The Legacy of The Southern Syncopated Orchestra

Review of a minstrel show at Orchestra Hall in Chicago.1

This review published in Chicago, Illinois details the experience of someone who went to see the New York Syncopated Orchestra which became known as the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. Made up of 27 black musicians and 19 singers, this orchestra primarily performed jazz music as well as classical music, rag tunes, blues, and slave songs.2 They were primarily known for bringing black musicians to the United Kingdom.3 They introduced jazz to Europe “years before the music saw its heyday and even played at Buckingham Palace for George V.”4 They achieved great success in the UK and America.

Southern Syncopated Orchestra : London Remembers, Aiming to capture all memorials in London

Souther Syncopated Orchestra in the UK.5

The published review of this orchestra explained how this performance was not advertised, so the audience was rather slim. The reviewer explains that those in attendance had a good time and expects that the next time this orchestra is in town, the audience will surly be jam packed. The reviewer continues by detailing every instrument and performance the orchestra gave. As far as the quartets that sang, “not since the days of Fisk’s Cantors” had he heard anything quite as good, and the “timpany-boy” was a “revelation.”6 He details the quality of the performance as “distinctly good,” “the strings were in tune, and of fine tone,” and “pitch was the middle-name of all those who took part.”7 Overall, this reviewer had nothing but positive comments about the Southern Syncopated Orchestra.

The SSO achieved great success in their significant, yet short run. Only a few photos survived from their time, but their music was never recorded and “their legacy is now largely forgotten.”8 The SSO met an tragic fate while traveling from Scotland to Ireland, their ship crashed with two others and they lost eight members of their orchestra. The SSO only survived from 1919 to 1921, yet they were pioneers of American jazz music and were some of the firsts to bring it to the international stage.



“Good Minstrels.” Broad Ax, 1919, p. 6. African American Newspapers, Accessed October 4, 2023.

Dome, Brighton. “Jazz Pioneers: The Southern Syncopated Orchestra / Brighton Dome.” Jazz Pioneers: The Southern Syncopated Orchestra / Brighton Dome. Accessed October 4, 2023.

Rye, Howard. “Southern Syncopated Orchestra.” African American Studies Center, 2007.

“Southern Syncopated Orchestra.” London Remembers. Accessed October 4, 2023.


1 Broad Ax. “Good Minstrels.” African American Newspapers, Accessed October 4, 2023.

2 Howard Rye, “Southern Syncopated Orchestra,” African American Studies Center, 2007,

3 Howard Rye, “Southern Syncopated Orchestra,” African American Studies Center, 2007,

4 “Southern Syncopated Orchestra,” London Remembers, accessed October 4, 2023,

5 “Southern Syncopated Orchestra,” London Remembers, accessed October 4, 2023,

Broad Ax. “Good Minstrels.” African American Newspapers, Accessed October 4, 2023.

7 Broad Ax. “Good Minstrels.” African American Newspapers, Accessed October 4, 2023.

8 Brighton Dome, “Jazz Pioneers: The Southern Syncopated Orchestra / Brighton Dome,” Jazz Pioneers: The Southern Syncopated Orchestra / Brighton Dome, accessed October 4, 2023,

Harry Lewis, Pioneering Black Classical Music

Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Marilyn Horne and Henry Lewis, 1961, in Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

Henry Lewis, a prodigious Bass Player, was the first black performer in a Major orchestra in the US. He won a job in the LA Phil in 1948 at the age of 16, becoming not just the first black player to play in a major orchestra, but also the youngest player of any race to win such a job1. Lewis’s impacts on American Music were noted by contemporaries as he was appointed conductor of the New Jersey symphony. He also served as a conductor for service orchestras in the Army stationed in Europe2.

Lewis’s story in American Classical music forces us to consider the notion of whiteness in American Classical Music. Classical music in the U.S. has almost earned the label of “whiteness”. When we look at the musicians, the composers, the audiences, one would imagine that classical music has always been an institution by white people for white people. However this is not necessarily the case. Lewis’s position followed the rise of Black composers such as Burleigh, Price, and Dawson3. The National Conservatory in New York led by Dvorkak, seemed to be pushing a more diverse slate of classical music. However 30 years after Lewis’s death, only 2% of musicians in major orchestras are black and 4% of conductors of major orchestras are black4.


So where has the United States lost its momentum in diversifying classical music? One culprit may be music education. In his dissertation, Brian Gellertsein discusses the pervasive white supremacy that prevails throughout music education, despite years of understanding that classical music in the US has a diversity problem. He even suggests that our education of music educators is partly to blame, with standards for graduation and entrance that favor white, wealthy, better prepared students5. While Gellerstein finds no shortage of problems with music education, he is rather short on solutions. His argument also potentially implies that the key to more Black musicians may be removing the emphasis on classical music; a point that while maybe bears merit, poses new problems for the problem of diversifying classical music as an institution.

At an institution like St. Olaf, that works with a great deal of music educators, it is important that we not let the progress made by musicians like Henry Lewis go unfollowed. It is critical that we continue to look critically at the ways ensure diverse practices among our professors and future educators alike to build upon the legacy of Black classical music in the US.


“The Legacy of Henry Lewis: Watch & Listen.” LA Phil, Accessed 27 Sept. 2023.

Henry lewis, pioneer black classical music conductor and dir. 1996. Jet. Feb 26, (accessed September 27, 2023).

Huizenga, Tom. “Why Is American Classical Music so White?” NPR, NPR, 20 Sept. 2019,

Robin, William. “Great Divide at the Concert Hall.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Aug. 2014,

Gellerstein, Brian. “DARING TO SEE: WHITE SUPREMACY AND GATEKEEPING IN MUSIC EDUCATION.” University of Massachusetts Boston, 2021.