A Conversation with Everett Lee

99 years young, a dapper man blew kisses to me on a skype video call. It was such a joy to see him. Everett Lee had known my father since the 1940’s.

“Benny and I were up and coming conductors, striving to make careers and money for ourselves, but that also meant that we were sometimes broke. Pierre Monteux had a summer home. Benny said, ‘Everett, I’m going up there. You should be there too.’ ‘I don’t have the money,’ I said. ‘Ah, I’ll pay for you.’ He was as broke as I was. He was a very good ballet conductor. That rings a bell. That is why Benny was so warmly attached to Monteux. Petroushka.

“Socially, we played chamber music together. Benny and Pearlie’s marriage was happy and successful. Your mother and I played in the orchestra of Peter Pan, when your father was conducting. Wednesdays and Saturdays between shows, your mother and I would go out to dinner, then tease Benny that we were on a date.

“The idea to integrate an orchestra in the 1940’s and the 1960’s was Benny’s idea and passion. He eventually wanted to give the Symphony of the New World over to me. He had great moral courage, or else he would not have founded the orchestra. Sometimes he went a little bit overboard in that he had some people in the orchestra that didn’t have enough training, but he gave them the experience. He was an idealist. The other founders did not play a role like he did. He was a strong man. If the musician was a minority, he’d give them a chance.”

“Benny was not good with money. He invited me to the SNW as guest conductor, Natalie Hinderas was the soloist. He promised me $2000. He even promised that the orchestra would pay for my trip to America, but it never did. When I finished the concert, I went over to him and asked, “Where’s my check?” Benny said “Well, I thought you’d cancel the check and make a donation to the orchestra.” I said, “Yes, but we did not discuss this before hand.” A good friend did not pay my bills. We both laughed, but it wasn’t funny. Natalie Hinderas had donated her fee.

I heard from my daughter when I came into New York as a guest conductor and then took over the orchestra, that I extended the repertoire. Benny was a smart guy too – intelligent, talented, and ambitious to grow. It didn’t sound like he wouldn’t move on in his choice of repertoire with the SNW. I told Lenny how wonderfully he conducted. Lenny said, “Everett we don’t stand still.”

“When Benny left the orchestra, the board of directors was not so good. Benny was accused of a whole lot of things, all of which were not right.

Kermit Moore was a wonderful cellist. Gifted. He was superb in chamber music, spoke fluent Russian and fluent French. When I was at Radio Brussels Belgium, Kermit played with me. Kermit ran into difficulties, too. He wanted to be a conductor. Both Benny and I helped him. Kermit did a concert at St. John the Divine. Kermit said that he didn’t press that he wanted to conduct, but during the arbitration, Pearl kept saying to me, ‘Kermit wants to conduct.’

I said, one of the things he was accused of was that there were not enough black musicians playing first chair in sections. Is that true?

“Yes and No. Benny did take some musicians in who were not capable of being there. I am saying that as a music colleague.

“When I got there to take over from Benny, there was an extreme lack of discipline. It was a mad scramble taking up where Benny left off. Benny was generous and easy going. You have to be hard nosed to get an orchestra in playing shape. Benny noticed it too. Musicians were late to rehearsals. Many of them were not used to the discipline of being on time. In the profession, when you begin at 10, you get there at 9:30 to warm up. Sometimes I had to wait 20 minutes to start. I had a hard time getting people to come on time, and it was extra hard work to get the orchestra in shape. To rehearse a piece section by section takes time, and the union demands payment. Serious musicians would take parts home to practice.

“We did a concert with Duke Ellington. Duke told me that whenever I was in NY again (Duke had an apt on Central Park West), in the basement I have a whole trunk full of music that has never been played. I’ve written an opera.” It was performed in Los Angeles, and my daughter Eve sent reviews. The name of this opera is Sweetie Pie.”

Did you hear about the Rutger’s letter, where he was prevented from becoming a professor because the people who signed that letter called him a racist?

“The letter you speak of where Benny was called a racist escapes me. Benny stood up for minority musicians. He opened the door for them to get the foot in. Whether they could accept it, live with it, and grow with it is another story. He had a really good vision. There was no doubt about that.”

“When he died your mother said she was grateful for the years they had together. His sister never got on an even track with anyone with after the arbitration.”


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