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Celebrating a Musical Life: Pianist Althea Waites’ Trailblazing Journey

When Althea Waites was just 5 years old, she began “banging away” on her mother’s piano with a simple dream of mastering the instrument. Little did she imagine that one day she would rise to international acclaim as a classical pianist, breaking new ground in advocating for the compositions of Black female artists.

Growing up, her focus was solely on the joy of playing the piano without harboring ambitions beyond that realm. Recently, in an interview from her residence on the eastside of Long Beach, she reflected on her journey and shared her humble beginnings.

In 2020, after dedicating 26 years to a part-time teaching position at Cal State Long Beach, Althea retired. However, her passion for music still thrives as she commemorated her 85th birthday last month.

Following Martin Luther King’s birthday, she delivered an inspiring performance at the packed Nimoy Theater in Westwood, showcasing pieces by Black composers. This month, she is scheduled to perform at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. Notably, she has been appointed as the resident artist for 2023-24 by Piano Spheres, an organization committed to fostering the creation and performance of significant new piano works.

Renowned arts supporter Lyn Pohlman lauds Althea as a musical treasure, emphasizing her groundbreaking efforts in championing the music of Black composers, a movement that has reverberated across the United States.

Born on Jan. 29, 1939, into a musically inclined family in New Orleans, a city steeped in musical heritage, Althea’s upbringing was immersed in melodies. Fond memories include listening to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts with her mother, a ritual that sparked her love for music.

Althea’s musical prowess quickly blossomed, leading her to perform with the New Orleans Philharmonic at the young age of 17. She pursued higher education at Xavier University in New Orleans, under the tutelage of the esteemed Sister Mary Elise Sisson during what she describes as the “Golden Age of Music” in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Subsequently, she secured a scholarship to Yale University, where she obtained a master’s degree in piano. Additional studies with the revered Russell Sherman at the New England Conservatory enriched her musical journey.

Althea’s career encompassed performances, teaching stints at various East Coast institutions, and eventually settling in California in the 1970s. Her tenure at Cal State Long Beach marked a significant chapter in her professional life. Despite the demands, she supplemented her income with church engagements and recitals across Southern California.

Noteworthy recordings such as “Black Diamonds” and her rendition of Florence Price’s “Sonata in E Minor” have solidified her legacy. Price, a pivotal figure in American music history, was a Black composer whose contributions were long overlooked until Althea’s pioneering recording.

Her recent album, “Reflections in Time,” showcases a remarkable interpretation of compositions by African American artists, including premier recordings of works by Margaret Bonds, another exceptional Black composer.

Althea’s dedication to uplifting fellow artists and providing a platform for the exploration of their music underscores her commitment to musical diversity and inclusivity.

Reflecting on her mother’s profound influence, Althea cherishes the plaque in her home bearing a single word, “THINK.” This reminder embodies her mother’s ethos of independent thinking and self-determination.

While acknowledging strides in race relations, Althea emphasizes the ongoing journey toward inclusivity and equality, advocating for a diverse representation at the table.

Amidst her busy schedule, Althea prioritizes rest and hand exercises to maintain her musical prowess. Grateful for the ability to continue playing the piano, she finds joy and fulfillment in her enduring passion for music, a far cry from her early days of playful piano exploration at the age of 5.