Allegro Interviews Gayle Dixon
Volume C, No. 3March, 2000
One reason that New York City is home to so many extraordinary musicians is the fact that generations of students once received an excellent musical foundation in the city’s public schools. At P.S. 77 in the Bronx, the elementary school Gayle Dixon attended, students were tested for musical aptitude in the fourth grade. She showed definite aptitude and was enrolled in a half-day music program in grades five and six, and then went on to Performing Arts High School. To a large extent, that determined the direction her life would take.
Today Gayle Dixon is a busy freelancer who has been engaged by orchestras such as the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, American Symphony Orchestra and Brooklyn Philharmonic. She has done a great deal of recording work and many Broadway shows, and is currently engaged at Phantom of the Opera. She was an original member and first violinist of the Uptown String Quartet and Quartette Indigo, and has performed with artists such as Sarah Vaughan and Tony Bennett.
She has also been very active in union affairs, serving as clerk of the Trial Board from 1985-86 and then on the 802 Executive Board for six years. And in recent years her life has taken another turn – she spends several hours a day, four days a week, teaching violin to children in two Brooklyn public schools, in a program initiated by the Noel Pointer Foundation. Dixon sees it as a way of giving back something she benefited from as a child, and as a deeply satisfying commitment of her energies.
Dixon’s music studies began at a time when enormous cultural opportunities were available to New Yorkers. For one thing, she notes, there were many community orchestras, opera companies and chamber music groups that she and her sister Akua, a cellist, could play with after school. Her professional career also began early. “In junior high school my sister and I earned money by playing in churches. We would play three or four Messiahs on the Sunday before Christmas.”
After attending Performing Arts High School, she won a scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music, where she studied with Stanley Bednar for four years. She then studied violin with Raphael Bronstein and chamber music coached by Harold Berkley and his wife. She was awarded a Martha Baird Rockefeller Music Assistance Fund fellowship, and later studied violin with Sam Kissell and Burton Kaplan.
Along with her classical training, Dixon was deeply influenced by the music she grew up with: the blues, spirituals and gospel music. She also heard Latin music in her neighborhood, and has subsequently done a lot of work in that field.
Dixon’s college roommate found out about the Symphony of the New World, which had been formed by a group of activist musicians in the early 1960s to give opportunities to Black musicians, and both of them played for the conductor, Benjamin Steinberg. “One of my finest musical experiences as a young musician was playing in the first chair octet of the Symphony of the New World, and in the octet for young players, which was funded by a Ford Foundation grant,” Dixon recalls. “We rehearsed three or four times a week and played string quartet and octet concerts in New York City and the surrounding areas. Several people in the fellowship program went on to major orchestras.”
Among the people who helped her get started were Selwart Clarke, Al Brown, Kermit Moore, Julien Barber and Sanford Allen. “Raphael Bronstein’s daughter, Ariana Bronne, hired me to sub for her at the Palace Theatre, where I met Mel Rodnon. He hired me to work at the Westbury Music Fair and on Broadway while I was still in school, and is the contractor of Phantom. Red Press hired me over a period of many years.”
Dixon has worked closely since the beginning of her career with her sister, cellist Akua Dixon Turre, a composer and arranger. “Akua has written many works, including a body of work for symphonic strings, compositions for string quartet, an oratorio based on the poetry of Henry Dumas, and a wonderful opera that I hope she will complete some day. Over the years I played in many ensembles she formed to play her music.” Akua is married to jazz trombonist Steve Turre, a member of the Saturday Night Live band, and Gayle has also worked on many of his projects, including his CD “Fire & Ice,” which featured Quartette Indigo.
She was among a group of 30 Black string players who founded The String Reunion in 1976, at violinist Noel Pointer’s initiative, “to develop a repertoire of music by Black composers. We held workshops and presented concerts, classical as well as jazz, and were hired to do concerts and record dates,” Dixon recalls. “Akua was the music director, and her compositions were the foundation of our repertoire.
“The most gratifying work I’ve done musically has been string quartets, and some of the most demanding has been as a string player in a jazz environment. The first time I played string quartet with jazz ensemble was a concert for McCoy Tyner at Town Hall about 1970. Akua put together a jazz string quartet to play at the Village Gate in 1972. I did lots of interesting projects with Jazzmobile, with the Collective Black Artists, with Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell for Strata East Records, and for The New Muse (the Community Museum of Brooklyn), where Reggie Workman was director.”
She has also worked with many of the Latin greats, including Tito Puente and the great Cuban bassist, Israel “Cachao” Lopez, and has also worked and recorded with many popular charanga groups, including Lou Perez y su charanga and Tipica Novel.
Dixon joined Local 802 as a result of her work with the Symphony of the New World, her first union engagement. She was playing at the Apollo, with singers like James Brown and Aretha Franklin, and had started subbing on Broadway, so she needed a union card. “On my very first visit to the union I met Anne Walker, who was such a wonderful person and had such a positive influence on so many musicians,” she recalls. “Anne advocated for us in a very quiet but firm way.” Dixon is now a member of the review panel formed to administer a Local 802 scholarship fund established to honor Anne Walker.
Her first real involvement with the union came while she was playing Raisin when, after innocently volunteering to represent the orchestra at a Theatre Committee meeting, she was elected to the strike committee that served during the 25-day Broadway strike of 1975. “It had a deep impact on me,” she recalls. “What affected me most was the contrast between the way the management side acted – unified, relaxed and confident that they were in control – and the conflicts and tensions that beset our side. Also, I didn’t feel at the time that we were particularly well represented by our union. That left me with strong feelings that a better job could have been done – for us and by us.”
