The conductor and scholar shines a light on the compelling story of another great American conductor in his new book, Dean Dixon: Negro at Home, Maestro Abroad (African American Cultural Theory and Heritage).
Conductor/Author Rufus Jones, Jr.
Tavis: Rufus Jones, Jr. is a conductor, educator and scholar whose research has focused on the lives and work of African American classical musicians. His latest text is the first in-depth biography of the great conductor, Dean Dixon, the first Black American to conduct the New York Phil.
It chronicles Dixon’s musical upbringing, his remarkable career, and his decision to leave the racially hostile climate of mid-20th century America for greater opportunity in Europe. The book is called–love this title–“Dean Dixon: Negro at Home, Maestro Abroad”. Rufus Jones, Jr., good to have you on this program.
Rufus Jones, Jr.: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: I mentioned a moment ago I love that title. How’d you come up with that one?
Jones, Jr.: It really is a sense of his life. I mean, it chronicles his life just in that sense, how he was defined in America and how quickly when he left for Europe how he was defined.
Tavis: Tell me about Dean Dixon.
Jones, Jr.: Dean Dixon was an absolute incredible musician. There is something special when you get a chance to see him at work. There’s something special when musicians have an opportunity to see him work with them. It is absolutely–you really have to understand the role of a conductor to understand how extraordinary his life and his career was.
The idea that he was in front of all-white men asserting his musicality, asserting his authority on the music that they were conducting, making decisions and having that orchestra respond to those decisions that were made, that’s pretty extraordinary, given the time that he started the career, being the first to do it.
Tavis: It’s one thing for the nation not to be ready for him, but how did these white guys who he was conducting get ready for him?
Jones, Jr.: That’s a great question. One of the situations that Dixon experienced when he was with the NBC Symphony Orchestra was asserting the maestro, asserting himself, letting those musicians know that he understood the music really well.
He understood this music intimately and having challenges on the way. There is something that’s mentioned in the book about his rehearsal with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, the associate concert master.
He had asked the associate concert master if you could please give me something different than what you’re playing? Give me a sense of more agitato instead of cantabile. And there was a very tense moment where the associate concert master tells him, “Well, what’s wrong with my playing? What am I doing wrong?”
And he responds in a very measured, very self-assured way, “Nothing you’re doing wrong. It’s what the music is calling for. It’s what the composer is calling for.” So they were ready for him because he had already had a reputation, a great reputation, coming into the NBC Symphony Orchestra, a great reputation.
Tavis: I’m still baffled as to how the players could be ready for his genius, but the audience writ large was not.
Jones, Jr.: The players, when it comes down to it, is just the music. It really does come down to do you know this music. Can you interpret the great repertoire in a way that we can see? Because when you’re a conductor and you’re conducting professional orchestras, those musicians have played that repertoire many times, many times.
So it’s really what can you bring to the table? And I think that’s why it’s a little easier for the musicians to be accepting of Dixon than the audience.
Tavis: How did he end up being the first African American, as I said, to conduct the New York Phil in 1941?
Jones, Jr.: 1941. He had the help of Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt…
Tavis: That helps.
Jones, Jr.: That helps, a major…
Tavis: If Eleanor can’t help you, can’t nobody help you.
Jones, Jr.: There is a problem if you can’t get help from the First Lady. So he received the support. She was known for doing this with Marian Anderson. We know about the great, wonderful concert that she helped organize for Marian Anderson.
Eleanor Roosevelt heard about Dean Dixon, that he had this orchestra in Harlem, the Dean Dixon Symphony Orchestra, and that he had aspirations to move outside of Harlem, to perform at some of the great halls in New York City.
So she said, well, we’re going to make this happen. She put her name, she supported him, and he was able to get that performance at Town Hall. Now what resulted in that, a number of people, once they heard Eleanor Roosevelt was onboard, came in and heard the concert.
One of those individuals was the music director of the NBC and he got his first major professional gig with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Now this is major in the sense that the director of that orchestra was Arturo Toscanini, the great Italian conductor.
And the NBC Symphony Orchestra was created specifically for Arturo Toscanini, so no one could conduct that orchestra unless they received the approval of Maestro Toscanini. So that was the big one. And after that, of course, the New York Philharmonic, your Philharmonic.
Tavis: How was he received in that appearance?
Jones, Jr.: Beautifully. Let me tell you, this, I think, really gives you a sense of the brilliance of Dean Dixon. So he’s conducting in August of 1941, the New York Philharmonic at Lewisohm Stadium, and there is intermission. Before that intermission could start, he had to come out six times to bow. The audience went absolutely nuts. They were crazy about the music.
Tavis: Six times before intermission [laugh]?
Jones, Jr.: Six times before intermission. That’s amazing. This man was 26 years old, by the way, had an old spirit. People were amazed at how do you know this? How do you have an understanding of this music at such a young age? Because to be a conductor, it takes at least 15 to 20 years to really, really know what you’re doing, to really know what you’re doing.
