Monday, November 1, 2010

Charles Dean Dixon, First African American to Conduct New York Philharmonic, Died Nov. 3, 1976

[Maestro Charles Dean Dixon (Jan. 10, 1915 – Nov. 3, 1976)]

October is Black History Month in the U.K., and on Oct. 29, 2008 a remembrance of the conductor Charles Dean Dixon appeared in the classical music blog On An Overgrown Path, based in the United Kingdom. It opened with a message from a reader: “Dear Pliable, As a lonely youngster growing up in Sydney in the sixties, one of the great experiences I had was to hear Dean Dixon in many concerts with the SSO. I got to know the basic classical repertory at the old Sydney Town Hall. Dixon seems to have been forgotten, and I couldn't then judge how good a conductor he was, but I owe him a huge debt. Keep up the good work and remember Dean Dixon!!! Yours David Sudlow”

Here are excerpts from Pliable's reply:
“David, thank you for that memory, and for the opportunity to make sure that Dean Dixon, who features in my photos, is neither forgotten nor underrated. He was born in 1915 in New York City and studied at DeWitt Clinton High School in Harlem, then at the Juilliard School and Columbia University. At the age of 26 Dixon became the youngest conductor to lead the then New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, and in 1941 he conducted the NBC Symphony in the orchestra's summer season. He made many recordings of American contemporary music including Henry Cowell's Symphony No. 5, Edward McDowell's Indian Suite, and Douglas Moore's Symphony in A with electronic resources for the the American Recording Society label. In later years Dixon worked with the Philadelphia and Boston orchestras.

“From 1949 onwards Dean Dixon enjoyed a distinguished international career that included the position of principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden from 1953 to 1960...” “Dean Dixon was an African-American born of West Indian parents. When he was 13, a teacher told his mother to “stop wasting her money” and discontinue his musical studies. He had to fund his own 70 player Dean Dixon Symphony in 1932 to give him (literally) a platform for his talents. Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged him to pursue his conducting career, he went on to be the first African-American to conduct the New York Philharmonic, and his repertoire included the Afro-American Symphony of William Grant Still.

“But doors remained shut in his own country and Dean Dixon left for Europe at the end of the 1940s in search of permanent conducting appointments. “From 1970 onwards Dixon worked once again in America and he guest conducted leading orchestras. But he died, poignantly, in Switzerland on November 4, 1976 at the early age of 61.” “Dean Dixon used to say that as his career progressed he was first known as the American Negro conductor, Dean Dixon; then the American conductor, Dean Dixon; and, at last, as the conductor, Dean Dixon. Those simple words 'the conductor Dean Dixon' say it all. His musical achievements transcend everything else. David Sudlow is quite right; we owe him a huge debt.” [William Grant Still (1895-1978) is profiled at, which features a complete Works List by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma.]

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