This Day In History: February 15

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In 1968, 36-year-old Henry Lewis makes history when he is chosen, over more than 150 other candidates, as the first Black conductor of a major U.S. orchestra: the New Jersey Symphony. It marks just one highlight in a barrier-breaking career that prompted The New York Times to liken him to Jackie Robinson of classical music. 

Under Lewis’ musical direction, the Newark, N.J.-based NJSO transformed from a regional ensemble that gave around two dozen performances annually into a large-scale, nationally recognized orchestra that performed 100 concerts a year. It went from playing in the shadow of New York City to performing at some of the nation’s most prestigious concert halls, including the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall. 

With the symphony based in Newark, a city that had been wracked by racial unrest and rioting the year before he arrived, Lewis dedicated himself to making the orchestra—and classical music—accessible to underserved audiences. Concert tickets sold for as little as $1. And under his direction, the NJSO brought performances out of the concert hall and into local schools and community centers. Lewis continued his position as the musical director and conductor until 1976.

Born in 1932, Lewis was raised in Los Angeles, California, where he began playing the piano at age five. He broke barriers in 1948 when, at the age of 16, he joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra—becoming the first Black member of a major American symphony orchestra, and the youngest. Lewis’ musical talent earned him a full scholarship to the University of Southern California.

In 1954, Lewis was drafted by the U.S. Army, but continued to perform, playing double bass in the U.S. Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra. Because of his talent, he was promoted to the orchestra's musical director and traveled around Europe performing and conducting. After being discharged, he returned to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where in 1961, he became the first Black conductor to step to the podium and lead a major symphony on a regular season concert. Eleven years later, he would become the first African American to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera.  

Lewis passed away at age 63 on January 26, 1996.