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Musical genius of Herman Whitfield III 'was a gift to the world'

In the course of just 39 years, Herman Whitfield III established himself as a great pianist and gifted composer. Here's a look at the legacy he leaves in his wake.
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Posted at 2:29 PM, Jul 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-20 16:49:07-04

INDIANAPOLIS — Right before his death on April 25, 2022, Herman Whitfield III was finally starting to come out of a creative dry spell that held him captive for 2 years.

"I think he was really affected by everything that was going on with the pandemic," Susan Kitterman, the founder of the Indianapolis Youth Orchestra and longtime friend and mentor to Whitfield, said. "Musicians are really sensitive people, and they live in their heads."

Whitfield and Kitterman shared one final conversation together about some new music ideas he had 2 weeks before he died in police custody.

"He was very excited because he had some new compositional ideas and things that he was excited to work on," Kitterman said, recalling that last conversation.

Kitterman had known the 39-year-old since he was 15, when he joined the New World Youth Orchestra (now known as the Indianapolis Youth Orchestra).

After 3 years of playing piano and composing for the orchestra, Whitfield and Kitterman maintained their mentorship, which eventually led to them becoming great friends. The two regularly spoke on the phone or at her bakery in Fortville to catch up and talk about all things music: From his studies at Oberlin College & Conservatory, to the Cleveland Institute of Music and his job as an accompanist and composer at The Ancient Spanish Monastery in Miami, Florida.

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Susan Kitterman, the founder of the Indianapolis Youth Orchestra and owner of Sunrise Bakery in Fortville, looks down at the funeral program for Herman Whitfield III.

Coroner: Herman Whitfield III's death in IMPD custody was a homicide

Whitfield returned home to Indianapolis in 2020 to weather the COVID-19 pandemic, during which he and Kitterman remained connected.

"He just is also a very, very deep thinker, in addition to being a very gifted musician. So we had a lot of really fun political conversations. Excellent. It was great. He knew so much about the world," Kitterman said.

At just 39, the prolific pianist and groundbreaking composer was already regarded as a genius by those who knew his work in classical music.

His premature death prevented Whitfield from continuing to prove his name belongs next to the greats. But, as someone who knew him for over half of his life, Kitterman believes he would have done so if given the opportunity.

"I feel really compelled and really driven to just champion the life that he lived and the music that he wrote," Kitterman said.

Losing Whitfield is as much of a loss to the music world as it is to the world at large, Kitterman says.

"Because he was such an extraordinary person, it's really easy to get caught up in his musical genius, and everything he did musically. But just as a person, his extraordinary kindness, and...his gentleness, and his sense of humor, and his ability to understand others and be patient was just really as much of a loss to this world as the music that he won't write."

MORE: 'You don't keep someone prone after they've been handcuffed'

'I've never seen anything like this'

Whitfield was a precocious child who started playing piano at 4. He didn't come from a musically-inclined family, but, according to Kitterman, Whitfield's mother noticed his abilities right away when he was a toddler.

At about 14, Whitfield started to write sheet music. At 15, he became the pianist of the New World Youth Orchestra after several attempts by Whitfield's mother to get Kitterman to hear Whitfield play.

Kitterman says they already had a pianist at the time, and an orchestra needs only one. Finally, Kitterman allowed Whitfield's mother to bring her teen to a rehearsal to play for Kitterman, which she remembers doing only to appease his mom.

"He was very quiet. He walked down to the piano, sat down, and I'm like, 'OK,'" Kitterman said.

"He looked at the keys, and he started playing. And I was just so blown away. He was so fabulous," she continued, describing Whitfield's audition. "I accepted him on the spot. And I thought, 'Well, I'm going to find a place for this person because I've never seen anything like this.'"

Whitfield played and studied under Kitterman while attending Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School. Mali Jeffers, who was one year above Whitfield in high school, remembers when everyone would listen to Whitfield play in the gym.

"We would all gather to listen to Herman. I mean, he was amazing. I remember more than a couple of times when he would play in the gym, and we would just all be listening to him play," Jeffers said. "He was a brilliant artist, even in high school."

Jeffers, one of the co-founders of GANGGANG, said that everyone at Brebeuf knew "they walked amongst a genius."

"It was one of those things where you look at what's happening, look at the person, and you see them playing their instrument and you're just kind of like, 'How is this happening? And how are they doing it so easily?'" Jeffers said. "There are some artists like that where you're just kind of like, 'OK, this is an actual gift. Like, I'm actually watching a very unique gift.'"

As a teen, Whitfield could not only play by ear — which, truthfully, most musicians can — but he could play any part exactly as it was written, no reduction, by memory, and on the spot.