So he gets those six opportunities to be in front of the audience and bow. What happens at the end of this concert is absolutely amazing and rare. The protocol is that, after the concert, the orchestra will stand up and acknowledge the audience.
It didn’t happen. The orchestra members stayed seated. After much coaxing from Dean Dixon, they stayed in their seat and they applauded Dean Dixon for what he had just accomplished. That’s major, absolutely major. Brilliant, brilliant musician, and people knew that early on.
Tavis: And despite that–I don’t even want to say warm–overwhelming reception in 1941, as time goes on, he finds America and the racism of the day so unrelenting that he leaves the country for two decades. For two decades, he won’t even come back into America while he’s conducting major orchestras around the world, but not in the U.S. of A.
Jones, Jr.: Not in the U.S. So he leaves in 1949 for Paris and he realizes at that time–you know, even after this incredible opportunity with the New York Philharmonic, NBC Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony, Philadelphia, all the major orchestras, no one was going to give him that post. What he sought after was a permanent post, to be a music director of a professional orchestra.
And to see his contemporaries, folks that he started out with, folks that he helped get those major positions, and he’s still eking out a living with youth orchestras and community orchestras and doing lectures because he had to find a way to make a living for his family, enough was enough.
He understood that that window was closing for him to have that opportunity in America. So he sought out Europe and, within two years, had a major break in 1951 in Helsinki, and that was it.
He went from three to four guest conducting opportunities in Europe, because it was tough the first few years in Europe, to 60 and 70 guest conducting opportunities, becoming two and three years booked in advance. People realized the talent. They realized that he had the ability to interpret the standard repertoire in a way that they had not seen before.
Tavis: When he finally comes back to the states 21 years later, to be exact, how was he received then?
Jones, Jr.: Warmly. You know, Dean really wanted–all he really wanted was to be accepted.
Tavis: That’s all any of us want is to be accepted.
Jones, Jr.: And he wanted–absolutely. He just wanted to be given this “You’re doing a great job. We accept you for the accomplishments that you’ve made.” That’s really all he wanted, so he received that acceptance. He felt that this was a kind of full circle, this soldiering home was full circle because that’s all he was looking for. That’s all he was seeking.
Tavis: You can’t let the anger get in the way of the artistry if you want to be true to the calling. How did he manage that?
Jones, Jr.: He kept working. He had to work through it because he was bitter the first few years. He couldn’t understand. He did everything he was supposed to do. He did everything that was asked of him. He got the degrees, the guest conducting opportunities, the rave reviews, and yet nothing was happening.
So he had to work and he worked–I mean, he only took one vacation in his career, one vacation, because he felt there was a need to make sure that people understood how serious he was about this. And he did not want to leave this world because he understood he wasn’t going to live a long time.
He had health issues throughout his whole life. He wanted to make sure that he left where people who would come after him, people who would stand on his shoulders would have a place. That was really what drove him.
Tavis: What’s his abiding legacy?
Jones, Jr.: He paved the way. He paved the way. And he says it, and it’s not in a braggadocios way. It’s not in a kind of bragging kind of way. He made it very clear. I am doing this work so that those who come after me will have an opportunity. I have paved the way for those who come after me. He understood his legacy.
Tavis: So my exit question is this. So either you started conducting before you learned about Dean Dixon or you knew Dean Dixon’s story and still decided to become a conductor. And if you did, why?
Jones, Jr.: Both. Both, because I was conducting as a band director. I was an undergraduate student, University of Texas. I was going to be a band director and I had a wonderful experience on a PBS special with the great Indian conductor, Zubin Mehta, and I made that decision. Didn’t know what it was going to take to become an orchestral conductor, but this is what I wanted to do.
And I started getting resistance from people, my friends. Why are you making this decision? You have to look like this, you have to be–I mean, they were bold in their wanting to kind of keep me from heading in that direction.
Tavis: Sometimes that’s love, though, too. They don’t want to see you get hurt.
Jones, Jr.: Well, I didn’t feel it at that time [laugh]. I didn’t feel much love at that time.
Tavis: I feel you, right.
Jones, Jr.: But it was really a situation where I just needed answers. Was it because of who I was? Was it because of how I looked? And I stumbled upon–it was in 1989, February 1989 issue of Ebony magazine. It had Black symphony orchestras making a name for themselves and that’s where I learned about Dean Dixon and it encouraged me so much.
Tavis: You are encouraging us with this new text. If you love classical music and you don’t know Dean Dixon, then you need to get this text. It’s called “Negro at Home, Maestro Abroad”. What a brilliant and beautiful title. “Negro at Home, Maestro Abroad”, Dean Dixon. Written by a conductor in his own right, Rufus Jones, Jr. Thank you for the text. I learned a great deal.
Jones, Jr.: Thank you, sir.
Tavis: Thank you, sir.
Jones, Jr.: Appreciate it.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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