Principal clarinet fired for alleged racism mounts a fightback

Principal clarinet fired for alleged racism mounts a fightback


norman lebrecht

September 22, 2021

James Zimermann, 39, was fired in 2020 after 12 years as principal clarinet of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. He had objected to the hiring of another musician whose abilities caused a split in the orchestra.

James has kept quiet until now. But his friends are speaking out here.



  • J Barcelo says:

    “hiring”, not “horing”. Confused me for a wee bit. I thought it was British slang I was unfamiliar with.

  • Nathaniel Rosen says:

    I have been told to avoid talking about sex, politics, and religion in polite social discourse. Intonation must be added to the list.

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    In every orchestra, especially in the winds and the brass, you will find Bullies like Zimmerman. They think they hold the torch for standards, that they play above the level of the orchestra, and therefore get to make the rules and tell their colleagues what to do.

    That is not how an orchestra should work. An orchestra needs its musicians to work together as equals, to respect each other and to be patient with each other as invariably there will be musicians who are indeed better than the average but who still need to treat their colleagues with respect.

    From what I can tell, Zimmerman did not do that. Glad he got fired. There are plenty of good clarinet players who can do his job and do it better.

    • 40 years in the String Section says:

      I’ve known James for years, worked with him many times. The term “bully” is not a word I would associate with him, he’s actually a very nice guy who cares a lot about music.

  • Suzanne says:

    I’d object to the “horing” of another player too! 🙂
    Surely, you meant “hiring”?

  • Paul Dawson says:

    This sounds like a nightmare. However, surely the whole world realises by now that any utterance of the N-word in any context is a hostage to fortune.

  • Michel Lemieux says:

    We are hearing just one side of the story as stated by a right-wing website. The orchestra has a very good legal case for firing Zimmermann. Since Zimmermann can’t win the courts, he is taking his case to the internet and to the right-wing media.

  • Anon says:

    Titus is a good player. Not my favorite, but he’s better than a lot of other principal oboe players, even those in bigger orchestras. He definitely has high level skills.
    I have never noticed him having intonation problems. He always seemed like a very nice guy.

    • Hello says:

      I was at the concert last weekend and he was in fact out of tune…

    • Clevelander says:

      Titus is a fantastic and inspiring musician who has the ability to win a job in a top-10 US orchestra.
      At Aspen this summer, I had the fortune to play in an orchestra with him, and he played at and sometimes above the level of the other wind principals, all of whom were from bigger US orchestras.

  • Curvy Honk Glove says:

    I just can’t keep up with you people. We voted for Biden so we could advance the righteous cause of progressive liberalism, and when it lands at your doorstep, everyone freaks out. If we want to save the US from its horrendous history of systemic racism, then we’ll all have to pitch in and make a few sacrifices. It’s pretty simple really.

    • debuschubertussy says:

      sacrifices? You’re being sarcastic/satirical, obviously.

    • Alank says:

      You sound a lot like a “break a few eggs to make an omelette” kind of guy. Why dont you make a sacrifice of your livelihood for the cause? Take in a homeless PoC to live in your home. Give a way your car. Pay more taxes. Give your job to a deserving oppressed person. So typical of the modern american progressive

  • Monsoon says:

    “In early February 2019, Zimmermann had asked Underwood whether it would be ok for him, a white person, to use the N-word in his rendition of a rap song. Underwood said yes, but Zimmermann nonetheless apologized after singing the slur—”the N-word did not feel good,” he recalls telling Underwood.”

    This is indefensible. A nearly 40-year old white person should know that using the n-word is never ok, and that asking a black colleague to be the arbiter is not appropriate.

    There is clearly something off with this guy.

    • Adrienne says:

      So a black person can use the n-word in a rap song, but a white person cannot use it in the rendition of the same song?

      That is absurd.

      • Just a Hunch says:

        What I find absurd is, why the hell is a Jewish white clarinet player even TRYING to rap? Stay in your lane.

      • BRUCEB says:

        It’s not, actually. People just think it is because they have no empathy difficulty understanding things from another’s perspective. “It doesn’t seem that way to me, so it’s ridiculous for anyone else to think it is.”

        • Adrienne says:

          What “another” do you have in mind?

          A song that can only be sung by one race is absurd.

          • BRUCEB says:

            “Another’s perspective” in this case means “a black person’s.”

            I’ve seen the same thing, though, where people claim that an abusive childhood has no effect on a person’s subsequent life, or that the way to overcome depression is to “snap out of it.” So it was intended as a specific example of a more general type of behavior.

