On Aug. 31, Everett Lee, one of the first African-American conductors to lead an integrated Broadway cast, turns 100 years old. Terrance McKnight spoke — and sang — to him on his big day.
"We don't stand still," is what Everett Lee said when I asked about his career and how classical music and the profession has evolved during his lifetime. It's a phrase he heard from Leonard Bernstein. In his early career Lee sat in the violin section of a pit orchestra, but his keen musicianship led him to conducting symphonic music and opera. He doesn't make music in public anymore but still sings around the house and listens to weekly broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. He sang melodies from Carmen over the telephone this afternoon. Listen to him talk about Bernstein in the audio below
Born in Wheeling, West Virginia, Lee grew up in Cleveland, studying violin from a young age. While working at a local hotel, he met the Cleveland Orchestra Music Director Artur Rodzinski. Rodzinski had heard that the young Lee was talented and invited him to attend Saturday concerts, eventually serving as a mentor to the aspiring musician.
Lee continued his violin training, attending the Cleveland Institute of Music, before a short stint in the U.S. Army as a Tuskegee Airman. He was released early due to injury, but soon thereafter we was on his way to New York to serve as the concertmaster for the upcoming musical Carmen Jones, a reimagining of Bizet's opera with an all-black cast and a libretto by Oscar Hammerstein II. One day when the conductor was unable to attend a performance, Lee stepped in, launching his conducting career.
In 1945, he was became the music director of Bernstein's On the Town at the composer's urging. The show, which had opened a year earlier, was groundbreaking for having an integrated cast. Bernstein further recommended Lee to Tanglewood, which gave him a Koussevitzky scholarship to study.
Though Lee broke down many barriers, some remained. He was advised against auditioning for a seat in the New York Philharmonic, so he pursued a conducting career instead. In 1947, he founded the Cosmopolitan Symphony, which was notable for its inclusiveness. National and international symphonies invited him to conduct, including the Louisville Symphony in 1953, making Lee the first African-American to lead an orchestra in the U.S. South.
However, these types of opportunities were rare, and Lee moved to Munich in 1956, and made regular appearances in the U.S., conducing the New York Philharmonic, Detroit, Atlanta, St Louis, Cincinnati, Baltimore, New Jersey, Dallas, National Symphony and the Louisville Symphony again in 2005. Currently he lives with his wife in Sweden.