The grandson of formerly enslaved people, Walter Franklin Anderson, classical pianist, organist, composer, jazz musician, community activist, and academician, was born on May 12, 1915, in segregated Zanesville, Ohio. Walter was the sixth of nine children of humble beginnings.
Information regarding his parents is not available. Anderson, a child prodigy, began piano studies at age seven, and by 12, he was playing piano and organ professionally while still in elementary school. He was the only Black student to graduate from William D. Lash High School in Zanesville in 1932. Although a talented musician, Anderson was not a member of any of the school’s music ensembles, including the Glee Club or orchestra. Afterward, he enrolled in the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, Ohio, 100 miles north of his hometown, and received a Bachelor of Music in piano and organ in 1936. Anderson continued his studies at Berkshire (Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) and the Cleveland Institute of Music in Cleveland, Ohio.
From 1939 to 1942, Anderson taught Applied Piano, Voice Pedagogy, and music theory at the Kentucky State College for Negroes (now Kentucky State University) in Frankfort. In 1943, Anderson married Dorothy Eleanor Ross (Cheeks) from Atlanta, Georgia. They parented two children, Sandra Elaine Anderson Mastin and David Ross Anderson, before the marriage ended in a divorce in 1945.
In 1946, Anderson was appointed the head of the music department at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, thus becoming the first African American named to chair a department outside of the nation’s historically black colleges. Two years later, Anderson was a Rosenwald Fellow in composition from 1948 to 1949, where his variations on the Negro Spiritual, “Lord, Lord, Lord,” was performed by the Cleveland Orchestra. Moreover, John Sebastian, the conductor of the Orchestra, commissioned him to write “Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra” for a performance with the same orchestra. In 1950, Anderson’s composition, “D-Day Prayer Cantata,” for the sixth anniversary of the World War II invasion, was performed on a national CBS telecast. In 1952, Anderson received the equivalent of a doctoral degree as a fellow of the American Guild of Organists. He left his administrative post at Antioch College in 1965.
In 1969, Anderson was named director of music programs at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), where he created model funding guidelines and pioneered the concept of the challenge grant. In addition, he spearheaded numerous projects and developed ideas at the then-new agency for supporting music creation and performance, specifically for orchestras, operas, jazz, and choral ensembles and conservatories.
Anderson was the recipient of four honorary doctorates in music over his professional career, including one from Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, in 1970. He retired from NEA in 1983. During this period, he became a presidential fellow at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies and a recipient of the Cleveland Arts Prize for Distinguished Service to the Arts. In 1993, the American Symphony Orchestra League recognized Anderson as one of 50 people whose talents and efforts significantly touched the lives of numerous musicians and orchestras. He was also a member of the Advisory Council to the Institute of the Black World at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center.
Maestro Walter Franklin Anderson died in Washington, DC, from cancer on November 24, 2003. He was 88.