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Sun, 10.16.1932

Henry Lewis, first Black conductor of a major symphony orchestra

Henry Lewis

Henry Lewis was born on this date in 1932. He was an African American double-bass player and orchestra conductor.

Lewis was born in Los Angeles, and from the age of five, he began studying piano. He later learned to play the clarinet as well as several string instruments. At the age of 16, he joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic, becoming the first black instrumentalist in a major orchestra. After six years as a double-bassist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, he played with and conducted the Seventh Army Symphony while serving in the United States Armed Forces (1955-1956).

He gained national recognition in 1961 when he was appointed assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta, a post he held until 1965. Lewis moved to Newark, NJ, where in 1968, he became conductor and music director of the New Jersey Symphony, a small community ensemble. He transformed the ensemble into a nationally recognized orchestra that yearly performed more than a hundred concerts, including outreach programs for local communities, and in 1972, he debuted at the New York Metropolitan Opera, conducting Puccini's La Boheme. From 1960 to 1979, he was married to famed opera singer Marilyn Horne, who considered him her "teacher and right hand.”

After retiring from the New Jersey Symphony in 1976, Lewis continued to tour as a guest conductor for 20 years until his death from a heart attack at the age of 63. He was the first black person to become a regular conductor of a major American symphony orchestra. During a musical career that spanned nearly five decades, Henry Lewis gained wide respect as a conductor, instrumentalist, and pioneer in the classical music world. Lewis died from a heart attack in 1996 at the age of 63.

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