September 22, 2021

WOKE: How Racial Anxiety Conquered an Orchestra and Crushed a Career.

Most people haven’t heard of James Zimmermann, but most have heard him. A decorated musician with a long string of acoustic accolades, Zimmermann, 39, has made the sound of his clarinet difficult to avoid. He played at President Barack Obama’s second inaugural, has recorded tracks for best-selling video games, and helped create Walt Disney World’s new theme.

Zimmermann was also the principal clarinetist of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra for more than a decade—that is, until the orchestra fired him last February over accusations of racial harassment. To hear his accusers tell it, Zimmermann had insulted, intimidated, and even stalked his black colleagues, going so far as to menacingly drive by their homes. Human resources had already warned the clarinetist in 2019 that his behaviors could be grounds for dismissal, the orchestra claimed in its termination letter to Zimmermann. His refusal to heed that warning was ostensibly why he was fired in 2020.

But six of Zimmermann’s ex-colleagues and the orchestra’s own documents tell a very different story. They suggest that Zimmermann himself was the target of a witch hunt, instigated by a black oboist whom Zimmermann had stuck his neck out to help.

This is a fascinating story, well told.

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