New Orleans is a cradle of musical innovation. There are few other places where young minds hone their craft to become some of the most accomplished jazz musicians and composers in the world. At the heart of this New Orleans tradition is Roger Dickerson.
Among his students and peers, Dickerson is known as one of New Orleans’ great composers and instructors. He has been teaching for more than 50 years and has garnered two Pulitzer Prize nominations during his career. Dickerson helped pave a way for Black composers at a time when New Orleans was still living under segregation, and continues to craft the city’s seminal young talents of today. His work has nurtured a generation of artists that have come to define American composition, with an approach that is as intellectual as it is spiritual.
This June, Dickerson’s longtime student, award-winning jazz musician Terence Blanchard, was appointed as the artistic director at SFJAZZ. In 2021, Blanchard made history as the first African American composer whose work was performed by the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He credited his journey to success to the lifelong influences of Dickerson’s teaching.
“Everything I’m doing, I owe to that man,” Blanchard said.
In this audio clip from his interview with Verite, composer Roger Dickerson shares his life long lessons on creating unique compositions, and his own work. Music: Dickerson’s “Essay for Band” performed by the University of Texas Wind Ensemble in 2021.
Roger Dickerson was born in 1934. He was living on Claiborne Avenue as a young child and remembers watching brass bands parade past his grandmother’s house, music sheets in hand. Though there were no professional musicians in Dickerson’s family, his grandmother introduced him to the piano around age 4. Dickerson was 6 when a tall country cousin came to visit and saw him play. He pointed a thick farmer’s finger at the musician.
“He said, ‘That boy should have lessons!’” Dickerson said in an interview with Verite. Thus began his musical education, and what would become a life of composition and teaching.
In middle school, Dickerson met Ellis Marsalis—who would go on to become the patriarch of a legendary musical family in the city. The two shared a lifelong friendship based on their love of music.
“We were closer than brothers,” Dickerson said of Marsalis who died in 2020 of complications from COVID-19. “We never had any fights. Brothers fight.”
Dickerson started composing music in high school for a band he had formed. The band, “Roger Dickerson and the Groovy Boys,” played clubs and gigs around New Orleans after school and on weekends.
Dickerson went on to study music at Dillard University. Influenced by the classical musicians Bach, Mozart and Haydn, he also took German language classes. But it wasn’t until he attended graduate school at Indiana University that Dickerson had a formal lesson in composition. Indiana’s music program was well-known—and he learned eagerly under the guidance of mentor Bernhard Heiden, a well-known German composer who chaired the composition department. Germany would prove to play an important part in Dickerson’s development.
When he graduated with his master’s degree in 1957, he was drafted into the Army and left the segregated South for Europe, which took him to entirely new places including Berlin, Coppenhagen, Holland, and Beirut, performing for higher-ups in the Army and United States government.
In 1959, Dickerson was released early from his military service after receiving a Fulbright scholarship to study composition in Vienna, Austria. In Vienna he met Howard Swanson, an accomplished African-American composer who was also known for putting the work of poet Langston Hughes to music. Dickerson later wrote his own compositions to Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
In Vienna, Dickerson attended operas and concerts. He drove a Volkswagen down the Dalmatian coast of Yugolsavia and stayed a weekend with Greek monks on Mount Athos. Dickerson wasn’t eager to return home. As with many African-American artists in his time, Europe offered Dickerson a sense of freedom that was rare in the segregated South.
But Dickerson returned to New Orleans in the 1960s and saw his work thrive. And in 1971, he wrote a piece that would earn him his first Pulitzer Prize nomination. “Requiem for Louis Armstrong,” his ode to the New Orleans native was first played by the New Orleans Symphony the following year. In 1978, he earned his second Pulitzer Prize nomination for the composition “New Orleans Concerto,” which was the subject of a PBS documentary.
In the 1970s, Dickerson began a decades-long career teaching music, taking on positions at the city’s historically Black colleges including Xavier, Dillard and Southern University of New Orleans. He also began to teach private lessons from his home to young musicians looking to improve their craft.
Today, Dickerson’s West Bank house is filled with photos, score sheets and binders of his work that create a hush around his grand piano. A large black-and-white painting of jazz greats — John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Erroll Garner — is stretched over one wall. In the middle of the room hangs a painting of Dickerson’s army band in Heidelberg, performing in a crowded room. His piano sits in the right corner, with a lamp hung low over it.
This is not the house where 16-year-old Blanchard first came for his lessons on Metropolitan Drive in Gentilly Woods—or where Dickerson lived before Katrina, when so many of his cassette tapes, recordings and original music were lost.
Many of the musicians that have sat at his piano have returned to him over the many years of their careers. His work with each of his students is personal and unique, and he encourages them to focus on their individual styles. In this way, Dickerson, 88, has life-long conversations with his pupils, instilling in them a sense that accolades are far less important than the subject of craft.
When he began to score his first movie with African-American filmmaker Spike Lee, in what would become a decades long collaboaration, Blanchard returned home to New Orleans, for lessons with Dickerson. He would continue to do so over many years.
“When my opera went to the Met for the first time last year,” said Blanchard. “I was really blown away and emotionally overcome with the notion of, if I hadn’t had (Roger) in my life, where would I be?”
Though he was the first African American to have an opera at the Met, Blanchard stresses that he was not the first talented enough to do so. He pointed to the uniqueness of Dickerson’s work, integrating folklore from New Orleans into his craft and excellence in composition.
“The problem with being a classical composer and an African American is that you don’t get to have your music played as much as everybody else,” he said.
Composer Jay Weigel , who served as the musical director and then executive director of the New Orleans Contemporary Arts Center from the mid-1980s until 2013, was one of Dickerson’s students and still remembers his teacher’s life lessons.
“Roger just had a very unique ability to get you to understand yourself and therefore write music that reflects who you are,” Weigel said. “How do you integrate those things that make you different from me?” he would ask.
“40 years later … I’ll never forget about that first lesson.”
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