A Negro in front of a white symphony group? No - I'm sorry

It is reported that Everett Lee has died at the grand old age of 105. Everett Lee was an early victim of the institutionalised racism that still pervades classical music, and he deserves far more than to be lauded in a trite obituary and then forgotten again. My Overgrown Path articles about him ten years ago were in the vanguard of the movement to give musicians of colour the recognition they deserve. So here again are three of those articles:

'I don't believe in Negro symphony conductors': July 25th 2011

'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 Wheeling, 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!

Everett Lee with his father-in-law Baptist minister and civil rights leader Reverend J.C. Olden. 

* 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?

From Carmen Jones to Arvo Part and beyond: July 27th 2011

My recent post about Everett Lee ended enigmatically with his CD of Arvo Pärt's music released in 2000 by an Estonian label and an appeal for further information about the pioneering African American conductor. Now an email has come from Byron Hanson at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan and here is the very good news:

'Regarding Everett Lee, I had a call out of the blue from his son just a couple of weeks ago asking me to verify a concert Mr Lee conducted at Interlochen in 1974. Everett was in the room with his son and is therefore alive though nearly 100 years old!'

My thanks go to Bill Zick at AfriClassical who relayed the email and also to the many readers who shared my article on Facebook and elsewhere . Byron Hanson tells me that the programme for that 1974 Interlochen concert was Mozart Overture to The Magic Flute, Bartók Romanian Folk Dances and Borodin's still neglected Second Symphony. The latter work is a natural for the BBC Proms, but was last performed there in 1971.

We're just not ready yet for a black conductor: October 24th 2011

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 III and their daughter Eve as well. Quite an extraordinary family.

The common thread in the saga of Everett and Sylvia Olden Lee is Max Rudolf, who had (a) previously conducted in Goteborg Sweden, (b) was first a conductor and then artistic administrator at the Met from 1942-58 and (c) became music director of the Cincinnati Symphony in 1958 and was probably responsible for getting Sylvia her position at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. (When he left the Cincinnati in 1970 to head the opera department at Curtis, he took Sylvia with him.) I was assistant manager of the Cincinnati Symphony in 1965-66 and stayed in touch with Rudolf thereafter. He was very supportive of my and my wife's career undertakings as well. Rudolf was one of the few arts administrators in the USA who dared to advocate for and engage black performers, composers and conductors.

I was unaware for many years that the Louisville Orchestra had provided Everett with his first guest conducting engagement (shameful since Louisville is my home town and I grew up on young people's concerts by the Louisville Orchestra). I do know that Rudolf brought Everett in to conduct the Cincinnati Orchestra on at least 2 occasions, as he had previously done with Dean Dixon.

In answer to your question re: the photo ID from Jet Magazine [see above] - Jessye Norman, Max Roach (who I also once represented) and Martina Arroyo - I believe that is indeed Everett Lee second from left. I had never before seen him with glasses but the facial structure looks the same. Quite a spiffy getup, too.

Ironically, my wife Sylvia and I now live in El Cerrito CA, just north of Oakland, whose Symphony for many years has had a black music director named Michael Morgan, and prior to that had engaged the late Calvin Simmons as its music director. 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.

That valuable addition to the Everett Lee path arrived a few days ago from Michael O'Daniel. Thankfully attitudes have changed since the days when Everett Lee, Philippa Schuyler, Rudolph Dunbar, Dean Dixon and other musicians of colour were struggling to build their careers. But echoes of that headline do still linger on.


Pliable said…
Apologies, but I have not had time to check these three articles from 2011 for broken links. I hope that the inevitable link-rot will not detract from their message.

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