Monday, April 5, 2021

Dr. Cynthia Cozette Lee: Black Classical Firsts Biographies - Everett Lee, Conductor - Day 5

Everett Lee conductor with baton
(Ohio County Public Library Archives, Wheeling, WV)
Everett Lee II (R) with Everett Lee III (L)
Photo Courtesy of Everett Lee III)

Black Classical Firsts Honored in April

  Day 5 – Maestro Everett Lee, Conductor

(PHILADELPHIA, PA-APRIL 5, 2021):  CYNTHIA COZETTE LEE, a multi-talented Black American contemporary classical composer and poet, has created a project for April 2021 of showcasing the Black musicians, singers, composers, conductors and artists of classical music who have been one of the first African American artist in the area of their expertise to accomplish an outstanding achievement in the classical music field. C. Cozette Lee plans to post a different distinguished artist daily in April 2021 on her Facebook page to honor the historic achievements of these exceptional artists. Below is a sample of one C. Cozette Lee’s post highlighting the works and achievements of the illustrious conductor, Maestro Everett Lee. Please be sure to visit the Cynthia Cozette Lee Facebook page daily during April to review the history of the featured Black Classical First artist. Maestro Everett Lee, world famous international conductor, is being featured for Day 5. For more information contact the composer, Cynthia Cozette Lee, at Email: or her website at:


(This is the fifth in a series of historic biographies on noted Black Classical Musicians, Composers and Singers who were trailblazers. This biography excerpt was written in 2016 by Wheeling Ogden Newspaper writer Erin Rothenbuehler).

I first heard about Maestro Everett Lee, the internationally acclaimed Black conductor, through my associations with local Philadelphia opera singers when I attended the University of Pennsylvania graduate school studying music composition in Philadelphia during the mid-1970s. The opera singers highly respected Maestro Lee and always spoke about him in glowing terms.  Mr. Lee frequently traveled the world conducting concerts with major symphony orchestras, opera companies and chamber music groups. He was currently residing in Sweden when he was not traveling.

In 1983, I was volunteering as the producer and host of my Black classical music WPEB public broadcasting radio interview program titled “Classical Reflections.” I hoped to obtain an interview with Maestro Lee for my program when he would come to Philadelphia to conduct for Opera Ebony. The Opera Ebony Company presented grand operas performed, produced, directed and attended predominantly by Black Americans annually in Philadelphia. Opera Ebony would hire Maestro Lee as music director for some of their productions at the Philadelphia Academy of Music.

By 1983 Maestro Lee was scheduled to conduct the Opera Ebony production of Verdi’s opera “Nabucco”.  At that time, I had already interviewed his famous opera vocal coach wife, Mrs. Sylvia Olden Lee, and their wonderful daughter, Dr. Eve Lee, for my radio program. According to Dr. Eve Lee, Maestro Lee and Mrs. Lee met in New York on September 17, 1943. They married in January 1944. I also had the opportunity to meet Mr. and Mrs. Lee’s late son, Everett Lee, III, at my radio station when he accompanied his mother and sister. I am sorry to say that Everett Lee, III passed away in December 2018 in Dallas. Maestro Lee later married Christin Lee and they had a son, Erik Lee.

Unfortunately, because Maestro Lee became very busy during his stay I was not able to schedule an interview with Maestro Lee. I was disappointed in not being able to interview the great Maestro. However, all was not lost, because that evening after the performance I was able to attend the gala reception for Opera Ebony’s “Nabucco” and meet Maestro Lee for the first time briefly. I also had the opportunity to speak briefly with Mrs. Sylvia Lee at the reception. A day or two later, I unexpectedly briefly met both Mrs. Sylvia Lee and Maestro Everett Lee again at a Mozart On The Square concert in Rittenhouse Square Park in Philadelphia. Max Rudolph, the illustrious conductor, was conducting this program. I was elated to meet Max Rudolph and be able to schedule Mr. Rudolph for my radio interview program, “Classical Reflections”. I recall Maestro Rudolph was very proud of the accomplishments of Everett Lee.

Everett Lee, II (born Wheeling West Virginia, August 31, 1916) is an American conductor and violinist. He is the first African American to conduct a Broadway musical, the first to "conduct an established symphony orchestra below the Mason–Dixon line", and the first to conduct a performance by a major American opera company.



“Everett Lee has an impressive resume. A graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music, a student of conducting at Julliard School of Music and Tanglewood, Fulbright Scholar, founder of the Cosmopolitan Symphony, first African American to conduct a major Broadway production, first African American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the south, first African American to conduct a major opera company in the United States, conductor of a traveling Munich Opera House in Germany, the Symphony of the New World in New York, the Bogota Philharmonic and Bogota Symphony in Columbia, the Musical Director of Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, and guest conductor at symphony orchestras such as the St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Paris, Madrid, Buenos Aires, Berlin, Cordoba, New York Philharmonic, the Albany, Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Hamburg, Bergen, Barcelona Symphonies, and the Boston Pops, to name a few. And it all started here in Wheeling, West Virginia when a young Everett Lee began taking lessons from a violin teacher on Wheeling Island.”

