Thursday, April 09, 2015

Negro at home, maestro abroad


Dean Dixon, who is seen above, has featured in no less than sixteen Overgrown Path posts. By one of those auspicious coincidences that power this blog, just before I uploaded the most recent post - which recounts how he gave the the premiere of Richard Arnell's suite The Land with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1942 - news arrived of a forthcoming biography* of the West Indian American conductor. Its author is Dr. Rufus Jones, who has edited The Collected Folk Suites of William Grant Still and is director of orchestral and choral studies at Westglades Middle School in Fort Lauderdale. While studying music education in Austin, Texas, Rufus Jones became aware that discrimination was still endemic in classical music. This disturbing revelation made the young African American realise that, to quote him, "I needed to know more about my history and more about how others in my profession coped with the sobering reality of racial discrimination". So writing a biography of Dean Dixon became Rufus Jones' way of confronting racism in his chosen profession.

Dean Dixon: Negro at Home, Maestro Abroad‏ is a sobering story of racism, abandonment, self-imposed exile, health problems, spiritual searching, and financial difficulties. But it is also the story of towering achievement. It tells how Dixon returned to conduct the New York Philharmonic in 1970. He had been shunned by the American classical music establishment and this was his first concert in the U.S. for twenty-one years. His conducting moved the Newsweek critic to write:
This was a ripe Dixon, authoritative and precise. He is not a showboat conductor, yet he showered his program with lilting lyricism and controlled grace. And he gave Brahms’s Second Symphony a rich romantic sweep that brought the great throng to its feet in a standing, especially thrilling ovation.
But, despite this triumph, the story ends with a diminuendo, with Dr. Jones recounting how the American Dream of the West Indian American from Harlem finally came true - abroad.

With his health broken by the long struggle against discrimination, Dean Dixon died in Switzerland aged just 61 in 1976. But this new biography is much more than an important retelling of history. Speaking at Carnegie Hall in October 2013, Aaron Dworkin founder and president of the Sphinx Organization - a charity promoting diversity in the arts - accused orchestras of failing to diversify. In his speech he pointed out that just four percent of orchestra players in the U.S. are Black and Latino; by comparison the Black and Latino ethnic groups comprise twenty-nine percent of the U.S. population. Aaron Dworkin was especially critical of the New York Philharmonic, highlighting that, at the time, the orchestra had not had a Black member in five years. (The first small step to rectify this imbalance was taken, coincidentally or otherwise, in the following year when clarinettist Anthony McGill became the orchestra's first African-American principal). It is yet another overlooked irony of classical music that so much attention is paid to the deplorable gender imbalance in the Vienna Philharmonic, but so little attention is paid to the equally deplorable but less click baitable ethnic imbalance in virtually every major orchestra. Let us hope that Rufus Jones' timely biography of Dean Dixon helps to draw attention to that imbalance.



* Dean Dixon: Negro at Home, Maestro Abroad by Dr. Rufus Jones is published by Rowman & Littlefield on June 16, 2015.

Header photo via SMNR Frankfurt. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

7 comments:

Philip Amos said...

I am delighted to see the publication of a work on Dean Dixon. I seem to recall writing on here some time ago that a concert performance of Dixon conducting Beethoven's G Major Concerto with Clara Haskil, who looms large in my pantheon of piano gods and goddesses, had me been so enraptured by his conducting that I had to listen again at once, then to focus more on Haskil.

It disappoints me that the book costs $70 U.S., which means it will likely be closer to $90 in Canada, where I now live. A little synchonicity here in that just yesterday I noticed that a work on Greek philosophy by an immensely distinguished classicist and friend of mine, Shirley Darcus Sullivan, is $164 (USED!) on Amazon. The latter I can in some degree understand, for it is so specialised in subject that it is what I call a 'University Book', one unlikely to be bought other than by academic libraries and by scholars in the field (for whom the cost is tax-deductible).

But I do not by any means consider Jones' book to be such. It is at heart about ethnic and racial discrimination, and the fact that it focuses on a classical musician should be secondary. Discrimination in any context is of relevance to all, regardless of context. Indeed, Dean Dixon's story is far more revealing of how endemic discrimination is then would be another telling of the Rosa Parks story, stirring as that is. We know well the story of such blatant racism, but far less well racism of an immensely more insidious type.

And so, I shall urge that my own district system of 26 libraries buy the work -- they spend more than that on thirty PB copies of Danielle Steele's latest or on multiple copies of the autobiography of some current teen idol or one lavish book on wine.

I am not missing the obvious here -- the publishing industry. I love Rowan and Littlefield, for from how many other publishers would we get a reprint of Pirro's 1907 work on Bach's aesthetic or a biography of Pachmann? Such a publisher has to ask such prices. What bothers me though, for I know well the process of getting a book published, is that Jones was unable to secure a much larger, less academic, more commercial publisher for a book that needs the widest possible circulation among those concerned with discrimination or unaware of it in this form. With good marketing that would have taken it outside academic circles and made possible a lower price. I can only urge people to request that their public libraries acquire the work, and mayhap suggest to others do the same. African-American and classical musicians of other races or ethnicities excluded from the music world deserve that. And Dean Dixon should now receive the acclaim of which he was so sorely deprived.

Philip Amos said...

May I add a comment, albeit right off the subject of the post. It has astonished me to realize, daily perusing All-Top, that I have not seen one mention of the death of Roy Douglas at 107!! If anyone wants to know why there should be, I can only urge them to read his obituary in the Telegraph. His life is like a scan of British music in the 20th century, from his years as a sort of amanuensis to Vaughan Williams, his work with Walton, with Addinsell, his arrangement for Les Sylphides, and a very odd bit of help he gave Moisewitsch. I found it astonishing in the whole.

Also, the obituary of Peter Katin is striking for how early he caught on to, and scorned, those emerging trends in classical music that have led to the present mess, much discussed in your posts, Bob. Another one well worth a read. Pray forgive the digression of this!

Sergio Mims said...

I will be interviewing Rufus Jones will about his Dixon book on my radio show on WHPK-FM Chicago on Weds April 29th

Sergio Mims said...

I will be interviewing Rufus Jones will about his Dixon book on my radio show on WHPK-FM Chicago on Weds April 29th

Dr. Jones said...

Looking forward to it, Sergio!

Dr. Jones said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Let's hope a great many public libraries will add my book to their inventory. I look forward to hearing from you once you've read the book.

Philip Amos said...

Thank you, Dr. Jones, for the compliment and for writing such a much-needed work and so helping fill a huge lacuna in classical music literature. I shall get in touch once I've got hold of it and read it with the mixture of pleasure I know your writing will give me and the inevitable distress in what is not a happy story. And I shall now have a beady eye alert for your future writings, which I hope will be copious.