Two icons of black emancipation – later challengers to white ruling powers – met early on. As a teenager in high school, conductor Everett Lee trained on the athletics team with three-year-older Jesse Owens, who embarrassed white supremacist Hitler by sprinting to four Olympic titles in Nazi Berlin. Lee told his son how he was running out of breath every day, with Owens walking smoothly beside him, still breathing enough to encourage him. “C’mon, Everett, c’mon.”
Lee’s talent lay not in athletics, but in classical music, a stronghold even whiter than white. He broke many racial lines as the first black conductor on Broadway in the mid-1940s. And a decade later, Lee also had the African-American scoop on the stage with a symphony orchestra in the racist South, in Louisville and at a major opera house, the New York City Opera.
But the minds were not yet ripe enough to appoint him as an artistic director somewhere. The famous musical writer Oscar Hammerstein II once took him aside at a party and confided: “We would love to let you conduct our shows, but when we go on tour south no theater will book us.” And the great impresario and orchestra manager Arthur Judson also disappointed him. “You get rave reviews and you have charisma,” he confirmed. “But I’ll tell you right away: I don’t believe in black conductors for white orchestras. You can solo as a violinist, dance and sing, but not conduct.”
That’s why Lee started an ensemble himself. The Cosmopolitan Symphony Society consisted of musicians of Chinese, Russian, Jewish, African, Italian and Slavic origin, as well as women, who also had hardly any access to orchestras. The black newspaper Amsterdam News called the first concert in Harlem in 1947 a historic event.
Lee juxtaposed the European classical tradition with the work of black composers. “Making money with this is not enough,” he wrote to his advocate and friend, conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. “But maybe this orchestra will become a starting point for breaking down many nonsensical boundaries.”
But the racial obstacles remained for a while. Lee did not become chief conductor in Europe until he landed a job at a traveling opera house in Munich in 1956. In the early 1960s he found a second home in Sweden, where he conducted the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra for thirteen years. There, Lee, he said, could finally conduct without “racial complications.” Although he flew out to orchestras all over the world, he continued to live in Sweden for the rest of his life. In 2005, he conducted his last concert with the Louisville Orchestra, the orchestra that Everett Lee had commissioned as the first black conductor in a Southern state more than half a century earlier.
He was 105 years old. His West Virginia hometown of Wheeling proclaimed his birthday (August 31) Everett Lee Day five years ago.
Newsletter NRC Cultuurgids
What should you see, hear or listen to this week? Our editors review and tip