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Dean Dixon: Negro at Home, Maestro Abroad
Rufus Jones Jr
Published 2015 Rowman & Littlefield
MusicWeb International has a comprehensive biography and discography penned by Christopher Howell in which he writes ‘[Dixon] once defined the three phrases of his career by the descriptions he was given: firstly he was called ‘the black American conductor Dean Dixon’; when he started to be offered engagements he was ‘the American conductor Dean Dixon’; and after he had become fully accepted he was simply ‘the conductor Dean Dixon’. Now although I did not find this quote in my cover-to-cover read of this centennial biography by Rufus Jones Jr, it is nevertheless a convenient summary of the career of Dean Dixon (1915-1976) with racism always lurking in the wings or openly on the stage.
Dixon grew up in upper Manhattan in New York City’s Harlem district. His mother was the driving force in the family and recognised his musical gifts primarily on the violin but also the piano. By 1932 he was studying at the Juilliard School of Music but he developed a passion for conducting and created his own orchestra, the first of its kind to integrate the races. Dixon’s career in the USA was beset by problems interspersed with successes. First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, was a staunch supporter — as she was of Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson. She backed a concert he put on at the Heckscher Theatre in May 1941 (music by Haydn, Holst, Bach, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven’s Eroica) and Dixon enjoyed the accolades he received. However his attempts to find himself a resident post with an American orchestra always appeared to be stymied by influential people. There were the false promises made by the all-powerful agent Arthur Judson and the concerns of managers such as David Sarnoff and Samuel Chotzinoff of RCA and NBC respectively, worried about the reaction of sponsors, particularly those in the southern states of North America; racism again. After a while he simply gave up and turned instead to Europe, where he found appointments and guest conducting invitations.
The essence of the Dean Dixon story lies in this self-imposed exile to Europe, where he was made welcome in Gothenburg (1953-1960) and Frankfurt (1961-1974). He had a more difficult time during his spell heading the Sydney Symphony Orchestra because trying to juggle simultaneous careers both in Australia and Europe inevitably led to friction and eventual breakdown. All his life, Dixon was plagued by ill-health (asthma and strokes), which was prematurely cut short at the age of sixty-one. His recording legacy is very limited and to discover it, the reader must turn to Howell as Jones’ biography unaccountably includes no discography. There are some slips, strange given the author is a conductor
- Host’s Fugel Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s Overture to Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, Von Weber (one never sees Van Beethoven)
- but the thrice-married Dixon life is eventful enough to sustain a biography – just. His papers are held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The most interesting material which Jones has used is that of the pre-WW2 years. So too is an unpublished Conductors’ Handbook (Appendix B), which is a list of dos and don’ts,
many of which are obvious, some worth noting, others less so. Dixon never
received any mentoring in conducting at the Juilliard School, so this list can
be viewed as a reflection of his determination that those who came after him
would at least have the benefit of his experience. It’s also worth studying it
for his acerbic wit:
Watch ‘washing clothes’ motion
[Avoid] too much looking around after hands are in start position.
Too much conducting, not enough music making.
When stopping the orchestra in rehearsal, watch out for throwing away orange peel gesture.
Left hand is sometimes a twin sister, sometimes a twin brother, sometimes a whip, sometimes a snake with a bird, sometimes asleep and sometimes turning pages.
Watch starting over a private smile.
Stamping of the foot to get a rhythm is a sign that you are losing.
David Ewen’s book Dictators of the Baton was revised in 1948 and included a new chapter entitled ‘Conductors for tomorrow’. Dixon was now included and Ewen, like so many others, eulogised the black conductor to the full:-
Another young conductor whose work gives us every reason for faith in his future is Dean Dixon. [His] career is the triumph of talent over the greatest obstacles which can be placed in the way of a young musician acquiring [conducting] assignments: race prejudice. … It is not an easy road that has brought a Negro to the conductor’s stands of two great American orchestras. That the road has, at last, been traversed speaks well both for Dixon’s capabilities and for the capacity of true talent to assert itself.
Herein lies the tragic essence of Dixon’s life. Racism drove him abroad for two decades and when he returned, it was too late. It does seem extraordinary that such a talented musician as Dixon, whose career had such a meteoric start with a handful of the cream of America’s orchestras, was not sought after by any of the rest. However it should also be noted that even that (sour?) cream would usually only offer him summer concerts rather than higher profile subscription series concerts which were shared out among guest conductors. In the Epilogue, Jones lists brief biographies of only nine other black American conductors, five of whom are now dead, which begs the question whether matters have progressed significantly. The arithmetic would not appear to bear it out.
Dr Christopher Fifield
Contents 1 West Indians in Harlem
2 Dean Dixon School of Music
3 The Damrosch School
4 Pursuing the Dream
5 Eleanor Roosevelt
6 The Plastic Carrot
7 Search for Democracy
8 Black and White
11 Drama Down Under
13 Sojourn Home
14 I’m not tired yet
Epilogue: On my Shoulders
Appendix A: In Memoriam
Appendix B: Conductors’ Handbook
About the Author