“Oh yes, yes!” the gentle voice said on the other end of the phone. Harold Jones, one of my father’s friends, was telling me how The Symphony of the New World began: “out of a series of meetings,” he said.
I had sent him a picture of the orchestra’s first concert at Carnegie Hall. “Who was that person standing up in the picture you sent me?” Harold asked. “I can go look,” I said, “I have the original on my wall… That was Daddy.” “Oh, that was Benny!” Then he said with lyrical empathy, “That was Daddy.”
I had not been able to say or hear those words in 37 years.
As the afternoon settled in, my honor in speaking to the great Harold Jones turned into a gentle conversation between a pioneer and his friend’s daughter, who wanted to know what happened. “I’m 52 now.” “Time passes quickly,” he said.
It was 1964…
Lyndon B. Johnson had just signed the Civil Rights Act into law, 9 years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, AL, bus.
“Douglas Pew of the Urban League visited Broadway contractors and asked, ‘Why aren’t there any blacks in the Broadway pits?’ He put them under a lot of pressure, and pushed so hard,” Harold remembered.
“There was a nucleus of people: Elayne Jones, Harry Smyles, Joe Wilder, Wilmer Wise, Kermit Moore, Lucille Dixon. We all got together and had these meetings. ‘Are we interested?’ Everyone jumped to the idea. ‘Yes. Let’s do this. We’re going to do it — have an integrated orchestra.’
“The standards of the musicians were very high. We had to deal with personnel. Designating the spots to play was a big-time meeting. Benny organized who was going to be first chair, who was going to be second. Then he asked, ‘How many concerts would you like to do?’ We discussed it, and he took it to heart.
“Benny went out and got the money. He asked Zero, who was doing ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ on Broadway at the time.”
I remember standing by the mahogany desk and chair I still have now. It was in a corner of our Manhattan apartment. My father sat at the desk and made phone calls begging for money. I stood silently, quizzically looking at his profile. The lamp light bounced off his glasses and cast shadows on his changing face. He was incredulous and devastated when some wealthy African Americans turned him down. The lines on his face got darker, but dollar by dollar, he built.
It was heart-wrenching to watch him, but on May 6, 1965, The Symphony of the New World gave its first performance at Carnegie Hall.
On the program was Paul Creston’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 52; Soprano soloist Evelyn Mandac singing Mozart’s Recitative and Aria Bella mia fiamma K528; Cliea’s aria lo son l’umile ancella from Adriana Lecouvreur; and Charpentier’s aria Depuis le jour from Louise. The concert ended with Petrouchka, Alan Booth at the piano.
Then came Lenny.
“October 11, 1965
Mr. Donald L. Engle, Director
The Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund for Music
1 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, New York
Dear Mr. Engle:
It is a pleasure for me to be able to recommend The Symphony of the New World for a sizable grant. I have not actually heard the orchestra perform. But I have heard and known Mr. Steinberg, who conducted one of my theatre works 15 years ago (Peter Pan). He is extremely able and gifted; and I am sure that under his guidance the orchestra will flourish. Most important of all, of course, is the sociological impetus behind the project – a truly integrated symphony orchestra. The success of this project will certainly stimulate more of the same, and may provide us with our first big step out of the unfair and illogical situation in which we now find ourselves with the Negro musician.
They got the grant.
Many things happened to the orchestra from May 6, 1965 to January 2, 1974, when I held my father’s hand and kissed him goodbye as he took his last breath, but Harold said, “The racism is not over. There are still problems for blacks. It’s even harder. You have to play very well, but because you’re black you cannot get the job. There are no blacks in the NY Philharmonic now, and only 3 in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. You see the racism, but there’s not much you can do about it except give them a little suggestion.”
It might be time to give this idea a second chance.