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Professor Writes About Black Music Conductors

Rufus Jones

Rufus Jones Jr., an assistant professor of music at Georgetown, is working on a book on the late Dean Dixon, the first African American to lead the New York Philharmonic.

February 17, 2011 – Rufus Jones Jr., an assistant professor of music, wants his students to know about the successful African American classical music conductors that have largely been ignored by history.

“In the early 20th century most American impresarios would not accept the reality of a black conductor actually having the intellectual dexterity needed to lead a professional orchestra,” Jones says. “Without exposing these conductors to as wide an audience as possible, people would never know about these incredibly talented African Americans."

Now an experienced conductor and the editor of the Journal of the Conductors Guild, Jones says he enjoys bringing African American composers to life in his books, in class and on stage.

Black Composers

In 2009, Jones edited his first book, The Collected Folk Suites of William Grant Still. The book puts to modern notation the works of the first African American big band composer leading a professional orchestra. William Grant Still Music, a publishing company run by Still’s heirs, commissioned the book.

Now Jones is working on a book-length project on the late Dean Dixon, the first African American and the youngest conductor of any race to lead the New York Philharmonic.

“Dixon left the United States in 1949 after realizing that if he remained, the color of his skin would prevent him from achieving his ultimate goal,” Jones explains. “He went on to conduct major orchestras in Europe and Australia.”

Piano, Viola, Horns

Classical music has been a part of Jones’ life for almost as long as he can remember.

 “I was exposed to the music in school and found that it really appealed to me,” says Jones, the former music director/conductor of the Washington Sinfonietta.

After studying the piano, Jones picked up the viola, then the baritone horn. As a college sophomore he realized he wanted to conduct.

PBS had recently broadcast a joint concert by the Israeli and the New York Philharmonic orchestras, the intensity of which he says “spoke to me in a profound way.”

Like Sponges

Jones, who has been teaching at Georgetown since 2004, says he has encountered students talented enough to attend the most elite music conservatories.

 “These young people are so engaged in their craft,” Jones says. “They’re like sponges, they want to absorb so much of the information you give them. It’s exciting to see their enthusiasm.”

Sarah Justvig (C’13) is a biology of global health with minors in Spanish and music who plays flute in the orchestra.

Contagious Passion

“The passion [Jones] brings to the pieces he so carefully selects is contagious,” she says, “and his knowledge and insights are crucial in enabling musicians to make the nuanced transition from merely playing notes to truly performing music.”

Jones hopes the Georgetown orchestra will become one of the best in the nation among comparable schools.

“Even though we’re not training these students to become professional musicians, I instill the idea that a lot is expected of them,” he explains. “We’re all about integrity, excellence and artistry. And we can make beautiful music.”

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