“After graduating from high school, Lee attended the Cleveland Institute of Music, studying violin. Maestro Lee’s son, Everett Lee, III, commented about his famous father, “He had to put himself through school, so he didn’t graduate in three years or four years. It took a little bit because he was [working in a hotel], and I think he did some other things while at college, at the Cleveland Institute of Music.” It was while working at this hotel that Everett met Arthur Rodzinski, conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra.”

“Somebody told [Rodzinski] that this kid is a very promising musician, and he just asked me ‘who are you?’” Maestro Everett recalled in an interview with the American Music Review in 2013. “And I told him, and he said, ‘well, come to my concerts.’ Every Saturday I could go to the Cleveland Orchestra concerts.” In 1948, Lee told a reporter from the Pittsburgh Courier, “My early conducting aspirations were nurtured by him… Rodzindki helped me in many ways—he would go over scores with me and give me pointers.”

After graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Music, Lee enlisted in the military. He was sent to Tuskegee to train to be a pilot, but an injury in jump school ended his military career. “When he got hurt,” Lee’s son recollected, “he went back to Cleveland, and around April or May, Billy Rose, one of the big-time producers on Broadway called and said, ‘Everett, I’ve heard about you. I’m getting ready to do Carmen Jones and I want you to come to New York and be in my orchestra.’ So he goes to New York, meets my mother [on September 17, 1943]– the season is in the fall of ‘43, and 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.’ And they knew that he was on top of his game and he knew everything about the stuff he was doing. So, that happened. And then in January [1944], he married my mother and the following November, I came.”

“Everett Lee III’s mother, by the way, was Sylvia Olden Lee, another impressive figure in the classical music world – a voice coach, Olden Lee was a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, instructor at the Curtis Institute, Howard, Oberlin, Columbia, and Dillard Universities, also a Fulbright Scholar, and the first African American musician to work at the New York Metropolitan Opera”.

“Even with his connections to Rodzinski and Bernstein, opportunities for a black conductor were limited for Lee, so in 1947, he formed the Cosmopolitan Symphony Society, a group that not only included Americans of Chinese, Russian, Jewish, African American, Italian and Slavic descent, but also female musicians.  “My own group is coming along fairly well, but of course there is no money in it as yet,” Lee wrote to Bernstein. “I hope to make it grow into something good however and it may be the beginning of breaking down a lot of foolish barriers.”

“In 1953, Lee was asked to guest conduct the Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky, making him the first African American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the south. Another first came two years later, while conducting at the New York City Opera Company. The “Wheeling-News Register:, in a front-page lead article on Tuesday, April 19, 1955, reported, “Wheeling native, Everett Lee, believed to be the first Negro to conduct professional grand opera in this country, scored an overwhelming success Sunday when he directed the New York City Opera Company’s performance of Verdi’s “La Traviata”.

“In 1962, Lee was appointed conductor of the Norrköping Symphony in Sweden, a position he held for [ten] years. In the years that followed, though Norrköping remained his permanent residence, Lee became involved with and conducted for the Symphony of the New World in New York, the Bogota Philharmonic in Columbia, and Opera North in Philadelphia, while continuing to guest conduct for orchestras worldwide, traveling back and forth to Sweden.”

“Lee conducted his last orchestra, January 13, 2005, for the Louisville Orchestra – the same symphony orchestra that started his career as a conductor of major symphony orchestras. Today, he still lives in Sweden, in Malmö, with his second wife and their son.”

(Everett Lee III, the Maestro’s son comments.)

“On my Excel spreadsheet, there are over nine hundred lines of orchestral works that he performed. When I sort it, I can tell you how many times he did Stravinsky’s Suite #2. I can tell you how many times he performed Dvorak’s Symphony of the New World. The Ninth. He loved it. He did that, I would guess, eight or nine times. I’m not in front of my computer right now, so I can’t say for sure.” Actually, according to the spreadsheet, it was 14, and there are nearly 1000 lines for orchestral pieces with another 100 if you include choral and operatic and the two Broadway works Lee conducted. Everett Lee, the young boy who started his career taking violin lessons on Wheeling Island, has had a prolific and groundbreaking career.

Reference: Dr. Eve Lee, (personal communications, April 4, 2021 and April 5, 2021)

Reference: “Wheeling-Born Maestro Celebrates 100th Birthday” by Erin Rothenbuehler, August 31, 2016 article courtesy of Dr. Eve Lee. Retrieved on April 3, 2021 from Ogden Newspapers, Wheeling, West Virginia,right%20here%20in%20Wheeling%2C%20WV.


Reference: “Everett Lee Biography” Retrieved on April 3, 2021 from


Photographs courtesy of Dr. Eve Lee. Photo 1- Maestro Everett Lee conducting. Photo 2 – Left to Right—Everett Lee, III and Maestro Everett Lee, II


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