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Henry J. Lewis

First African American Instrumentalist in a Major Symphony Orchestra

Henry J. Lewis, Marilyn Horne, Los Angeles, 1961

Portrait of Marily Horne with husband Henry J. Lewis, 1961. From the Library of Congress.

Henry J. Lewis was the first African American to regularly play for and conduct a major U.S. symphony orchestra. He was born in Los Angeles in 1932 to Henry J. Lewis, Sr., a real estate agent and auto dealer, and Mary Josephine Lewis, a nurse. Although neither of his parents were themselves musically inclined, Lewis demonstrated a talent for music from early on. He began learning to play the piano at the age five. Fortunately for him, his parents had the means to allow him to pursue his passion for music. Few African Americans were involved in classical music at the time, making prospects in the field remote, even for a young black prodigy. His father was skeptical for his son’s opportunities in classical music, yet, the young Lewis was passionate and undaunted. Upon entering Dorsey High School, he entered band and took up the double bass. This led him to private bass lessons from Herman Reinshagen, who had once played with the New York Philharmonic and, by then, played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In 1938, at age 16, Lewis rented the Wilshire Ebell Theater to give a solo performance, seeking to put his talent before the public. Reinshagen, greatly impressed by his young student, invited the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director, Alfred Wallenstein. This provided the opportunity that Lewis had dreamed of, because Wallenstein, upon experiencing the youth's performance, then invited him to audition with the Phil. Lewis was subsequently accepted into the Los Angeles Philharmonic and became, not only the first African American to play with a major U.S. symphony orchestra, but, one of the youngest ever appointed to any major symphony orchestra in the world. This was no routine addition to the organization's roster. The all-white musicians' union had to agree and amend their rules in order for the young black kid to be accepted into their ranks - which, to their credit, they did.

By the time Lewis graduated from Dorsey High School, the University of Southern California (USC) had taken notice of the accomplished young musician. The university offered Lewis a full scholarship to its music school. However, at the time, the only degree offered by the school was in music education, which was not the path Lewis desired. He wanted to learn to conduct. USC did give him a chance to study conducting and Sylvia Kunin, founder of the Young Musicians Foundation, gave him opporunity for valuable experience, by asking him to conduct the foundation’s Debut Orchestra.

In 1954, Lewis was drafted into the U.S. Army, bringing an end to his studies at USC, and he was shipped out to Germany. The Army, however, chose not to waste his music talents. He was assigned to the U.S. Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra – the Army’s official orchestra in Europe. There, he played the double bass and was ultimately appointed, despite his youth and low rank, to be music director and conductor. He traveled with the orchestra on goodwill tours all over Europe. At the same time, Lewis had begun developing a relationship with Marilyn Horne, a fellow student from USC and opera singer, who also was in Europe on contract to opera houses. The two even were able to work together in a radio broadcast performance while they were together in Germany.

Henry J. Lewis, U.S. Army, Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra, Kaiserlautern, Germany, 1956

Henry J. Lewis, with the U.S. Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra, greeted by audience after concert in Kaiserlautern, Germany, 1956. U.S. Army photo. Marilyn Horne Museum & Exhibit Center.

In 1957, Lewis completed his service in the Army and returned home to Los Angeles. During one of his Army concert tours overseas, he had come to the attention of Eduard Van Beinum, music director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. As it turned out, when Lewis returned home, Van Beinum was in Los Angeles as guest conductor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Van Beinum not only helped to return Lewis to the Phil, but, he encouraged the company to consider him as a conductor.

At some point in 1958 or 1959, Lewis organized the String Society of Los Angeles – later named Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (today’s Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra is unrelated).

In 1961, when guest conduct Igor Markevitch could not take the podium due to illness, Lewis was asked to substitute. In conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Lewis became the first permanently-assigned African American conductor of a major U.S. symphony orchestra (see William Grant Still commentary box below). His new wife, Marilyn, whom he had married a year earlier, sang as part of the program. Soon after, he was elevated to assistant conductor under the Phil’s then new music director, Zubin Mehta, who sought to raise the orchestra’s overall quality of performance.

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles, 1964

View of Los Angeles Philharmonic, on stage from behind, looking out at audience, 1964. It was opening day for the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Zubin Mehta was conducting. Mehta promoted Lewis to the post of Assistant Conductor in 1961. From the L.A. Times Photographic Collection at UCLA Library.

In 1965, Lewis left his position at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He briefly served as music director of the Los Angeles Opera. With his talent and reputation widely recognized, however, he went on to be invited to be guest conductor at symphony orchestras and operas around the country and the world. These included the Chicago and London Symphony Orchestras and the famous Teatro alla Scala - La Scala Opera House - in Milan, Italy.

In 1968, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra hired Lewis, from among numerous other candidates, to be their music director. At the time, the organization did not rank among the elite orchestras in the country, consisting mostly of part-time musicians and offering an unimpressive 22 performances per year. Lewis, however, saw potential and raised the ensemble’s quality and status, eventually performing 100 concerts per year and hosting world class soloists. Under Lewis, the ensemble went on to perform at prestigious venues, such as Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. It was also important to Lewis that the entire community be able to enjoy quality classical performances. He offered affordable tickets for home concerts and took the orchestra into local community centers and schools. He told the New York Times:

“I’m not a believer in the old-fashioned attitude of a conductor and orchestra playing for themselves and letting the audience listen as a kind of favor.”

Lewis took criticism that classical music wasn't what struggling urban communities needed and some even accused him of trying to sell "white" music to black audiences. He acknowledged that classical music wasn't for everyone, but he would not apologize for appreciating it nor for his efforts to both build a world-class orchestra and make it accessible to everyone.

In 1972, Lewis was invited to conduct the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of La Bohème. This made him the first African American to conduct this venerable company and he went on to conduct there a total of 139 times.

Although much of the dramatic success of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra was attributed to Lewis, he was reputed to be a hard-driving manager and conductor, straining his relationship with his orchestra. He left the company in 1976 and was never able to secure another permanent position with a major company. In 1989, he served as chief conductor for Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra in Hilversum. In 1991, he conducted the West End London production of the musical Carmen Jones.

In 1996, at the age of 63, Lewis died in New York City from a heart attack. In 2015, he was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame.

-- Marilyn Horne: The Song Continues, by Marilyn Horne and Jane Scovell, Baskerville Publishers, Inc.
-- Henry J. Lewis (1932-1996)by Victoria Bishop, BlackPast
-- The Legacy of Henry Lewis, LA Philharmonic
-- Henry Lewis, the Conductor Who Broke Orchestral Racial Barriers, Is Dead at 63, by Robert D. McFadden, New York Times
-- Lewis, Henry 1932–1996, Encyclopedia.com
-- Remembering Henry Lewis; First Black Conductor of a Major Symphony Orchestra, by Mohammed Awal, Face 2 Face Africa
-- Henry J. Lewis (Musician), Wikipedia

On July 23, 1936, African American classical composer, William Grant Still, conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic for two of his compositions, in a performance at the Hollywood Bowl. He became the first African American to stand in front of and conduct a major American symphony orchestra.

William Grant Still, Classical, Music, Composer, 1936