How She Made It: Jeri Lynne Johnson, Founder of Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra

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Jeri Lynne Johnson has a story that’s similar to many African-American women who are entrepreneurs. She paid her dues and earned an education and experience via Wellesley College where she studied music and religion. Johnson went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago, not far from her hometown of Shreveport, Illinois, and later working as a conductor, composer and pianist.

After winning a prestigious award for her work, she traveled around the country and abroad. However, when Johnson returned home, she heard the same song that many hear — and although she’s into music, this tune was the least appealing.

“When I came back to America I was trying to get jobs with bigger orchestras, but they were not interested. One orchestra told me they like my conducting and the board thought I had great ideas, but they didn’t know how to market me,” said Johnson.

“When I asked him for clarity, the guy on the search committee basically said, ‘You just don’t look like what our audience would expect a conductor to look like.’ That’s when I founded my own orchestra.”

Founder and music director of Philadelphia’s Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, Johnson says no two roads to becoming a conductor are quite the same, but being a younger African-American woman and running the most diverse orchestra in the country, she’s carving out a unique niche in classical music.

“I founded the orchestra in 2008 when everything was falling apart in the world economically speaking. Even in this down economy we’ve been able to not only quadruple our audience size, but quadruple our budget,” she said. “When people come to see Black Pearl concerts they see people who look like them onstage. It just proves classical music is for everyone to enjoy.”

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