Julius Eastman grew up in Ithaca, New York, with his mother, Frances Eastman, and younger brother, Gerry. He began studying piano at age 14 and made rapid progress. He studied at Ithaca College before transferring to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. There he studied piano with Mieczysław Horszowski and composition with Constant Vauclain, and switched majors from piano to composition. He made his debut as a pianist in 1966 at The Town Hall in New York City immediately after graduating from Curtis. Eastman had a rich, deep, and extremely flexible singing voice, for which he became noted for his 1973 Nonesuch recording of Eight Songs for a Mad King by the British composer Peter Maxwell Davies. Eastman's talents gained the attention of composer-conductor Lukas Foss, who conducted Davies' music in performance at the Brooklyn Philharmonic.
At the behest of Foss, Eastman joined the Creative Associates—a "prestigious program in avant-garde classical music" that "carried a stipend but no teaching obligations"—at SUNY Buffalo's Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. There he met Petr Kotik, a Czech-born composer, conductor, and flutist. Eastman and Kotik performed together extensively in the early to mid-1970s. Along with Kotik, Eastman was a founding member of the S.E.M. Ensemble.
From 1971 he performed and toured with the group, and composed numerous works for it. During this period, fifteen of Eastman's earliest works were performed by the Creative Associates, including Stay On It (1973), an early augury of postminimalism and one of the first art music compositions inspired by progressions from popular music, presaging the later innovations of Russell and Rhys Chatham. Although Eastman began to teach theory and composition courses over the course of his tenure, he left Buffalo in 1975 following a controversially ribald performance of John Cage's aleatoric Songbooks by the S.E.M. Ensemble (facilitated by Morton Feldman). It included nudity and homoerotic allusions interpolated by Eastman, during a visit from the elderly Cage. The latter was incensed and said during an ensuing lecture that Eastman's "[ego]... is closed in on homosexuality. And we know this because he has no other ideas." Additionally, Eastman's friend Kyle Gann has speculated that his inability to acclimate to the more bureaucratic elements of academic life (including paperwork) may have hastened his departure from the university.
Shortly thereafter, Eastman settled in New York City, where he initially straddled the divide between the conventionally bifurcated "uptown" and downtown music scenes. Eastman often wrote his music following what he called an "organic" principle. Each new section of a work contained all the information from previous sections, though sometimes "the information is taken out at a gradual and logical rate." The principle is most evident in his three works for four pianos, Evil Nigger, Crazy Nigger, and Gay Guerrilla, all from around 1979. The last of these appropriates Martin Luther's hymn, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," as a gay manifesto. In 1976, Eastman participated in a performance of Eight Songs for a Mad King conducted by Pierre Boulez at Lincoln Center. He served as the first male vocalist in Meredith Monk's ensemble, as documented on her influential album Dolmen Music (1981). He fostered a strong kinship and collaboration with Arthur Russell, conducting nearly all of his orchestral recordings (compiled as First Thought Best Thought [Audika Records, 2006]) and participating (as organist and vocalist) in the recording of 24-24 Music (1982; released under the imprimatur of Dinosaur L), a controversial disco-influenced composition that included the underground dance hits "Go Bang!" and "In the Cornbelt"; both featured Eastman's trademark bravado.
During this period, he also played in a jazz ensemble with his brother Gerry (erstwhile guitarist of the Count Basie Orchestra). He also coordinated the Brooklyn Philharmonia's outreach-oriented Community Concert Series (performed by the CETA Orchestra funded by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts) in conjunction with Foss and other composers of color. By 1980, he was regularly touring across the United States and internationally; a recording of a performance from that year at Northwestern University was released on the posthumous compilation Unjust Malaise (2005).
A 1981 piece for Eastman's cello ensemble, The Holy Presence of Jeanne d'Arc, was performed at The Kitchen in New York City. In 1986, the choreographer Molissa Fenley set her dance, Geologic Moments, to music of Philip Glass and two works by Eastman (an unknown work for two pianos and "One God" in which Eastman sang and played piano), which premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Despondent about what he saw as a dearth of worthy professional opportunities, Eastman grew increasingly dependent on drugs (including alcohol and possibly crack cocaine) after 1983. His life fell apart; many of his scores were impounded by the New York City Sheriff's Office following an eviction in the early 1980s, further impeding his professional development. While homeless, he briefly took refuge in Tompkins Square Park. A hoped for lectureship at Cornell University also failed to materialize during this period.
Despite a temporary attempt at a comeback, Eastman died alone at the age of 49 in Millard Fillmore Hospital in Buffalo, New York of cardiac arrest. No public notice was given to his death until an obituary by Kyle Gann appeared in the Village Voice; it was dated January 22, 1991, eight months after Eastman died. As Eastman's notational methods were loose and open to interpretation, revival of his music has been a difficult task, dependent on people who worked with him.
The composer Mary Jane Leach has found scores by Eastman and posted them to her website.
In June 2006, the New York-based group Ne(x)tworks presented their score realization (by Cornelius Dufallo and Chris McIntyre) of Eastman's Stay On It at the ISSUE Project Room silo space on Carroll Street in Brooklyn.
In 2007 the California E A R Unit gave a performance of Crazy Nigger at REDCAT (The Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater in the Walt Disney Concert Hall Complex).
Eastman's piece Crazy Nigger was performed March 15, 2008, during 7th Edition Dag in de Branding Festival, The Hague, the Netherlands.
