Wide Angle

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Gift to Her Son

How the late Supreme Court justice set her “lively child” on a lifelong journey in music.

A black-and-white photo in which RBG sits on the couch with a book open next to her young son.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her son, Jim. Courtesy of Jim Ginsburg

When Jim Ginsburg decided to leave law school after a year and half in 1991 to run his classical music label, Cedille Records, full time, he knew he might turn some heads at home. His was a family of lawyers: His father, Martin D. Ginsburg, worked as a law professor. His sister, Jane, had graduated from Harvard Law School nearly a decade before. And his mother, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was then a judge on the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

But over the years, his mother came to understand. Her love of classical music, particularly opera, might have had something to do with it. She liked to say that “James,” as she called him, “was a lively child”—putting it politely. But when his mother sat him down to listen to classical music, Jim “stopped running and actually sat up and listened,” he recounted.

Ruth, who ascended to the Supreme Court a few years after Jim founded Cedille in Chicago, had filled her son’s childhood with music. She took him to Little Orchestra Society concerts at Hunter College, which happened to be across the street from their apartment in New York City. They also went to the Young People’s Concerts of the New York Philharmonic, which were then conducted by the now–internationally renowned conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. Soon after, Jim was attending productions at the New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera.

The Ginsburgs had a good record collection, stocked with recordings like Beethoven’s symphonies conducted by Arturo Toscanini and Mozart’s operas The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, conducted respectively by Austrians Erich Kleiber and Josef Krips. Those two Mozart operas were his mother’s favorites—which one she preferred depended on the day. By the time he was 7, Jim was going to record stores himself and collecting on his own. He took piano lessons, but he didn’t exactly love them. He didn’t want to be a musician. But he eventually began to imagine a career on the other side of the studio glass.

In 1980, he moved from New York to D.C., when his mother was nominated and confirmed to serve for the appeals court post (or, as his father put it, “because my wife got a good job”). They lived in the Watergate complex, which happened to be across the street from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. There, he’d attend performances of the Washington National Opera and the National Symphony Orchestra, sometimes accompanied by his mother. When it came to opera, they always agreed on a few of the core composers: Mozart, Verdi, Puccini. They regularly attended performances together throughout her life.

Jim had a musical epiphany at 16, when he attended a concert of the National Symphony Orchestra in a program of the work of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich. It featured the composer’s first cello concerto, second piano concerto, and sixth symphony. Shostakovich labored for years under the brutal regime of Joseph Stalin, where artists were censored, imprisoned, and even killed if they were seen by the regime as divergent. “You could feel the suffering,” Ginsburg said. “You could feel the anguish.” He had never experienced anything like it before. And this was before he knew more of the history behind Shostakovich’s music. “For me,” Jim told me, “I think more than anything else, it just introduced a potential, the raw power of music, in a way I hadn’t felt it before.”

During his undergraduate years at the University of Chicago, Jim worked at the campus radio station, eventually directing classical music programming there. After college, he briefly lived in New York again for two years, but he soon came back to the University of Chicago to begin law school. Once back, he, like many classical music lovers here, was an avid listener to classical radio station WFMT. And he started to notice that there were many great local musicians he’d hear in local concerts and broadcasts, without much local investment in recording them. Back in the 1980s in Chicago, if classical records got produced, the primary focus was on the big-ticket act in town: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its famous maestro, Sir Georg Solti.

Jim Ginsburg, musical notes, and a faded photo, in profile, of his mother.
Jim Ginsburg’s Cedille Records started as a local outfit in Chicago but has become known worldwide. Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Jeff Schear/Getty Images for the Recording Academy, Joyce Naltchayan/AFP via Getty Images, and iStock/Getty Images Plus.

While still in New York, Ginsburg had heard broadcast tapes sent to him by his friend (and now longtime Cedille engineer) Bill Maylone. They were of the Russian pianist Dmitry Paperno. He and Maylone soon recorded Paperno and then quickly found a distributor. The record was highly regarded, and Ginsburg, by then in law school, thought to himself that maybe he should keep that going. By mid-1991, he’d left law school to build Cedille Records.

What started as a local project came to be known around the world. With Cedille Records, Ginsburg built a label that placed a premium on production standards audiophiles could admire while curating a broad but particular repertoire of classical music. By the beginning of 1994, the label, as was Ginsburg’s goal, was securely controlled by a not-for-profit corporation, setting up different priorities and abilities than a for-profit label might have had. Today it’s one of the most-respected labels in the space, with six Grammy-winning records and 18 Grammy nominations.

The label has had a commitment not only to boosting local artists and musicians but artists and musicians of color. One Cedille regular has been the Chicago Sinfonietta, which is the most diverse orchestra in the United States. Paul Freeman, who served as the orchestra’s director for 24 years, was a longtime promoter of composers and musicians of color, as well one of the most prominent Black conductors in the classical music world. Cedille Records has featured the orchestra with Freeman on multiple recordings, including a three-volume African heritage symphonic series.

One of Cedille’s Grammy winners, recording artist David Skidmore and his group Third Coast Percussion, said the label had earned a unique reputation with artists. “They’re paying for you to be in the best studios with the best producers,” he said, “taking care of all of the stuff that you’d have to take care of, the business side of things, to put out a great recording so that artists only have to focus on the music.”

Skidmore said Jim’s success with the label is simple: “There are no blank checks.” “One of the reasons I think he is so successful is that he curates his record label,” Skidmore told me. The label works as an intimate dialogue between artist and producer, and that dialogue sometimes means the music simply isn’t a fit.

Despite its global success, Cedille remains also very bound up in Chicago. What makes Chicago the perfect place for an independent classical musical label? Jim Ginsburg noted first that the city is a great musical center, featuring one of the world’s greatest opera companies, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and one of the world’s greatest orchestras, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But that’s hardly all. “What we didn’t have when I started,” he said, “was a record label. So, you see, this is the perfect confluence. There are places like New York or San Francisco or L.A., which also have major music scenes, but they have record labels covering it. And then other smaller cities really don’t have that pool of artistic talent that Chicago is able to boast. So this was the perfect place to start a label.”

With its geographical isolation and cultural ambition, Chicago can engender a special kind of independence in many of its artists and musicians. It also affords artists and musicians the space—and relative affordability—to forge that independence. So, really, it’s been the perfect home for a label like Jim Ginsburg’s Cedille Records.

Jim’s parents’ influence on his work is also clear. His label now hands out the Martin D. Ginsburg Award, awarded in earlier years by Ruth. Speaking to me after her death, Jim kept returning to her love of music. In 2012, after a Glimmerglass Festival performance of Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars, a musical tragedy about Apartheid-era South Africa, he recalled how he found her weeping by the end of it.

Listening to him, I couldn’t help but think about how her work demanded all-consuming intellectual rigor, and how, in music, by contrast, she might have found a refuge of beautiful directness and expressive immediacy, full of sound and emotion, away from her life with the law. “Music just speaks so directly to the heart,” Jim told me. “Things you just simply can’t express in words. Mom could really lose herself in watching a performance, especially musical performance, in a way that was really an escape for her.”