Dean Dixon (1915–1976) was born in Harlem, New York, to West Indian parents who migrated to the United States in the early 20th century. Dixon was exposed to classical music at an early age, beginning violin lessons at the age of 3 and piano lessons shortly thereafter. At the age of nine, Dixon was considered by many a prodigy on the violin and given numerous opportunities to perform on local radio stations in New York.
In 1932, Dixon enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music as a violin major. It was during that time he discovered conducting. That same year Dixon started a small orchestra at the local YMCA in Harlem. He later named the group the Dean Dixon Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra was the first integrated group of its type in Harlem. The success of this orchestra caught the attention of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who in many ways championed the careers of Black classical artists like Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson. Eleanor Roosevelt provided Dixon and his orchestra an opportunity to perform at the famed Hecksher Theater in 1941. Attending that concert was the music director of NBC, Samuel Chotzinoff. Chotzinoff was so impressed with Dixon that he invited him to appear with the NBC Orchestra on several occasions. The success with NBC resulted in his first appearance with the New York Philharmonic. After successful guest conducting engagements with the orchestras of Philadelphia and Boston, a number of newspapers and popular magazines began to write about Dixon as some one to watch; a leading figure among a new breed of American conductors who would no doubt become leader of one of our major symphony orchestras. Unfortunately, these accolades did not lead to an appointment with a major orchestra. Dixon became increasingly disillusioned by the apparent disinterest of American orchestral organizations in his abilities as a conductor.
In 1949 Dixon was invited by the French National Radio Orchestra to guest conduct for several upcoming broadcasts. He left for Europe, where his career blossomed. He went from sparse appearances during 1944–1949 in the United States, to a full roster of prestigious guest conducting appearances across Europe. Additionally, he went from no major conducting appointments in the United States to two conducting appointments in Europe: Goteburg Symphony in Sweden (1953–1960) and the Radio Symphony Orchestra in Frankfurt, Germany (1961–1974). His success in Europe also led to an appointment in Australia, where he served as principal conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (1964–1967). Dixon’s success abroad was unprecedented for an American conductor, and he did not return to the United States for 21 years.
In 1970 Dixon ended his self-imposed exile. The New York Philharmonic invited him to conduct, for the second time, as part of their 1970 season. Several guest conducting performances in various cities throughout the United States followed with favorable reviews. Dixon will forever be recognized as one of the leading American conductors of the twentieth century in Europe.
Biography kindly provided by Rufus Jones, Jr. D.M.A., Assistant Professor of Music, Georgetown University