          • Adrienne says:

            So you have made assumptions about my skin tone on the basis of an opinion?

            Not the first time this has happened.

            To quote the British Monty Python: I’m “black as the ace of spades”, but I still maintain that it is absurd. It is patronising to imply that we need to be treated like children in the presence of adult language.

          • BRUCEB says:

            OK then, you’re black. I made a mistaken assumption, and I apologize.

            But I don’t take back the part about lack of empathy. “Another’s perspective” shouldn’t have to mean “an Other’s perspective.” With your help, I’ve been able to refine what I’m talking about: “the perspective of another person.” So, thanks.

    • Karl says:

      He should have known that it’s not OK for white guys to rap. Only exception is Eminem.

    • Henry Renie says:

      Oh, please, it is in constant casual use. He asked permission, and apologized, case closed.

  • CA says:

    Ugh. Heads should roll in management…and whoever allowed an appointment that was clearly in violation of the CBA? Excuse me but how does this happen? This is such an ugly stain for all involved. OMG.

  • Seriously? says:

    Very, very hard to feel sorry for this man. Even the sterile writing of the reporter can’t make some of the situations entailed seem benign, and likely they were far, far worse. Procedural issues with the audition aside, it’s disgusting to try and paint someone with Titus Underwood’s pedigree as “unqualified.” Orchestras have different tastes and needs and if Nashville wasn’t impressed with him, that is fine, but to paint Underwood as a sleeper agent of diversity is absurd.

    Just a poorly reasoned anti-woke piece.

    • Daniel says:

      Exactly. I have seen screenshots of James’ correspondence with Titus, Carlos, and his emails to the orchestra, and I can confirm that they are completely unhinged, threatening, and indefensible. It’s very telling that the notoriously biased “Washington Free Beacon” chose not to share the actual contents of James’ rants, since they would show the situation for what it truly is: an obsessive and racist attempt by a mentally unstable musician to tear down and intimidate a colleague. I truly hope James gets the help he clearly needs (as was evident even before thirst incidents) and that Titus can continue to get the recognition he deserves as an outstanding musician worthy of the position he won fair and square.

  • Alviano says:

    We are Americans:
    — we are victims;
    — we are offended;
    — we are outraged.
    You can’t say anything to us without activating one or more of these conditions.

  • japecake says:

    I’d love to hear another round of “arguments” against blind auditions. If one believes that inequity in classical orchestras is a problem, that needs to be addressed at a much earlier stage (e.g., music education). It shouldn’t be attempted by nakedly compromising quality in the name of some ostensibly higher purpose—as seems to be, at least in part, the case here.

    • Tiredofitall says:

      Perfectly stated. The same goes for creating new audiences. The process begins during the formative years, not once the die is cast.

    • BigSir says:

      The article says that Mr Underwood was the “last man standing” at the audition. Giving someone who has played the position for 2 years, a couple weeks trial is insulting and rather silly, isn’t? The fact he won is something they have to accept. He would still have a probationary period, though I assume that would be short.

  • Kyle Wiedmeyer says:

    Was the musician Titus Underwood?

  • PK says:

    They also did not grant tenure to an Asian violinist due to his race. He was a fantastic player.

    • Mike says:

      Please elaborate.

    • Anon says:

      but they did grant tenure to his girlfriend who also won the audition at the same time. she is also Asian so is this true?

      • friend PK says:

        there was two Asian ladies that won the audition with her and one of them is married to the principal cellist, so are you referring to the other lady who did her training at the Korean University of the Arts School? Did not know they were dating. Sucks for long distance relationship. Best wishes to Mr. Kim, talented violinist.

  • PFmus says:

    Consider the source – right wing hedge fund millionaires personal ‘news’ site? (

    what’s next? Breitbart?

  • Old Ebbitt Grilling says:

    This story must be followed in all its detail — from the breach of the curtain rule to the U-turn and intervention of music director Guerrero and the basis of the pressure on him; from the embarrassment and impossible position of oboist Underwood to the failings of AFM Local 257.

  • Tribonian says:

    I think you meant to write “hiring”, not “horing”.

    Or is this a more interesting story than it seems?

  • sam says:

    “…objected to the horing of another musician…”

    Horing of musicians is indeed objectionable.

  • Malcolm James says:

    I don’t know the facts of the case, but the Washington Free Beacon, the source linked to above, appears to be a right-wing internet-only news source. I therefore treat this report with a considerable amount of caution.