On March 26, 2013, New Amsterdam Records released an album by Jace Clayton entitled The Julius Eastman Memory Depot. The album includes performances of "Evil Nigger" and "Gay Guerilla" by David Friend and Emily Manzo that have been manipulated and re-arranged by Clayton. The album's final track is a tribute to the late composer titled, "Callback from the American Society of Eastman Supporters."
Performer/Composer Amy Knoles recently created a 4.0 solo live electronic version of Crazy Nigger. She toured the Pacific Northwest and Europe in the Fall of 2013, with a program called Julius Eastman FOUND. She performed on the MalletKat with an elaborate system of loops, developed in Ableton LIVE with the Keith McMillen 12Step foot controller.
Lutosławski Piano Duo (Emilia Sitarz and Bartek Wąsik) have been performing his compositions regularly since 2014. Their repertoire contains "Evil Nigger" and "Gay Guerilla" (with Joanna Duda and Mischa Kozłowski). The premiere of their version of "Crazy Nigger" will take place in December during KWADROFONIK FESTIVAL in Warsaw.
In October 2015, Bowerbird, a Philadelphia based non profit presented Eastman's "Crazy Nigger" as the first event in a multi-year survey of the composer's work.
A biography of Eastman, Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and His Music, was released in December 2015.
The world's first Eastman retrospective took place at the London Contemporary Music Festival in December 2016, and included the presentation of seven Eastman works, several pieces closely associated with Eastman and an exhibition, spread over three nights.
On January 24, 2017, an evening of Eastman's works were presented as "A portrait of Julius Eastman" at the long-running modern classical music series, Monday Evening Concerts, in Los Angeles. The program consisted of "Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc" for solo baritone singer, "The Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc" for ten cellos and "Crazy Nigger" for four pianos. The concert was very well received by a nearly sold out audience in the Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School for the Performing Arts.
MaerzMusik 2017 opened with three of Julius Eastman’s works for four pianos on March 17 – post-minimal music powered by a sense of organicity and political concern, unlike any other. Furthermore, from 17th to 26 March, the space of SAVVY Contemporary became a documentation center dedicated to the oeuvre of Julius Eastman.
In May 2017, after more than three years of research, Bowerbird presented "That Which Is Fundamental" - a four concert retrospective and month-long exhibition of Eastman's work. Included in the festival were the modern premieres of several of Eastman's early works, including "Macle" and "Thruway". This project was the first retrospective produced in collaboration with the Eastman Estate. Piano Pieces I - IV (1968) for solo piano
Thruway (1970) for flute, clarinet, trombone, violin, cello, soprano solo, off stage jazz trio, SATB choir, electronics
The Moon's Silent Modulation (1970) for dancers, vocalists and chamber ensemble
Touch Him When (1970) for piano 4 hands
Trumpet (1970) for 7 trumpets
Macle (1971) for voices and electronics
Comp 1 (1971) for solo flute
Mumbaphilia (1972) for solo performer and dancers
Wood in Time (1972) for 8 metronomes
Tripod (1972) instrumentation unknown, score fragment for one treble voice and one tape part exists
Colors (1973) for 14 women's voices and tape
Stay on It (1973) for no fixed instrumentation, although piano, percussion, and voice were always included
440 (1973) for voice, violin, viola and double bass
That Boy (1974) for small instrumental ensemble
Joy Boy (1974) for 4 treble instruments
Femenine (1974) for chamber ensemble
Masculine (1974) for small instrumental ensemble
If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich? (1977) for violin, 2 French horns, 4 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, piano, 2 chimes and 2 basses
Nigger Faggot (1978) for bell. percussion, and strings
Dirty Nigger (1978) for 2 flutes, 2 saxophones, bassoon, 3 violins, and 2 double basses
Evil Nigger (1979) for any number of similar instruments, most commonly 4 pianos
Gay Guerilla (ca. 1980) for any number of similar instruments, most commonly 4 pianos
Crazy Nigger (ca. 1980) for any number of similar instruments, most commonly 4 pianos
The Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc (1981) for ten cellos
Untitled [Prelude to The Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc] (1981) for solo voice
His Most Qualityless Majesty (1983) for piano and voice
Hail Mary (1984) for voice and piano
Buddha (1983) for unspecified instrumentation
Piano 2 (1986) for solo piano
Our Father (1989) for 2 male voices
2016 - Femenine performed by the SEM Ensemble (Frozen Reeds)
2014 - "Unchained" performed by Lutosławski Piano Duo and Friends - (pieces by Julius Eastman and Tomasz Sikorski) Bołt Records
2014 - Piano 2 performed by Joseph Kubera on Book of Horizons (New World 80745)
2005 - Unjust Malaise, by various artists (New World 80638) (Includes Stay On It; If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich; Prelude to The Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc; The Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc; Gay Guerrilla; Evil Nigger; Crazy Nigger; and Spoken Introduction to Northwestern University Concert)
1987 - Davies, Peter Maxwell. Miss Donnithorne's Maggot; Eight Songs for a Mad King. London: Unicorn-Kanchana. (Includes Julius Eastman, baritone.)
1983 - Monk, Meredith. Turtle Dreams (Includes Julius Eastman, organ.)
1982 - Dinosaur L. 24→24 Music (Includes Julius Eastman, keyboards and voice.)
1981 - Monk, Meredith. Dolmen Music. (Includes Julius Eastman, percussion and voice.)
1972 - Kolb, Barbara, and Richard Moryl. New York: Desto. (Includes Julius Eastman, narrator, on Side A.)