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Richmond child prodigy composing in plain sight – 50 years later

Posted at 12:47 AM, Aug 25, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-25 00:47:09-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- It might be easy to ignore the silver-haired man sitting at the midtown Starbucks day after day, methodically putting musical notes on paper, or just carefully reviewing them.

And you might see without noticing this slight but firm 64-year-old as he walks down W. Broad Street or W. Grace Street, on the way to or from his nearby group home.

Walter Braxton

But that's Walter Braxton, a Richmond child prodigy whose talent and drive earned him a spot at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts at age 16, almost a half-century ago.

At the time, the Richmond Symphony's musical director Edgar Schenkman said, "Walter could very well bring attention to Richmond in music just as Arthur Ashe has done in tennis," according to a Richmond News Leader report then.

If you stopped to talk to Walter Braxton, he'd tell you frankly that soon after traveling to North Carolina, the pressure of being a young black composer in a very white world took its toll. Losing his beloved father was also devastating.

He says he had his first nervous breakdown at 18, and it's a battle he's fought ever since.

"Although I've made a great deal of progress over the years," he said. "And I've almost reached a point now where I'm not dependent on my medications for sustenance."

Walter Braxton 2

He says the composing at Starbucks has helped - four symphonies, a symphonic ballet, a five-act opera and "now I’m coming out with a brand-new CD of my sonata for violin and organ," he said during a recent visit.

We were there Tuesday when violinist Violaine Michel and organist Ryan Tibbetts performed several of Walter Braxton's recent compositions at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church on Monument Avenue.

Please check out our video report to meet this man and hear his work - composed in plain sight - come to life.