  • What a mess. Stay away from this orchestra.

  • A says:

    Consider the source. We are talking about the NASHVILLE SYMPHONY and yet the
    Article begins with a photo of the NATIONAL SYMPHONY with Slatkin on the podium.
    Enough said

  • Patrick says:

    Lesson I’ve learned from this whole affair?

    Never read the “Washington Free Beacon” again.

  • It would not be too difficult to document that full time, top level orchestras can cause the musicians that work in them psychological problems. I would guesstimate that this happens to about 10 to 15% of the personnel on a minor level, about 5% that should consider treatment, and about 1 to 2% who develop serious problems that put their jobs in danger–and in some cases, others in danger. And yet there are no management practices for dealing with this phenomenon.

    I’m not sure how the problem should be approached. Yearly mandatory workshops that address communication issues, team work, tolerance, stress, and mental health might help. Also key would be methods of identifying colleagues who need help which could perhaps be an outgrowth of the workshops. It’s unfortunate that there isn’t more research about this problem.

  • Couperin says:

    My anger is really with the idiot violinist who jumped out from behind the curtain to say the finalist was Titus. THAT person should have been fired. If I were the musician auditioning I would be livid and from that moment would lose trust in the audition committee.

    • CA says:

      Exactly. People were totally asleep here. Absolute colossal mess.

    • BRUCEB says:

      I agree the violinist messed up, badly.

      In fairness, though, they were probably never told what what was going on, and probably thought that since Mr. Underwood was the only candidate left, he must be the winner and it was OK to say his name to the committee. (Also some people love to be the first to know something, so they can be the one who breaks the news. “OMG you guys, guess what!”) So they probably busted out the news feeling all glorious and important, only to be told “Shut up! We’re not done yet!” — but of course it was too late.

      Should they lose their job as a violinist in the orchestra? No. But they should never be involved in running another audition.

      • CA says:

        That’s why you have a union steward, an audition committee chair and a rep from management (usually someone from the personnel department) in very close communication at all times, throughout all rounds of the audition, knowing how many are scheduled in each block of candidates etc and an understanding ahead of time who is allowed to announce results etc. This has all the characteristics of a rookie miss.

  • christopher storey says:

    I had never heard of Titus Underwood until he was on BBC radio 3 for 2 hours last Saturday . Much of the prattle between works was interspersed with inane giggling , certainly in the early part of the programme, after which I could stand it no longer and switched off . I do not wish to hear of him again

  • 40 years in the String Section says:

    This was handled badly the the orchestra management. I’ve known James from other orchestras. He is a very decent, nice guy but sometimes he does get worked up about stuff. I do not believe he had any racist intent in his objections but in today’s environment it’s all too easy to assume that. He should have been reprimanded, maybe suspended for a time to let this blow over. But he was robbed of his job and career, that’s not right. Management was obviously afraid of bad publicity.
    As to the fact that this story is in a right-wing website (one that I don’t necessarily endorse), it’s because most other news outlets won’t touch these kind of stories. Thanks to Slipped Disc for covering it.

  • Mick the Knife says:

    This reminded me of an audition I took around 30 years ago with a full-time ballet/opera/show orchestra. I was a finalist along with the incumbent; since the position was being made permanent, he had to audition. In the last round, a youngish women peaked around the screen at me after I finished playing. I thought it was weird but I didn’t complain because I was brought up not to expect “fairness” (and I’ve never been disappointed). But now I want some compensation!!!!!

  • Nick says:

    I know James. He is not a racist. He is just odd enough to be used by people in the current climate for their own gain. He is too open sometimes and thinks people ‘get him’ but currently that kind of naivety can be abused by people and make you look like something you are not.
    This oboist is mediocre on his best day and lacks experience. James is a great Clarinetist with degrees from top schools in the US and a musician with more than 20 years experience as a Principal (not only in Nashville). Asking someone to stay after rehearsal to check some difficult parts should never be taken personally. James also had seniority over the new Oboist. If I’ve played as a Principal in the Orchestra for over a decade and you just joined, if I ask you to stay and work on something, you stay. Used to be, you even said ‘thank you’. This whole thing looks very suspect. I knew James in LA. He is most certainly not a racist. Being a part of LA’s music scene for years would literally kill your career if you were a racist. He had a very active career, collaborating with artists of many different styles of music, different nationalities and races. James even used to volunteer and teach underprivileged kids for free. (In LA ‘underprivileged’ almost exclusively means ‘non-white’). This is woke culture eating their own.

