Broadway’s First Black Conductor Everett Lee Dies at 105

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Everett Lee, a prolific musician, performed at major operas around the globe and broke ground as the first Black Broadway conductor and the first Black conductor to lead a white Southern orchestra.

Born in 1916, Lee was raised in Wheeling, West Virginia where he took up violin at 8-years-old. From an early age, it was clear that Lee was a musical prodigy. His family relocated to Cleveland so he could further cultivate his talent.

The conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra took Lee under his wing, and soon he was studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music and then The Juilliard School in New York City.

In a moment of serendipity, the conductor slated to lead the orchestra for “Carmen Jones” on Broadway was unable to play. Lee took over as conductor of the musical, featuring a cast of Black actors, in 1944.

“The story is the conductor got snowed in and dad, who was concertmaster, showed up and they handed him the baton and said, ‘It’s your turn. You get to go. We don’t have a conductor,’” Everett Lee III, the legendary conductor’s son, told Archive Wheeling. “And they knew that he was on top of his game and he knew everything about the stuff he was doing. So, that happened.”

Despite his obvious talent and qualifications, prejudice kept Lee from accessing more of the opportunities he deserved. So, he brought together a diverse team of musicians in the Cosmopolitan Symphony in 1947. The Cosmopolitan performed Italian opera “La Forza Del Destino” to a crowd of over 2,000 in the early 1950s, among other concerts.

“My own group is coming along fairly well, but of course there is no money in it as yet,” Lee said of the group, according to Archive Wheeling. “I hope to make it grow into something good however and it may be the beginning of breaking down a lot of foolish barriers.”

Despite success with the group and his breakthroughs conducting white orchestras as a Black musician, Lee moved to Europe to pursue his career without the limitations of Jim Crow-era America.

Outside of the United States, Lee was unstoppable. He founded an orchestra in Munich, played operas in Sweden and conducted the Berlin Philharmonic and Bogotá Philharmonic in Germany and Colombia respectively.

Lee would return to America for some performances before conducting his last show in 2005.

He died at age 105 this January.

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