afternoon, but I wish I had told him how much it's because of him that I'm even here — how much I owe my career as a pianist to hearing his concerts when I was a little girl, and to seeing him ahead of me in the lineage that is our musical family.

Reflecting on that lineage, I reached out to Bernstein's children for their memories of the musical relationship that started André's career. His daughter Jamie Bernstein sent these words:

"Alexander and I were old enough to remember André Watts' Young People's Concerts debut and the vibe our dad communicated on that national broadcast. Something unusual and thrilling was about to happen. We know Watts' path was full of maddening obstacles, as is likely to happen to just about any person of color in this country. But we're so glad that he was truly embraced and acknowledged by the world he worked and played in. He raised us all. As we Jewish folks say, may his memory be a blessing."

His memory is not only a blessing, but a legacy. André Watts opened a door of possibility and promise for my generation, and we walk through it gratefully, always careful to leave it wide open behind us for the generations to come.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lara Downes
Lara Downes is among the foremost American pianists of her generation, a trailblazer both on and off the stage, whose musical roadmap seeks inspiration from the legacies of history, family and collective memory. As a chart-topping recording artist, a powerfully charismatic performer, a curator and tastemaker, Downes is recognized as a cultural visionary on the national arts scene.