Henry Lewis achieved several marks in his storied career as a conductor and musical director. Consider by many as something of a Jackie Robinson for classical music, Lewis became the first Black conductor of a major U.S. orchestra on this day in 1968, this after accomplishing one of his landmarks in music at the age of 16.
Lewis was born October 16, 1932 in Los Angeles, California. The prodigious double bassist made his first historic mark as the first Black instrumentalist and the youngest to join a U.S. orchestra in 1948 when he joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In 1961, Lewis became a notable name in classical music when the Los Angeles Philharmonic named him its assistant conductor.
The New Jersey Symphony named Lewis its musical director and conductor, both firsts for a Black person, in 1968 to global acclaim. By this point, Lewis was one of the world’s best known conductors after touring the world as a guest conductor and lead. In 1972, he became the Metropolitan Opera’s first Black conductor.
Lewis married opera singer Marilyn Horne in 1960. The couple divorced in 1979, though Horne credited her ex-husband as a teacher and mentor in her own distinguished career. The couple had one child together, daughter Angela. After reportedly battling lung cancer, Lewis passed at the age of 63 in 1996.
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