Musical prodigy Dean Dixon made history by becoming the first African-American to conduct the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. Although Dixon’s race barred him from success domestically, he went on to achieve global recognition for his talents. Dixon was born January 10, 1915 in Harlem to Caribbean parents. Dixon learned the violin at age three and became extremely adept at playing by age nine. Dixon’s talent made him into a local celebrity, and he made frequent radio appearances.
At age 13, he opened his own school of music to help his mother with bills. At 17, he enrolled at the prestigious Julliard School of Music, studying conducting under the tutelage of composer Albert Stoessel. After leaving Columbia University, Dixon found opportunities for conducting to be scarce so he began his own classical orchestra.
In 1938, when he was 23, Dixon made his professional debut drawing support from then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt famously supported the work of Black classical musicians such as Marian Anderson, and she gave Dixon a glowing endorsement in her syndicated music column after a concert at the Heckscher Theater.
While that endorsement should have been a career changing moment for Dixon, his race remained a strong barrier. However, his presence in the classical world could no longer be denied and eventually, he caught the attention of the New York Philharmonic. On August 10, 1941, three years after his debut, he conducted the symphony. Despite that achievement, none of the professional orchestras in the U.S. wanted to relinquish conducting duties to a Black man. so Dixon left the country in 1949.
He was the first American to conduct two orchestras in Europe: the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden (1953-1960) and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra in Germany (1960-1974). Between 1964 and 1967, Dixon was also the conductor of Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Australia. So sought after was Dixon that he was booked for guest conducting engagements three years in advance.
Being seen as an elite American conductor became his preferred distinction, although he was certainly proud of his achievements as a Black man despite the early struggles he faced. In 1970, Dixon returned to the United States to conduct the New York Philharmonic once more, but this time with the notoriety and accolades he earned while working abroad. Dixon died in Switzerland in 1976. He was 61 years old.