"For instance," Kitterman started, "One of my students that was playing a violin concerto during break, and he was playing at the edge of the Hilbert Circle Theater stage, where we rehearsed," she said.

"He started playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. And all of a sudden, you could hear the piano accompaniment in the background. And I was like, 'Oh, how weird.' But he kept playing. And then when he was done, he turned around, and there was Herman playing the accompaniment, with no music. And he just knew the part. He said, 'I knew the part.' And it was the part. I know that music really well, I've conducted it many, many times. And I've played the piano reduction. He played it exactly as it was written. So he had all of those parts. In his head. It was an extreme genius."

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A photo was taken of Herman Whitfield III during the 2009 Art & Soul.

While Whitfield was the pianist of New World, William Harvey was the orchestra's concertmaster. Harvey, the concertmaster of the National Symphony of Mexico in Mexico City, remembers he and Whitfield's friendship during youth orchestra days in Indianapolis fondly, describing them as "a pair of musical nerds."

"He was just intellectually interesting," Harvey said. "An outstanding musician."

The music Whitfield wrote for the piano, Harvey says, had "a unique voice with modern elements and some conservative elements," making it a "not so easy piece."

The pair played several pieces together. Harvey wishes they were on video somewhere, noting that this was before YouTube was even created. "That was horse and buggy days."

They were close during their youth orchestra days, but, as college started in 2001, Harvey and Whitfield naturally went their separate ways: Harvey to Julliard and Whitfield to Oberlin — two of the best music schools in the country.

"I wish I could have maintained that connection," Harvey notes.

"His loss is irreplaceable for the music community. I mean, minds like that don't come along every day," Harvey said.

Idiomatic Arrangements and Challenging Romantics

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Herman Whitfield III wrote "Scherzo for Orchestra No. 2 in E minor." Pictured is viola player Terry Langdon's sheet music for the song.

Outside of Whitfield's many achievements and awards, the musician was known to a variety of people with multifarious backgrounds and disciplines as a master pianist and composer.

Keeping with the traditional definition, as believed by those in the classical music genre, Whitfield was full of emotional depth, technical in his originality, and familiar with dozens of instruments — mainly string — while all at once arranging them in idiomatic ways. Which was Whitfield's wheelhouse.

"I regularly perform music with a classically trained violinist and cellist that are specifically written for piano, violin, and cello and have become staples of the classical literature. However, I have also sought to further our interpretive skills by arranging music for our specific instruments in ways that are idiomatic," Whitfield said in a 2017 Q&A with Jay Whipple on Trend Magazine Online. "The beauty of such musical arrangements lies, in my opinion, in the splicing of various musical genres with classical performance practices that manages to be respectful of the beauty of whatever music is involved."

"He was always very conscientious of making sure that all of the instruments that he was writing for — which was usually about 20 different instruments, 20 different parts, for a particular piece — that they were all written in the correct range and idiomatically knew what they could do. Sometimes, especially modern compositions, are so difficult, that they can almost not be played," Kitterman explained of Whitfield's composition work.

While Whitfield was in college, he wrote orchestral compositions for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) — which won the DSO's emerging African American composer's orchestral reading — and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (ISO).

READ: Trend Magazine's full 2017 Q&A with Herman Whitfield III

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Susan Kitterman created an award in honor of Herman Whitfield III to be given annually at the Indianapolis Youth Orchestra.

"Scherzo for Orchestra No. 1 in E minor" and "Scherzo for Orchestra No. 2 in E minor" are romance pieces made for the violin and orchestra, and do not include the piano.

Greg Staples, a first violinist for the DSO for 22 years, remembers the piece as "beautifully challenging."

"I remember it had all kinds of octaves in it; scale passages that were challenging. So, he knew how to make it challenging for the violinist. And, if you look at great composers from the past that wrote great violin works, they knew how to write for the violin tunes. So that impressed me," Staples said. "But from an emotional standpoint, I just saw this color in it. And I saw something special, musically speaking, in it that did speak to me."

It's a prolific feat to not only compose for an orchestra, but you have to be innately skilled to compose such a creative piece (that has nothing to do with the instrument you play) at such a young age.

Scherzo No. 2 was especially poignant for Staples and he hasn't played it for nearly 20 years. The violinist says he remembers it well because it's not often members of an orchestra get a piece that is difficult to play.

Staples says it's common for orchestra musicians to play for decades: Growing used to all levels and variance of performances is part of the job. So, it's rare for classically trained orchestra members to find something difficult.

For Terry Langdon, on the other hand, who has played the viola for the ISO for 43 years, Whitfield's Scherzo No. 2 had such an impression on her that she still has the sheet music in her personal collection.

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Terry Langdon has played the viola for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra since 1979. In an interview with WRTV in May 2022, she played "Scherzo for Orchestra No. 2 in E minor" by the late Herman Whitfield III.

