William Warfield statue from Eastman School of Music unveiled to honor his legacy

Arts

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Monday, the city of Rochester unveiled a statue of William Warfield.

Warfield was known worldwide for his work as a soloist, recitalist, actor, narrator, and activist. Warfield graduated from Rochester City Schools — after he and his family moved from Arkansas when he was just a little boy — and during his senior year, he won the National Music Educators League Competition, and a full scholarship to music school.

He stayed in Rochester, and decided to attend the Eastman School of Music, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s, the latter of which followed four years in the military. He worked as an intelligence officer.

Warfield’s meteoric rise to fame started when he gave a recital in the Town Hall of March in New York in 1950. He quickly signed on for many concert tours and recording residencies. Warfield was well known as one of the few Black opera stars, and later said, according to biography on his estate’s website:

“Opera wasn’t ready for me, or any Black male… But it never occurred to me to give up.” 

Despite any difficulty he may have encountered, his established himself as a leading interpreter of German lieder (classical art songs), spirituals, and popular music, which is where is landed his most famous role, as Joe the dock hand in Jerome Kern’s and Oscar Hammerstein’s Showboat, singing “Ol’ Man River,” a song that has become a jazz standard.

He also won a Grammy in the“Spoken Word” in Aaron Copeland’s A Lincoln Portrait. That recording was accompanied by the Eastman Philharmonia Orchestra.“

His nephew Thomas Warfield said is contributions to the world must be recognized.

“I’m grateful for this community for honoring my Uncle Bill,” said Thomas Warfield, who is also a musician, dancer, artist, and teacher at RIT. “We really needed to do this to honor his contributions to the world but to recognize a black man who demonstrated his own dreams and brought us into his dream.”

Eastman School of Music has maintained the William Warfield Scholarship Fund since 1977, which “is dedicated to providing financial support and encouragement to African American students at high school and pre-collegiate levels seeking to attain success in the field of classical vocal music.”

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