'Oh, come in, young man. I'm reading these reviews. They are out of this world. You really have something. But I might as well tell you, right now, I don't believe in Negro symphony conductors. No, you may play solo with our symphonies, all over this country. You can dance with them, sing with them. But a Negro, standing in front of a white symphony group? No. I'm sorry.'That is the impresario Arthur Judson discussing career opportunities with African American conductor Everett Lee, seen above, in the early 1950s. Judson headed Columbia Artists Management Inc and for twenty-five years was the power broker of musical America with a stable of artists that included Eugene Ormandy, Jascha Heifetz and African American contralto Marian Anderson, and at the time of the discussion he also managed the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1940, together with fellow African American Dean Dixon and Canadian Benjamin Steinberg, Everett Lee attempted to circumvent the institutionalised racism in American classical music by forming an orchestra of black musicians. But the project failed for financial reasons and both Lee and Dixon went on to pursue their careers outside America, although Steinberg succeeded in establishing an orchestra of predominantly black players when he formed the New World Symphony in 1964.
Born in 1913 in Wheeler, West Virginia, Everett Lee was an accomplished violinist who led the orchestra in the original Broadway production of Carmen Jones and played the oboe on stage in the country club scene. His big break came in 1945 when he was asked to deputise for the musical's conductor Joseph Littau and became the first African American to conduct a major Broadway production. Following this Leonard Bernstein invited him to conduct On the Town, the first time a black conductor led an all-white production. In 1946 he was awarded a Koussevitzky Music Foundation Award to conduct at Tanglewood, and in 1952 was appointed director of the opera department at Columbia University Music School and was also awarded a Fulbright scholarship that allowed him to travel to Europe.
History was made in 1953 when Lee became the first black musician to conduct a white symphony orchestra in the south of the States, this happened at the concert in Louisville, Kentucky see in the photo below. There was another milestone in April 1955 when he became the first musician of colour to conduct a major opera company in the US with a performance of La Traviata at the New York City Opera in April 1955.
But denied conducting opportunities in his country of birth, Lee left for Germany in 1955 with his then wife the vocal coach Sylvia Olden Lee to pursue his career. His reputation grew in Europe and his appointment as chief conductor of the Norrköping Symphony in Sweden, which started in 1962, lasted for a full ten years. His illustrious predecessor and successor at the Swedish orchestra were Herbert Blomstedt and Franz Welser-Möst respectively.
Based on this overseas success, a leading American critic called for Lee to be given an appropriate position with an American orchestra, as Jet magazine reported in 1970:
Following a recent Cincinnati (Ohio) Symphony Orchestra concert, for which Everett Lee was a guest conductor, music critic Henry S. Humphreys commented in his Enquirer music column, "Why this fine maestro isn't conducting a major USA orchestra I find hard to understand." Lee has been a candidate for the directorship of a major American symphony orchestra since the first of last year under the sponsorship of American Symphony conductor Leopold Stokowski. After building a super reputation, both as an operatic and symphonic conductor in Europe, Lee, principal conductor of the Norrkoping Symphony in Sweden, feels he is ready for one too. There is no black music director of a major symphony (one with a budget of more than $250,000 annually) and Lee aspires to be the first. Henry Lewis became the first black conductor of a metropolitan orchestra (one with an annual budget of $100,000 or more) when he was named to the New Jersey State Symphony Orchestra.But this call for a position at a leading American orchestra went unheeded. This despite an acclaimed 1976 debut with the post-Judson New York Philharmonic in a programme that included Kosbro, a work composed by the African American David Baker to mark Martin Luther King's birthday. So Everett Lee was once again forced to pursue his career outside America and in 1979 was appointed artistic director of the Bogotá Philharmonic Orchestra in Colombia where his first season included a pioneering South American performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony.
Because of his colour Everett Lee struggled throughout his career, and this lack of recognition also applies to biographical resources. Despite his important achievements he has no Wikipedia entry and, to my knowledge, no online biograpy other than this article. For this reason I have assembled this profile from my own desk research and enquiries in the States.
But at this point the path fades away. There is a reference to Everett Lee premiering a commission by the African American composer H. Leslie Adams with the Iceland Symphony and, tantalisingly, several Arvo Pärt discographies list him conducting Cantus In Memory of Benjamin Britten, Fratres and Summa with the Arvo Pärdi Sünnipäevorkestri on an Estonian CD released in 2000. But otherwise the later part of his career is undocumented.
This post should be viewed as work in progress. Hopefully readers can correct my inevitable errors and add the information needed to transform it from a partial to a complete biography. Then the Wiki community can re-purpose it as an entry and start the process of giving this important African American musician the recognition he truly deserves. Let's get working!
Update - Everett Lee is still with us aged 98. Read more here.
Everett Lee with his father-in-law Baptist minister and civil rights leader Reverend J.C. Olden.
* 1970 - "There is no black music director of a major symphony and Lee aspires to be the first". 2011 - plus ça change.
** My profile of Rudolph Dunbar, the first black conductor of both the London and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras is here, and that of African American conductor Dean Dixon is here.
1. Schiller Institute interview with Sylvia Olden Lee which provides my header quote.
2. Online archived copies of Jet magazine which also provide my second quote.
3. Composition in Black and White by Kathryn Talalay.
1. Marquette University Archives and was taken by Carl Van Vechten who appeared in a recent post.
2. Vielles-Annonces via Flickr.
Jet magazine for March 14, 1994 has a photo captioned "Opera star Jessye Norman (l), joins (l-r) The Orchestra of St Luke's conductor Everett Lee, composer-musicians Max Roach and opera singer Martina Arroyo at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Aaron Davis Hall in the City College of New York Campus". But I have my doubts if it is Everett Lee and I can find no other references connecting him to The Orchestra of St Luke's. Can anyone positively identify the person second left in that photo or shed any more light on it?
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