By Francis Wilkinson
King Oliver, W.C. Handy, Duke Ellington, Celia Cruz and Miles Davis are all interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Earlier this month, Stan Hunte joined them.
Stan had a bass voice that rumbled like a diesel engine, warm and deep, off the walls, the banister, the curve of the earth. But he was no singer. "Stanley was educated at The High School of Music and Art and The Julliard School of Music," the family obituary prepared for his funeral states, "where he excelled at his first love, the violin."
Black musicians had graduated from Julliard before Stan attended in the 1950s, but his own experience was painful and short-lived. "We would get ready to play something," he explained to me in the mid-1990s, not long after I first met him. "And they would hand me a viola and say, `You play the viola.' I was a violinist. I didn't play the viola. But they kept sticking me with the viola."
Stan left Julliard and joined the New York City Police Department, trading a violin for a gun. For the next 20 years, he busted thugs and drug dealers in the less refined corners of the Bronx. He moonlighted to afford private school for his son (who grew up to become a high-ranking detective in Massachusetts).
After he retired, Stan began making his way back to his first love. He was playing in the New York City Housing Authority Orchestra -- yes, there is one -- when he met Sanford Allen, a black violinist who broke the color barrier at the New York Philharmonic (and who moonlights himself as my father-in-law). Already past middle age, Stan asked for violin lessons. He began studying with Allen.
It's tough to become a professional musician, and it gets a whole lot harder late in life. But Stan made it. He played studio gigs in New York (before such gigs largely disappeared) and worked in Broadway theater pits. His violin can be heard on the soundtracks of Spike Lee films, including "Do the Right Thing" and "Malcolm X."
By the time he died, still powerfully assembled at age 81, he had worked his way up to a job in the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, playing classical works that, he said, transported him.
Stan Hunte was never famous. But he is now buried among the greats in Woodlawn. He earned his place.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)
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-0- Nov/21/2012 18:47 GMT