"It really struck me. I saved the part; I've had it all these years," Langdon said. "He's influenced, clearly, by Brahms, by Wagner, by Fauré, by a lot of the German romantics. Even some of the harmonic modulations reminded me of Bruckner. So he was very well versed in the 19th-century romantic language."

Langdon says it was a real treat to have Whitfield present while the ISO learned Scherzo. It's a rarity, Langdon says.

"If a piece is going to capture my imagination, it usually happens pretty fast. Like within the first phrase or so, it's caught my imagination, I'm detecting some kind of atmosphere, some kind of poetry, some kind of story or purpose in the music, and with his piece, I felt it right away," Langdon said.

In 2013, Whitfield took a job in Miami, Florida, at The Ancient Spanish Monastery as an accompanist and composer.

Over the course of the next 7 years, Whitfield wrote and played orchestral compositions, sonatas, pop ballads, and bachata, interwoven into a full orchestra. He also wrote and played a trilogy of operas concerning the death penalty in the United States, the internment of Japanese Americans, and a comedy set in Hawaii, which weaves together a full orchestra with reggae music. And he was getting into choral work. Most of those works are posted on his YouTube channel.

Whitfield moved back to Indianapolis in 2020, according to Kitterman, after a brief time in St. Augustine.

Remembering Herman Whitfield III

Mike Graves remembers Whitfield as a cool cat at the jazz bar. Whitfield's reputation preceded him, and Graves was eager to meet him at the 2009 Art & Soul.

"I kind of heard his name whispered in some of the jazz spots around town, but I never actually met the guy, so I was really excited to meet him when I finally did get a chance," Graves said.

Graves, a visual artist who has been curating in Indianapolis for 30 years as part of the BRIDGE Collective, was one of the featured artists that year, which Jeffers helped pick during her time at the Indy Arts Council.

"When I got to the Arts Council, I thought, 'I got to reach out to Herman; everybody needs to know who he is,'" Jeffers said.

"Oh, he was amazing," Graves said. "I mean, he came with a reputation; there was a reason he was in that room. Because everybody knew who he was, just almost like a prodigy."

It was a reputation that, if you were even remotely glued into the Indy music scene at the time, Graves said, you no doubt would've heard about Whitfield.

"Over the years, I'd catch him every now and again at The Chatterbox or The Jazz Kitchen... playing with someone else or playing some of his own compositions, and it was always just amazing to see. I was always truly amazed that he was still in our city. I would always say, like, 'This guy is an Indianapolis treasure,'" Graves said. "He could be anywhere with that talent, and we were lucky to have him for as long as we did."

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Herman Whitfield III poses during a promo shoot for the 2009 Art & Soul.

"He worked his whole life to get to where he was. And the fact that it's now just a line of time, I just can't process it," Kitterman said. "I'm angry that he's gone. I'm angry that I'm not gonna get to hear the music that he would have written."

Since Whitfield's death, there has been a high level of confusion, emotions, and questioning in the Indianapolis and music communities, alike.

"It's very difficult to understand or forgive his death," Harvey said. "Any family should be able to call for help when someone is having a mental health issue."

Graves said, "I really did not see that coming. He was such a cool character, such a laid-back dude."

"The world is not going to get another Herman," Jeffers said. "I hope we don't get to the point where it's not surprising when somebody dies in police custody."

"If the majority of people in the art sector right now don't know who he is, then what we should be doing is asking ourselves, why not and who are all the other Hermans? How can we honor who he was?" Jeffers continued. "What are we doing to support the Black men artists, or to support all the artists that have mental health issues? And what are we doing with the police system as it relates to the arts?"

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A photo of Herman Whitfield III shows him on a cruise in 2016.

As a composer, it's possible for Whitfield's legacy to live on.

"If a website can be created with his sheet music, it can be played for hundreds of years, which is what I hope happens," Harvey said.

Kitterman says she is making it her mission to make sure there is a catalog of his complete works.

"I'm in this world, and he's not. And so I feel really compelled and really driven to just champion the life that he lived and the music that he wrote," Kitterman said. "I can't imagine my life not having known Herman."

In addition to his music, Kitterman hopes that when folks think of Whitfield, they also remember his humor, intelligence, dedication, kindness, and gentle passion.

Outside of music, Whitfield also didn't let his tall stature keep him from enjoying hobbies like cha cha cha, bachata, and yoga.

Through his carefully crafted music, Herman Whitfield III's unique voice and all-around brilliance will continue to gift us all with grace, sparking a light in this world, even though he no longer can.

WRTV Digital Reporter Shakkira Harris can be reached at shakkira.harris@wrtv.com. You can follow her on Twitter, @shakkirasays.

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