Dixon was working at Dream Girls when John Glasel and the Members Party first put together their ticket, and she was asked to run. “I didn’t run the first time, but I made phone calls and helped leaflet. It was very exciting – and they won.” She served as clerk of the Trial Board from 1985-6 and then on the Executive Board from 1987-93. “I felt that I was making a contribution and doing something valuable.” An Executive Board action during her tenure she is particularly proud of was the decision to purchase the 802 headquarters building.
Dixon points out that working musicians who serve on the board are in a unique position. “You’re on the board but you’re also out in the workplace, and so you’re looked at as kind of a shop steward. There were times when I was on jobs where someone had to be the one to stand up, and I’ve done that. I lost work because of it…but I’m proudest of those times when I was personally tested, to stand up for my convictions.”
The biggest change she has seen in the union since the reform slate took office in 1983 is the role that musicians now take in running the union. “There was a huge change – in the form of immediate openness for musicians to come in and express their wishes and their concerns to their colleagues. The committee system, which had barely existed before, was firmly established. Our contracts and conditions have greatly improved since then, because musicians can air the problems they experience on the job.”
Dixon began her career at a time when few women and very few Black people were working in the field, and she often felt very isolated. In 1977 she testified at a Human Rights Commission hearing about the lack of opportunity for minority musicians on Broadway. The hearing resulted in an affirmative action agreement that specified percentages of minority musicians to be hired, but it was put on the back burner during the Reagan years.
She chaired Local 802’s Ethnic Minorities Committee. “We brought useful information to the members – for example, the head of the NEA’s music department came in to explain the grant application process. Many musicians came to air their concerns. But the union could not do anything about most of our problems, and musicians were reticent about discussing these issues with their colleagues/employers for fear they would lose work.”
She points out the difficulty of confronting these issues in an industry like ours. “Hiring patterns themselves are one source of the problem. People hire musicians they feel comfortable with, or ask for recommendations from people whose judgement they respect. They will recommend people they know and like. It’s difficult for anyone new to break in, and more difficult for someone who is ‘different.’
“When I started working, there were two Black people, at best, in a pit – and there still are, if there are two. At Phantom, I am the only one. We haven’t made much progress on Broadway, and the situation is worse in the symphonic field.”
Dixon considers herself a feminist, and has experienced “more gender discrimination and sexual harassment than I care to acknowledge.” Although the number of women in the music business has “quadrupled in the last 20 or 30 years, very few older women manage to work in the freelance areas of our business; contractors tend to hire young women. And the real power still rests with men. Women are concert masters, principal players and soloists, but generally not personnel managers and contractors, or conductors.”
She brought these issues to 802 members through many columns in Allegro during the 1980s and early ’90s.
Her articles about the contributions of early Black musicians won numerous awards for Best Writing and Best Article from the Metro New York Labor Press Council. She loves to write and thinks that if she had not become a musician she might have gone into a field that involved writing. “I have written a few compositions for strings, but mostly I write words, poetry, and songs.”
THE POINTER FOUNDATION STRING PROGRAM
After Noel Pointer passed away in 1994, his family formed the Noel Pointer Foundation, which presented community concerts and gave music scholarships to young people. They then developed a proposal to start a string program. Dr. Lester Young, Jr., superintendent of District 13 in Brooklyn and the son of jazz legend Lester Young, responded very positively to the idea and made P.S. 44 in Bedford Stuyvesant, the Marcus Garvey School, available. The Board of Education provided 10 violins, which were delivered a few months after the program began. To get started, Dixon purchased Chinese violins from Weber’s Odd Lot, at $50 apiece, which she loans to the children to practice with at home. The cellos were rented.
The other teacher in the program is cellist and 802 member Nioka Workman. They started with 20 children in November of 1998. The program has expanded to P.S. 249 in Brooklyn and 60 children, ages 5 to 11, are taking part.
There was no money for books, “but that turned out to be a blessing,” Dixon said. None of the books she looked at had pictures of African American children or presented the material in a way that would work with her teaching methods. She decided to write her own book, and has written three so far. Dixon emphasizes reading and music theory, but the children also enjoy coloring the pictures she drew. Since she was writing music for them, the students started writing music and bringing it to class.
“Because they’re associated with the Pointer Foundation, the kids have had lots of opportunities to perform for an adult audience, and they love it. Their classroom teachers say that they’ve seen a great difference in the children’s self confidence and poise, and I understand that their grades are improving. Some are also playing quite well.”
802 members can help to support this program by donating violins and cellos that they are no longer using, especially smaller instruments. Financial contributions are also welcome. As a nonprofit, charitable organization, the Foundation gives receipts for tax-deductible contributions to all donors.
Two colleagues have already offered to give free private lessons to talented students in the program, and Dixon is hopeful that other members will volunteer lessons, or offer a scholarship to music camp. “Some of these kids are so bright and talented, but there are so few outlets for them,” she told Allegro. “If anyone would like more information, or to make some form of contribution, I hope they will contact Chinita Pointer, President of the Noel Pointer Foundation, at 239 Bergen Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217. The telephone number is (718) 624-8466. Or they can call me at the number listed in the union directory.”