This Day in Black History: Henry Lewis becomes first African American to lead major orchestra

HOUSTON – Orchestral Conductor Henry Jay Lewis was born on Oct. 16, 1932 in Los Angeles, California.

At an early age, Lewis had a deep passion and love for music and symphony orchestra. At the age of 16, he joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic and became the first African American instrumentalist in a major symphony orchestra.

In 1955, Lewis conducted the Seventh Army Symphony in Germany and the Netherlands. In 1960, Lewis married Opera Singer Marilyn Horne. In 1961, Lewis became an assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

On Feb. 15, 1968, Lewis became the conductor and musical director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra — a nationally recognized orchestra — which made him the first African American to lead a major symphony orchestra.
In 1989, Lewis became the principal conductor of the Netherlands Radio Symphony — a Dutch radio orchestra.

On Jan. 26, 1996, Lewis died of a heart attack at the age of 63.

Because of Lewis’ love for music and instruments, he became what we know of him today– a lover of music and conductor who broke the racial barriers in orchestras.