    • Frank Rippenthorpe says:

      So Nick, what you are saying is that you can tell somebody to stay after a rehearsal, if you feel that something needs to be worked on because you are a principal player? Asking means ordering because you have seniority, which is usually not recognized. You are either tenured or not. Well where I work when rehearsal is over we all leave. If somebody wants to bully musicians to work on something, then it is their perogative to stay or leave. You do the work during the rehearsals, not after. Principals like to imagine that they actually have power, when in fact they have none. It is the management that allows them to have the illusion of power, and the musicians that submit to their bullying.In this case we see how much power the principal actually had.

      • Anon says:

        Asking a colleague to tune something before or after rehearsal is not bullying….not sure what planet you’re living on, but this is common practice in orchestras all around the world. There is nothing wrong with trying to have a passage sound as good as you can, even if it means talking about it with a colleague after work. Also like it or not, but the Principals ARE in charge of the musical aspects of their section, hence the title “Principal”….that’s not to say that it shouldn’t be a collaboration with the section players, but in the end, the principal has to lead his/her section. The same concept applies to conductors.

        • Frank Rippenthorpe says:

          Principals are in charge of their own section. OK I’ ll go along with that. They should lead by playing, not by telling people what to do, but that is for another post. Principals aren’t in charge of any other section but their own. One principal does not outrank another(unless the other principal is a trombone player. That is a joke.) Telling other principals what to do is verboten unless you want to make somebody your lifelong enemy. Tread carefully when interacting with your fellow principals, principals. Lastly, I’ve noticed that those that can’t help themselves and insist on telling everybody how to play are those that have the worst ears and don’t listen to anybody but themselves. Not saying this is the case here since I don’t know the person in question.

          • Anon says:

            Principals should for sure lead by playing! But they do have the right, and should at times be able to tell their sections what to do. Principal String players do it all the time in regards to with bowings….this is just one example….But I have not read anywhere that James was telling people how to play their parts. He was merely asking a colleague to tune something with him…..

      • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

        Totally agree. There is a polite way to ask to work on something.

        And if it becomes an ongoing thing, it gets to be a situation where one person is telling the other how to play. It’s not a meeting of equals.

        Would Zimmerman match pitch phrasing, and tone color with Underwood? Or was he constantly telling his colleague how to play?

        I have been around Orchestra Bullies and usually they have tacit approval by the conductor and other principals as they are “teacher’s pet”.

        These “stars” often suck up to the conductors which makes them feel special and above the rank and file.

        Glad this guy got fired if he was a Bully. We need kind people in our business.

      • Nick says:

        An Orchestra is not a democracy. Not when it comes to doing the work. It’s a hierarchy. Principals don’t get paid more just to play the solos. They are supposed to be leaders of their sections and also work things out with other Principals (who then work things out in their own sections), making sure everything works well so Conductors don’t have to stop for anything besides to communicate their own music ideas. Principals do have the right to tell you if you are not doing well and when that doesn’t fix the problem, to ask you to stay after rehearsal and work on the issue. Americans are just so damned sensitive and so self important. ‘Oh no! Someone asked you to stay for a minute and you don’t get paid extra for it, like the superstar you are?! You should sue them! Do they even know who you are?!’ Nonsense. Good Orchestras with real musicians stay for a short while after rehearsal, work on issues and get them fixed. Great Orchestras fix issues quickly, in rehearsal, without losing anyone’s time. Little local Orchestras (for example Kalamazoo Symphony or some other small town in the US) leave after rehearsal is done and have great democracy where they are all super awesome musicians and everyone is equal and being a Principal doesn’t mean anything besides getting a solo once in a while. They are all just friends telling each other how great they are after every concert. Meaningless. I think I know which type of Orchestra you work in.

  • Max Raimi says:

    1: I don’t think it is at all useful to say a certain person is “a racist”. Racism is a spectrum. I don’t think it is possible to live in the American culture and approach people of different races with absolutely no preconceptions. But there is a huge difference between somebody who instinctively, if irrationally tenses up if someone of color is walking behind them after dark and the people posting on white nationalist web sites.
    2: We have a hideous problem with racism and inequality in our country, and not the slightest idea as to how to deal with it. So we do what primitive societies so often do when confronted with an issue they lack the skills and information to address effectively. We perform ritual sacrifices.