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.
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.
But by the time he received this opportunity with Toscanini, he was 26 with a wealth of experience and study behind him, mainly as a student at the Juilliard School of Music, from which he graduated at age 21. Also to his credit was the fellowship in conducting he won that paved the way for his debut at Town Hall. Then, while earning his master’s degree from Columbia University, Dixon was busy founding and leading his own groups, including the American Youth Orchestra, which made its debut at Carnegie Hall in 1944.
These successes were not stepping stones to the plateaus of attainment and fame that seemed inevitable. In fact, there came a five-year drought that left him but with one alternative—to seek his fortune elsewhere.
Elsewhere, in 1949, was Paris. Such a choice was not exactly random; he had been invited there to be a guest conductor of the Radio Symphony Orchestra of the French National Radio.
Dixon believed that gaining a foothold in Europe would open doors for him in America. And while the racism in Europe was not as harsh and limiting as in the United States, there were still embarrassing incidents that gave him pause. Once, while in Sweden in 1952, an impresario proposed that if he considered conducting in whiteface with white gloves, a concert engagement was possible.
“I don’t want to mention the name of the city,” Dixon told Berg, “because we’re good friends now, and I’ve conducted there 10 and 15 times a year in blackface.”
In 1970, after 21 years abroad, Dixon was invited to conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in a Central Park concert. Reacquainting himself with America—a country that he said he only knew from the newspapers—was not an easy thing. When Berg asked him what impressions he would take back to Europe as he readied to leave, he said, “Hysteria.”
There was an unrelieved tenseness he said he saw in the faces of those he met. There was “a feeling of unfriendliness as you walk the streets,” he said. “Not only downtown, but uptown—it wasn’t a racial thing. It bothered me very much to feel that people are so hectic and hard, almost as though they are trying to live faster before it happens.”
That “it,” he explained later, amounted to racial tension that could explode in riots and rebellion.
This Week in Black History
March 11, 1959: Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” opens on Broadway. The historic play is in previews now, with Denzel Washington starring.
March 12, 1791: Inventor and mathematician Benjamin Banneker is contracted to help design the city of Washington, D.C.
March 13, 1977: Fannie Lou Hamer, the iconic civil rights activist from Mississippi, dies at 60. She is best remembered as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Dixon wasn’t around for the paroxysms that rocked the nation a few years before his arrival, nor did he stay to experiences those aftershocks. It was back to the relative comforts of Europe for him, particularly to Germany, where many of his most important recordings were completed. Hall, in his email, lists a number of radio recordings and albums under Dixon’s baton in Budapest, Russia, India, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Australia, Paris and London, and practically every other notable city in Europe.
He was especially fond of the works of Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Weber and Mendelssohn, and there was a boundless affection for the symphonies of Schubert and the symphonic poems of Liszt. And as Hall is quick to remind, there are the works of African-American classical composers that both he and Dixon have tirelessly promoted, including the compositions of William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay, et al.
If you go online and visit YouTube, there are several recordings under Dixon’s baton, and among the more familiar songs are Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris.”
Before his death in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1976, at 61, he summarized his career in three phases: “I was ‘the Black American conductor Dean Dixon,’ then I became ‘the American conductor Dean Dixon’ after I began to receive engagements, and after I was fully accepted, I was simply, ‘the conductor Dean Dixon.’”