Black History:  Special Delivery!!

henry lewis

Henry Lewis (1932 – 1996)

Henry Lewis (1932 – 1963) was born in Los Angeles, California.  His father worked as a car dealer and his mother was a nurse.  He began taking piano lessons at age 5.  Lewis would also learn to play a number of stringed instruments including the clarinet.  His talent in playing the double base earned him a scholarship to UCLA.  When he was 16 years old, he joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  This made Lewis the first black instrumentalist in a major symphony orchestra.  He later joined the military.  During his military service, he conducted the Seventh Army Symphony based in Germany from 1955 – 1956.

In 1961 he accepted the role of assistant conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the leadership of Zubin Mehta.  He served in this role until 1965.  Lewis then relocated to New Jersey in 1968 and became music director and conductor of the New Jersey Symphony. He was the first African American conduct to hold these roles for a major symphony orchestra.    At the time he took over it was small,  community ensemble.  Under his leadership, the group gained national renown as an orchestra, had a schedule of 100+ concerts per year with a budget exceeding $1 million dollars annually.  In 1972 he was also the first African American to conduct the Metropolitan Opera.  Lewis was married to famous white opera singer Marilyn Horne from 1960-1979.  The couple had one daughter, Angela in 1965.  They divorced in 1974.

Lewis retired from the New Jersey Symphony in 1976 but continued to tour extensively as a guest conductor for almost 20 years until his death.  He was a widely acclaimed musician and conductor; a true trailblazer.  At age 63, he died of a heart attack in 1996.

Sources:

https://aaregistry.org/story/henry-lewis-first-black-conductor-of-a-major-symphony-orchestra/

https://blackthen.com/henry-lewis-conductor-broke-racial-barriers-u-s-orchestras/

https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/lewis-henry-jay-1932-1996/