Trailblazing musician Booker Rowe takes final bow after 50 years with Philadelphia Orchestra

"Been first all my life and the only all my life, really. There were very few of us."

Tamala Edwards Image
Thursday, September 24, 2020
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After a half-century with the Philadelphia Orchestra, violinist Booker Rowe is retiring.

You may be noticing a rash of retirements recently as people rethink their priorities in the midst of the pandemic.

In this week's Art of Aging, Tamala Edwards meets a trailblazing musician from Germantown taking his final bow after a half-century with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Booker Rowe started playing the violin just before his 12th birthday.

"I bugged my parents for two years for a violin and my parents finally bought me a $35 violin," says Rowe. "I'd play it anywhere."

He credits a West Philadelphia High School teacher for instilling lessons on music theory and harmony.

"He brought out the symphonies of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms and we had to sight-read them," says Rowe.

Rowe got his first professional job in Nashville, Tennessee, and with it an upgrade on his violin.

"This is the instrument that I bought in 1963 when I went to play with the Nashville Symphony String Quartet," explains Rowe. "It was a Gagliano."

And he made history with it.

"I made the string quartet the first integrated string quartet in the south," says Rowe.

It was the first in a string of firsts for Rowe, who in 1968 was hired as a sub for the Philadelphia Orchestra; becoming the first Black musician to play with the Fabulous Philadelphians.

"I never thought I'd be a part of something that extraordinary," says Rowe.

"I was amazed at the sound," explains Rowe. "When the brasses and the winds would play...I felt like I was going to be blown off of that slanted stage."

He joined the ensemble full time in 1970, but violist Renard Edwards was hired that same season and Edwards became the orchestra's first permanent African American player.

"I was very happy about that," says Rowe. "Been first all my life and the only all my life, really. ...There were very few of us."

He says most of the musicians made him feel welcomed and supported, but one day he encountered a racist message on the wall.

"Naturally, I was upset...I had to re-examine myself," says Rowe. "There are too many people who believed in me for me to go home."

After a half-century with the orchestra, Rowe says COVID-19 played into his decision to retire this month. He had last performed back in March.

"I've had wonderful friends there," says Rowe. "And I feel very good about that."