Born in San Francisco, California, in 1950, Calvin Simmons entered the Bay Area's musical scene and began living his dream of becoming a world-class musician at the age of 9. His mother, Mattie Pearl, taught him the piano from an early age. By the age of 11, he was conducting the San Francisco Boys Chorus, started by Madi Bacon.
He worked as assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. Simmons became musical director of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra at age 28; he led the orchestra for four years. He was the first African-American to be named conductor of a major U.S. symphony orchestra. He was a frequent guest conductor with some of the nation's major opera companies and orchestras.
Calvin wanted to bring music to as many people as possible. He never underestimated young people. If it was in his power, he would have ensured that every school sponsored music programs. He would have given talented youngsters the same opportunities that were afforded him and made sure that they had instruments if they were not able to afford them. He believed that the future of music was within the American schools – the undiscovered composers, musicians, and new audiences who needed to be supported.
Simmons died at the age of 32 in 1982 in a canoeing accident near Lake George in New York.
Madi Bacon’s poem that she composed to Calvin’s last moments on earth summed it all up:
"...Gliding over the lake at dusk,
Alone in his canoe
The bow out of the water
Silently he paddled and drifted –
Watching the daylight fade
Listening to the early sounds of night – …
He felt weightless –
A silhouette on the horizon,
Endlessly rocking between
Lake and sky
And man and music.”