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The conductor and maestro Dean Dixon

Herb Boyd | 3/16/2014, 2:48 p.m.

A roster of African-Americans of great creative ability who had to venture abroad to perform, produce or present their craft and talents with integrity is long. Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ira Aldridge, Melvin Van Peebles and Marpessa Dawn are a few notables who come quickly to mind.

Even lesser known is the practically forgotten maestro Charles Dean Dixon, a symphonic conductor who was often compared to the giants of the baton, including Leopold Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini. Encountering the stubborn wall of racism and discrimination and unable to find steady employment as a conductor, Dixon packed his bags and departed for Europe in 1949. This self-imposed exile would last for 21 years, a phase during which he would acquire fame and recognition from one European concert stage to another.

Activities

Find out more: If professor Felipe Hall’s project on Dean Dixon gains traction, it will go a long way toward restoring his memory and filling in the missing blanks of his illustrious career. Moreover, the reissuing of some of his recordings will provide listeners with a better understanding of his leadership among symphony orchestras.

Discussion: Many African-Americans left this country to pursue their careers elsewhere, and while Europe is mentioned here, there were also many who went to Asia, Africa, Latin America and other foreign ports. A few of these notables should give this subject a wider geographical expanse.

Place in context: When Dixon came back to the United States in 1970, he found that many things had changed. What do you feel was the most troubling and disturbing for him?

In the opinion of pianist-composer Felipe Hall, Dixon was a phenomenal musician who had to leave this country to attain greatness. “I owe it all to him,” said Hall in a recent interview.

It should be noted that Hall, winner of the Dean Dixon Memorial Award in 1985, has been working assiduously on a project to resurrect the eminence of his mentor, hopefully by January of next year, just in time for Dixon’s centennial.

Musical genius is something Hall and Dixon have in common. They also share an affinity for Harlem, where Hall currently resides and where Dixon was born on Jan. 10, 1915. The son of parents who migrated from the Caribbean, Dixon began his musical journey as a violin student.

“When he was only 3 and a half years old, his mother bought him a fiddle for $15 at a Harlem pawnshop and took her little toddler to lessons three times a week,” wrote New York Times reporter Beatrice Berg in 1970. Dixon told Berg that even when he was a child, he had fantasies about being a conductor.

“In my mind’s ear, the piano accompaniment was always the orchestra, and I imagined I could hear all the symphony instruments,” Dixon said.

Dixon was a teenager when some of those early fantasies began to take shape in reality. With several of his young cohorts, he formed the Dean Dixon Symphony Orchestra, financing their various concerts with his lunch money and from money he earned from private music lessons. After a while, given the group’s growing professionalism, money was acquired from local women’s organizations. But most significantly, Dixon’s reputation as a conductor gained a wider following, so much so that by 1941, he was asked to conduct Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra—an unprecedented opportunity for an African-American.