Everett Lee

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Everett Lee
Lee in 1948
Lee in 1948
Background information
Born(1916-08-31)August 31, 1916
Wheeling, West Virginia, U.S.
DiedJanuary 12, 2022(2022-01-12) (aged 105)
Malmö, Sweden
GenresOrchestral, opera, musical
Occupation(s)Conductor, opera music director, musician, music scholar
Instrument(s)Violin, Viola, oboe

Everett Astor Lee (August 31, 1916 – January 12, 2022) was an American symphonic conductor, opera music director, violinist and music scholar.[1][2] He was the first African American to conduct a Broadway musical, the first to "conduct an established symphony orchestra below the Mason–Dixon line", and the first to conduct a performance by a major American opera company.[3][page needed][4]

Life and career[edit]

Lee was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, on August 31, 1916, to a middle-class family.[5][6] He moved with his parents to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1927 as part of the Great Migration. While working as a hotel busboy as a teenager, Lee met the conductor Artur Rodziński, who became his mentor. He studied violin at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he received a Ranney Scholarship. After graduation from the Cleveland Institute of Music Lee toured the south as a concert violinist and became well known. His concert career was interrupted by being called into military service. Lee was selected to be an aviation cadet at Tuskegee Army Airfield, one of the air fields for the elite African American pilot squad known as the Tuskegee Airmen.[7][8] In 1943, Lee was asked to join the orchestra of the Broadway musical Carmen Jones, an all-black contemporary retelling of Georges Bizet's opera Carmen. Lee played violin in the pit and performed the oboe onstage in one scene; he was one of only two African-American musicians in the orchestra.[5] When Carmen Jones's conductor Joseph Littau fell ill, Lee "got his first break as an emergency pinch hitter".[9] Leonard Bernstein saw a performance of Carmen Jones with Lee leading the orchestra and asked him to become the permanent conductor of his musical On the Town. When Lee joined the show in September 1945, he was celebrated for being the first African American to regularly conduct a Broadway musical.[5][10]

In 1946, Lee won a Koussevitzky Music Foundation Award to conduct at Tanglewood, and played first violin in the New York City Symphony[clarification needed], conducted by Bernstein. In 1947, he founded an interracial orchestra, the Cosmopolitan Symphony Society, made up of "Americans of Chinese, Russian, Jewish, Negro, Italian and Slavic origin", as well as women.[5] He served as director of Columbia University's opera department in the early 1950s and traveled to Europe on a Fulbright scholarship. In 1953, Lee served as a guest conductor of the Louisville Orchestra, becoming the first African American to conduct a white symphony orchestra in the American South.[10][3][page needed] In 1955, he conducted an acclaimed New York City Opera production of La traviata, becoming "the first Negro to conduct professional grand opera in the U.S."[4][11]

Lee was met with undisguised racism throughout his career. Oscar Hammerstein II declined to hire Lee to conduct touring productions of his shows, explaining that Southern theaters would refuse to book them.[5] Concert manager Arthur Judson told Lee, "I don't believe in Negro symphony conductors."[5] Deciding that he would find better opportunities outside of America, Lee moved to Germany with his family in 1954. In 1962, he was appointed chief conductor of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, a position he held for a decade.

Lee, Carnegie Hall Archives, Digital Collections, copyrighted

Lee was a conductor at Carnegie Hall in New York City with the Symphony of the New World and the American Symphony Orchestra from 1969 to 1983. At one of his performances in 1983, he conducted Opera Ebony and the American Symphony Orchestra. The program included Lee conducting Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ “Ernestine” opera excerpts, William Grant Still’s “Troubled Island” opera duet, Spiritual selections and other vocal and orchestral works. Featured soloists included, Benjamin Matthews, baritone (co-founder of Opera Ebony), Joy Simpson, Alpha Floyd, Joyce Mathis, sopranos and Michael Austin, tenor. Lee was a speaker on the program for the Tribute to Sylvia Olden Lee, Master Musician and Teacher concert at Carnegie Hall on June 29, 2017.[12][13] In 1975, he debuted as Music Director of the Symphony of the New World for a series of concerts in Washington, D.C. In 1976, he conducted the New York Philharmonic for the first time; the concert was in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and included a work by African-American composer David Baker. In 1979, he became music director of the Bogotá Philharmonic Orchestra in Colombia. Lee conducted nearly 1,000 orchestral pieces, about 100 choral and operatic works and two Broadway works in the United States, Europe and South America.[1][2][14]

Personal life and death[edit]

Lee married the accompanist and vocal coach Sylvia Olden (1917–2004) in 1944.[15] They had two children, the late Everett Lee, III and Dr. Eve Lee. They divorced and Lee later married opera singer Christin Andersson, in 1979. They had one son, opera singer Erik Andersson. At the time of his death, Lee lived in Malmö, Sweden, where he died on January 12, 2022, at the age of 105.[2][16][17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Maestro Everett Lee, first African American to lead New York City Opera passes away at 105". The Philadelphia Sunday Sun. Retrieved January 18, 2022.
  2. ^ a b c "Everett Astor Lee, Trailblazing Conductor and Wheeling Native, Dies at 105". The Intelligencer and Wheeling News Register. Retrieved January 19, 2022.
  3. ^ a b Cheatham, Wallace, ed. Dialogues on Opera and the African-American Experience. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 1997.
  4. ^ a b "Yesterday in Negro History." Jet, April 22, 1965. 11.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Oja, Carol J. (2013). "Everett Lee and the Racial Politics of Orchestral Conducting". American Music Review (Fall 2013). Retrieved August 14, 2016.
  6. ^ Terrance McKnight (August 31, 2016). "Happy 100th Birthday Everett Lee, Trailblazing Conductor". WQXR-FM. Retrieved November 3, 2016.
  7. ^ "Cleveland Violinist Puts Aside Music For Pursuit Plane at Tuskegee Field" Cleveland” Call and Post, June 19, 1943. 10A.
  8. ^ "Tuskegee Airmen”, www.history.com, retrieved January 25, 2022.
  9. ^ Parmenter, Ross. "The World of Music: Season's Start", The New York Times, August 31, 1947.
  10. ^ a b Pinkston, Antwon, and Paula Burba. "Black History Month: 1953 Everett Lee", Louisville Courier-Journal, February 1, 2010.
  11. ^ "Everett Lee Conducts at City Center", The New York Times, April 18, 1955.
  12. ^ "Performance History Search". Carnegie Hall’s Digital Collections. Retrieved January 25, 2022.
  13. ^ Steinberg, Barbara (July 24, 2015). "A Conversation With Everett Lee". Retrieved January 25, 2022.
  14. ^ "Wheeling Born Maestro Celebrates 100th Birthday". www.archivingwheeling.org August 31, 2016 by Erin Rothenbuehler. Retrieved January 13, 2022.
  15. ^ Latty, Yvonne. "Sylvia Olden Lee, 86, music-world icon", Philadelphia Daily News April 16, 2004.
  16. ^ "Everett Lee, Who Broke Color Barriers on the Conductor's Podium, Dies at 105". The New York Times. January 22, 2022. Retrieved January 24, 2022.
  17. ^ En maestro har gått ur tiden – ledde SON i tio år