Heroic US conductor dies, aged 105

Heroic US conductor dies, aged 105


norman lebrecht

January 17, 2022

The death is reported in Sweden of Everett Lee, the first African-American to conduct on Broadway and also the first, he claimed, to conduct an established symphony orchestra in the southern states of the USA.

Working in Cleveland as a hotel busboy, Everett Astor Lee was befriended by the conductor Arthur Rodzinski, who sent him to study at the he Cleveland Institute of Music. While standing in as conductor for a college production of Carmen Jones, he was spotted by Leonard Bernstein, who hired him to conduct his Broadway musical, On the Town.

Although he got to conduct Traviata at New York City Opera, opportunities in the US were scarce and he moved to Sweden on becoming chief conductor of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in 1962. Later, he was music director in Bogota, Colombia.

Lee’s first wife, the voice coach Sylvia Olden Lee, was the first African-American musician to be employed by the Met.

Lee, who was born in ugust 1916, died Lee died on January 12, 2022 in Malmö, Sweden.


  • Rob says:


    “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”

  • Larry says:

    Thank you very much for posting this. I confess that I was unfamiliar with Mr. Lee’s career.

  • John Birge says:

    This jogged a memory of Interlochen summer music camp 47 years ago, playing Schubert’s Unfinished with Everett Lee. He was wonderful. 105!! Amazing; a long and inspiring life.

    Curious about one point in Everett Lee’s bio: “the first African-American to conduct on Broadway.” Would that not have been Eubie Blake in “Shuffle Along” in 1921? That’s generally recognized as the first all-Black Broadway show. According to the George C. Wolfe, director of the 2016 revival, Eubie Blake was the only member of the original creative team who didn’t perform on stage, because Blake was conducting:

    • Nicholas says:

      Everett Lee would have been only 5 when Shuffle Along debuted in 1921. I wouldn’t be surprised if he crossed paths with Eubie Blake, Will Vodery, William Grant Still or other Luminaries of his race trying to overcome racist obstacles of his time. What an extraordinary life! RIP

    • Brian Mathias says:

      If you mean summer 1975, All State HS Orchestra, I was also there. Oboe. Incredible, life altering experience with a mass tri Lee.

    • Brian Mathias says:

      Auto correct error. Maestro Lee, of course.

  • I had no idea that he was still with us!
    I remember recording him in Norrköping in the 1960s. He was a very nice man and a good musician!

  • Joel Lazar says:

    I recall a fine concert with the American Symphony Orchestra in the later 1960s. RIP.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    I knew nothing of Everett Lee, and I’m happy to have learned something new.

  • K says:

    Mr. Lee came and guest conducted at ESM in the ’70s, ostensibly to audition for the outgoing Meier – but don’t quote. In addition to being a wonderful musician he was also very personable. RIP