Community Voices

Black in Time: Negro Maestro, Dean Dixon, made history

Maestro Dean Dixon conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra in Frankfurt Germany, 1974. He was the music director of this orchestra for 14 years.
Maestro Dean Dixon conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra in Frankfurt Germany, 1974. He was the music director of this orchestra for 14 years.

The first black American to lead the New York Philharmonic and NBC Symphony orchestras was Dean Dixon (b. Jan. 10, 1915 — d. Nov. 4, 1976). Of Barbadian and Jamaican ancestry, Dixon grew up in Harlem at a time when black people were called “Negroes,” treated as second class citizens, and severely limited in career choices, no matter what their level of expertise.

Dixon was exposed to classical music at an early age, received training at Columbia University Teacher’s College, and had a noteworthy musical career directing orchestras with predominately white musicians in the United States and Europe.

At the 2015 Miami Book Fair International on Nov. 23 (12:30 p.m./Rm. 8302) conductor, educator, scholar, and author Rufus Jones Jr. will present the compelling story of the challenges and rewards of American orchestra conductor Dean Dixon. For the Miami Book Fair schedule of events visit: Miamibookfair.com.

Jones’ book, Dean Dixon: Negro At Home, Maestro Abroad, published by Rowman & Littlefield, is a narrative that appeals to a general audience, classical music enthusiasts, and those who follow civil rights issues in the U.S. A slim volume with less than 200 pages, it chronicles Dixon’s life relying heavily on primary sources including letters, personal papers, and oral history interviews.

For the general audience the book details Dixon’s life from birth to death, highlighting his upbringing, family issues, health, and experience as a teacher and performer. He was assertive and determined to set the example, a black classical musician conducting a world-class orchestra on a permanent basis and making music available to the very young.

Dixon’s pursuit of his dream vocation while attending the Institute of the Musical Arts (IMA) and the Juilliard School will interest classical music enthusiasts. Worth noting is the fact that his musicianship and authority at the podium caught the attention of officials at the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), led by Maestro Arturo Toscanini, the well-known Italian conductor. As a result, Dixon successfully completed two summer concerts at NBC and conducted the orchestra during the regular season.

Those who follow civil rights issues may not be surprised that Dixon’s contact with Toscanini was made through then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She reached out to black classical musicians and brought to national attention the country’s racial divide. In 1942, at the end of Dixon’s concert in Harlem, Mrs. Roosevelt spoke referencing the then current international crisis, “ I think that times like these in a troubled world music is a universal language that all of us need.”

Her quote leads me to believe that music is universal because when individuals who speak a different language or are of a different background, culture or race listen to the same notes, they can all feel the identical emotion such as joy, love, or sadness. Whether in a rehearsal studio or performance, the combined notes that create the sound are interpreted and played according to the direction of the musical conductor.

The book’s theme highlights the racial stereotypes Dixon encountered in the field. He was a black American conductor trained to interpret music that originated beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries and was presented to elite white audiences.

As late as the 1940s to 1960s, by custom, black people in parts of the U.S. were not expected to make business decisions, eye contact, shake hands or be in the same room with white people. Despite such limitations, as a professional conductor Dixon had the responsibility to do all of the aforementioned. He led orchestras expecting civil responses from musicians, technicians, donors, and the audience.

The author’s research did not reveal any recorded acts of violence or threats in preparation for or during any of Dixon’s performances in this country or abroad.

A Negro, black man, directing in front of all-white men was not easily accepted and offensive to some. The central question: Can a black conductor with talent, intellect, and training interpret the great repertoire of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and other classical masters? The principled answer: Yes, and if that premise is accepted it suggests that if given the proper training and opportunity potentially all black people could succeed at the same level as their white counterparts.

A 1989 Ebony magazine article titled, The Maestros: Black Symphony Conductors Are Making A Name For Themselves, is cited in the book. It highlights 12 black conductors who followed Dixon in the profession and who persevered against overt acts of discrimination to become highly successful in the field.

One of those presented is native Miamian Willie Anthony Waters. A graduate of Mays Senior High School, he is one of the black conductors who, despite racial challenges, has seen success worldwide. Waters was the music director and principal conductor of the Florida Grand Opera (1986-95).

A generation after Waters and his colleagues, author Rufus Jones Jr., himself an accomplished conductor, recalls his challenges and rewards in the book’s introduction. Jones’ passion for conducting and teaching parallels Dixon’s. Both earned advance degrees, performed internationally, and used teaching opportunities to mentor aspiring conductors.

During assignments in Germany, Dixon developed a handbook based on regular student observations and corrections. Contained in the Appendix, this extensive checklist is worth the price of the book for serious students of any race interested in the art and psychology of conducting.

Jones has conducted youth, university and professional orchestras throughout the U.S. and abroad. In addition to his duties as assistant conductor of the Broward Symphony Orchestra, he is on the conducting faculty with the Florida Youth Orchestra, an adjudicator and clinician for Festival Disney in Orlando, and director of orchestral and choral studies at Westglades Middle School in Parkland, Fla.

The formal title for an orchestral conductor is “Maestro.” According to Jones, Dixon never used that term himself. “Dixon knew early on in this career that his race would cause him difficulties making a living in his chosen vocation, but he believed whole-heatedly that if he stayed focused on his goals and not allow anyone or any situation to deter him, he would succeed.” And he did.

Filled with tribulations and triumph, the text engages readers in Dixon’s passion for music and education. Beyond the book, this narrative should become a documentary and incorporated into school curriculum for the legacy of Dean Dixon, the first Negro maestro, to continue to inspire generations.

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to djf@bellsouth.net.

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