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Dixon, Charles Dean (1915-1976)

Image Ownership: Public Domain
Charles Dean Dixon, conductor, was born January 10, 1915 in New York, New York to West Indian parents Henry Charles Dixon and McClara Rolston Dixon. Dixon’s parents exposed him to classical music at an early age and his mother taught him to play the violin, along with a number of other instruments. By the age of nine he was considered a musical prodigy and performed on local radio stations in New York. Dixon enrolled at Juilliard School of Music in 1932 as a violin major, but soon switched to the music pedagogy program and graduated in 1936. He then enrolled in Columbia University and earned a Master’s Degree in Music Pedagogy there in 1939.

Dixon was married three times: he married pianist Vivian Rivkin in 1948 and the couple had a daughter, Diane (1948-2000).  He married Finnish Baroness and playwright Mary Mandelin in 1954 and they had daughter Nina in 1954.  He married Australian Ritha Blume in 1973.

While at Julliard Dixon discovered conducting and upon graduating he formed the “Dean Dixon Symphony Orchestra,” the first racially integrated group of its type in New York City.  His career as an accomplished conductor began with guest-conducting concerts for the New York City Orchestra in 1940 and the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1941.  Later that year Dixon became the first African American to conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  He received the 1945-47 Julius Rosenwald Fellowship and the Alice M. Ditson Award from Columbia University in 1948.

Despite these prestigious guest conducting appearances and awards, there were few opportunities for African Americans in the field of conducting during the 1940s.  Dixon was not offered any permanent conducting positions. He moved to Europe in 1949 to guest conduct with the French National Radio Orchestra and remained abroad for the next two decades.  He was the conductor of the Goteburg Symphony in Sweden from 1953 to 1960 and the Radio Symphony Orchestra in Germany from 1961 to 1964. He traveled to Sydney, Australia to conduct the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 1964 and remained its conductor until 1967.

Dixon finally returned to the United States in 1970 after his hugely successful career in Europe and Australia.  He conducted several New York, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and St. Louis, Missouri Concerts and did a nation-wide tour of eight cities sponsored by Schlitz Beer. Dixon returned to his home in Switzerland, and in 1975 he began a tour of 24 concerts in Australia. He returned again to Switzerland at the end of 1975 because of heart problems, and passed away in Zug, Switzerland on November 4, 1976.   Dixon was 61.

Sources:
Langston Hughes, Famous Negro Music Makers; Illustrated with Photos (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1955); S. Saito, “Homage to Dean Dixon,” Biographical Overview, 8 Oct. 2008; "Dixon, Dean" Contemporary Black Biography, 2009, Encyclopedia.com, http://www.encyclopedia.com.

Contributor:

University of Washington, Seattle

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