'I don't believe in Negro symphony conductors'

'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.

Sources include:
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.

Photo credits.
1. Marquette University Archives and was taken by Carl Van Vechten who appeared in a recent post.
2. Vielles-Annonces via Flickr.
3. Courier-Journal

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?

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Version 1.2 27/07/2011 - update added.


Philip Amos said…
Pliable, may I say that your presentation of this vitally important issue (Naxos have done well by John Mclaughlin Williams, but I'm not as sanguine as he re how much things have changed), as also previous posts on the subject, is superb. Great clarity. I am at once moved and infuriated by it. Judson is once again being Judson, a topic we've touch on before. But then, it does not surprise me to find Stokowski campaigning to get Lee a major post, nor that he was so much recognized in Europe as a conductor of the first water.

A few days ago I listened, twice, to Clara Haskil playing the Beethoven G major concerto with Dean Dixon conducting the RIAS Symphony. I had not heard it before and I revere Haskil, but I found myself on first hearing rather riveted by the magnificent accompaniment -- Barbirolli class. I had to play it again with my ears firmly tuned to Haskil in case I had missed anything, and could then put the two together on further hearings.

Anyway, these anecdotes aside, I'm not sure I can help in this endeavour, but I'm going to give the post another close read to see if anything strikes me.
Pliable said…
Clara Haskil Plays Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann with Dean Dixon and Ferenc Fricsay - http://www.amazon.co.uk/Clara-Haskil-Mozart-Beethoven-Schumann/dp/B001R0GE0M/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1311624758&sr=1-1
Pliable said…
Comment received:


I came across your recent blog entry about the Arvo Pärdi Sünnipäevaorkestri (Estonian for "Arvo Pärt's Birthday Orchestra") concert conducted by Everett Lee.
I just wanted to confirm to you that the CD of this concert exists and that I actually own a copy of it (not the original). It was a concert to celebrate Pärt's 65th birthday in his birth town of Paide on the Southern coast of Estonia on Sept. 17, 2000. The actual birthday was on September 11th.
It isn't identified specifically, but I think this is an amateur student orchestra assembled for the event. All of the orchestra player's names are identified and none of them are otherwise known to me.

I can send you mp3 versions of the tracks using the www.yousendit.com download website if you are interested, along with scans of the cover.
The programme includes:
1. Arvo Pärt: Fratres for strings and percussion 9:47
2. Benjamin Britten: Pizzicato from Simple Symphony 3:04
3. Arvo Pärt: Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten 8:49
4. Arvo Pärt: Summa for strings 4:13
Rolf Martinsson: Impression (1980)
5. Cantabile con espressione 10:09
6. Allegramente con brio 2:07
7. Andante 6:15
Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 86 in D major
8. Adagio 8:14
9. Capriccio (Largo) 6:09
10. Menuetto (Allegretto) 5:38
11. Finale (Allegro con spirito) 6:18

This is a CD-R that was made in very small supply, perhaps only a few hundred copies issued privately and there is no label identified. We were lucky enough to find it in a music shop in Tallinn, Estonia in the summer of 2001 and it was the final remaining copy there (we asked for more). Doug Maskew from the BBC was with me at the time and that is how the disc was added to Doug's comprehensive Pärt Discography and also to David Pinkerton's Pärt Discography which we both contribute to.

There is about a 1/2 page biography of Everett Lee in the notes, but it is in Estonian. I could translate that for you though if you are interested? In the credits Everett Lee is identified as being from Sweden, although the biography does give his American background.

Best regards,

Alan Teder
Toronto, Canada
Pliable said…
Reader responses to this post have allowed me to establish contact with Everett Lee's family. I can confirm he is living in retirement in Sweden and I am working towards producing an update version of the article that fills in the missing biographical information.

This is a wonderful result, but please do kep additional information coming in.
Unknown said…
It is October 19 and I have just now seen your July 25 post re Everett Lee. I represented Everett for a couple of years while I was in the artist management business in New York and I ran into the same attitude as Arthur Judson's when I presented him for open music director positions with major symphony orchestras (including Oakland!!): "We're just not ready yet for a black conductor." Ironic because one of the catchwords of African American life, from the white perspective, was "You people just aren't ready yet..." Anyway, I did manage to get Everett a couple of opera conducting gigs, and 2-3 guest engagements with major orchestras, but then I moved away from NYC and away from the artist management business. I believe he later went on to run an opera company in Philadelphia and perhaps also formed or at least led another orchestra in New York (possibly that is the St. Luke's Orchestra you refer to). Before I met Everett, I had actually met the late Sylvia Olden Lee first because she was my wife's vocal coach at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and thereafter. (She was a pianist and vocal coach, BTW, not a singer.) I got to know their son Everett Jr and their daughter Eve as well. Quite an extraordinary family. When you are next in touch with Everett please give him my regards and my contact information: modspeed@sbcglobal.net. Ironically, my wife Sylvia and I now live in El Cerrito CA, just north of Oakland, which for many years has had a black conductor named Michael Morgan. Also, I believe the first black music director of a major US orchestra was James de Priest in Portland, and Thomas Wilkins is now in Omaha as well as principal conductor at the Hollywood Bowl. By all means please update Everett's biographical information and submit it to Wikipedia as well. Michael O'Daniel
Lisa Hirsch said…
One more African American conductor: William Eddins of the Edmonton Symphony in Canada is American, a graduate of Eastman. I have not heard him with his home band, but he was fabulous when he guest-conducted the Berkeley Symphony and was in the running to succeed Kent Nagano.
Unknown said…
If anyone knows how to do a Wikipedia, Everett Lee II (he hates to be called Jr.) has a spread sheet with all the symphonies and operas his father has conducted during his career. It's a very long and varied list showing a remarkable career of this talented and persistent Maestro.
God bless him and his whole talented family. I know them all personally.
Unknown said…
As a journalist, I'm interested in seeing this spreadsheet - could you please send it to twincitiesarts@gmail.com
Unknown said…
It is truly sad this legacy is not known or appreciated mainstream among african americans.

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