Everett Lee, who broke down racial barriers as the first Black conductor on Broadway, passed away on Jan. 12 at a hospital in Malmo, Sweden, the New York Times reports. He was 105.
Lee’s daughter, Eve Lee, confirmed his passing.
The Chicago Defender called him the first Black conductor “to wave the baton over a white orchestra in a Broadway production.”
Everett Astor Lee was born on Aug. 31, 1916, in Wheeling, West Virginia, where he started on the violin at age 8. Noticing his musical dexterity, Lee’s family moved to Cleveland in 1927 to expose him to the arts.
In Cleveland, he was mentored by the Orchestra’s conductor, Artur Rodzinski, and studied with concertmaster Joseph Fuchs at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Lee moved to New York in 1943 to play in the orchestra for “Carmen Jones,” a rewrite of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” that featured an all-Black cast with a primarily white orchestra. When the conductor was snowed in, early in 1944, Lee filled in to conduct Bizet’s music. Also, he conducted George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.”
Lee made history on Broadway when he was appointed music director of Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town” in September 1945.
In 1953, Lee conducted the Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky, after little rehearsal time. United Press reported Lee’s concert was “one of the first” at which a Black man led a white orchestra in the South.
Lee conducted the New York City Opera, another first in 1955, during the same time, his first wife, Sylvia Olden Lee, a prominent vocal coach, was appointed the first Black musician on the New York Metropolitan Opera.
While racism placed many obstacles in Lee’s way, his immense talent allowed him to gain notoriety in Europe.
In 1957, Lee was a tremendous success in Germany, Colombia, and Sweden, where he succeeded Herbert Blomstedt as music director of the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra, from 1962 to 1972.
Lee hoped to return to the States but would only do so if he could lead a major orchestra as a music director.
“I did not have very much hope at home, despite some success,” he told The Atlanta Constitution in 1970. “It would be nice to work at home. I’m an American—why not?” If he could make it in Europe, he concluded, he should be able to make it here.
Throughout his illustrious career, he would make guest appearances in the U.S. including conducting the New York Philharmonic on the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1976, leading Sergei Rachmaninoff, Jean Sibelius, and David Baker’s “Kosbro,” short for “Keep on Steppin’ Brothers.”
While he said he wasn’t bitter about the racism he encountered, he recalled being denied violin auditions at two major U.S. orchestras and how it inspired him to try even harder.
“I then made up my mind that if I can’t join you, then I will lead you,” Lee said. “I did make good on that promise to myself. Those two orchestras that denied me even an audition, I have conducted,” he said. “I just had to. I just had to show them that I was there.”
In addition to Eve, Lee is survived by his second wife Christin Andersson, a son Erik Lee, two granddaughters, and one great-granddaughter.
We extend our prayers and condolences to the family and friends of Everett Lee.