During more than three decades as an educator, Roger Dickerson has lectured on music theory and composition at Southern, Dillard and Xavier universities. He is a U.S. Army veteran and two-time Fulbright scholar, and his work has drawn two Pulitzer Prize nominations and been commissioned by the U.S. Bicentennial and Carnegie Hall. He even gets called to help celebrate canonization. When Henriette Delille, the 19th-century founder of New Orleans' Sisters of the Holy Family congregation, eventually is confirmed by the Catholic Church as the first African-American woman ever to be canonized, Dickerson will likely provide the score. His career has followed its own highly spirited path. At 73, Dickerson, the 2008 honoree for lifetime achievement at the Big Easy Awards' 14th Annual Tribute to the Classical Arts, is Louisiana's de facto pianist laureate, the classical counterpart to James Booker and Allen Toussaint. Recalling teenage days sneaking into the storied Dew Drop Inn with his friend Ellis Marsalis, taking overnight road trips to back up classic bluesmen Joe Turner and Eddie 'Guitar Slim" Jones, Dickerson makes those comparisons seem all the more apt.
'They probably shouldn't have let us in, at our age, but we managed to get in," he says. 'We were teenagers. Of course, this was before a lot of the color laws were removed. This was the upside of all that nonsense: You knew that these guys who were onstage, you could see them and stand close to them and maybe even get to play with them. Anyway, I got to know people there, and I got to know (club owner) Frank Painia. He was an entrepreneur, and he booked dances all up and down the bayou, in Louisiana and Texas and Mississippi. That's the New Orleans culture " that's what New Orleans can provide a young musician."
Dickerson's first inspirations came from his immediate family. But it was a relative by marriage, Wallace Davenport, a U.S. Navy veteran and proficient jazz trumpeter, who was particularly instructive in the art of transposition, the adaptation of a single piece of music for multiple keys and instruments.
'He was kind of what they called the "Straw Boss,'" Dickerson says of Davenport. 'He was the first trumpet player with (William "Count') Basie and Lionel Hampton for years. He was a trumpet player, but he was a well-versed musician who could write himself. He gave me a jump-start into writing, and I just continued on, picking up things here or there, until I got to the level of my university years, where I was really studying theory as a part of my curriculum."
After finishing high school at the age of 16, Dickerson enrolled at Dillard University, where he graduated with honors in 1955. One of his professors, a Ph.D. candidate from Gary, Ind., suggested Indiana University as a potential next stop. Accepted into the university's prestigious School of Music, he studied under renowned German composer Bernhard Heiden, earning a master's degree in composition in 1957. Soon after, Dickerson says, his country called.
'Conscription was still on with drafting people into the military," he explains. 'I was in the USAREUR Headquarters Band " that's the United States Army in Europe " and stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, which was an incredible place to be. We played concerts and marching music, and that was the rear echelon: dignitaries coming from Washington, playing (for) four-star generals, back and forth from the ocean. Swimming in the Mediterranean and playing concerts."
In 1959, Dickerson, then 24, applied for and received the first of two Fulbright scholarships. Granted an early release from his military service, he returned home to New Orleans to gather his belongings and, several weeks later, boarded an ocean liner with a group of fellow scholars for what would become a three-year stay in Vienna.
The period had a profound impact on the developing composer. Dickerson marvels, 'To walk the streets that Beethoven walked, and Schubert Then all of the concerts! You're in concerts all week, chamber music concerts, and then you're doing your own thing, getting to travel to places like Italy " you could drive overnight to Florence and Venice. While most people look at those kinds of things as stuff you do on vacation, it was the most educational thing I could have done, to actually see these places and have experienced them."
Attending Vienna's Academy of Music and Performing Arts on successive yearlong scholarships, he worked alongside the influential Austrian instructors Karl Schiske and Alfred Uhl and also met the great German composer Paul Hindemith, an early mentor to Bernhard Heiden. He stayed for one additional year, and with his formal training completed and his education having come full circle, Dickerson returned home to Louisiana.
A chance meeting with the conductor Werner Torkanowsky " father of David Torkanowsky " in the early '60s aligned Dickerson with the New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra (now the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra), a union that would develop into a lifelong love affair between composer and interpreter. 'I'd learned that you never meet a conductor without having some music with you," he says with a laugh. 'It was part of the training I got while I was in Europe. I met him at a rehearsal, and he inquired about this score I had under my arm. So I showed it to him, and he asked if he could keep it for a bit. The next thing I knew, I was hearing that I was going to have a performance with the New Orleans Philharmonic."
That performance, of Concert Overture, boosted the rising 30-year-old for election to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), an honor he received in 1965. For the symphony's next commissioned work, Torkanowsky requested Dickerson write a requiem for Louis Armstrong. A Musical Service for Louis premiered in New Orleans in 1972 and was, at the time, his piece de resistance; performed on national tour, it earned Dickerson mass acclaim as well as his first Pulitzer Prize nomination. 'My first orchestral work to be published," he recalls fondly.
There would be others. Narrator, based on the writing of the New York novelist Joanne Greenberg, was performed by the New Orleans Symphony with help from the baritone actor Roscoe Lee Brown; New Orleans Concerto, a commission for the U.S. Bicentennial, was the subject of a 1978 PBS documentary by the same name and garnered Dickerson his second Pulitzer Prize nomination in six years.
Dickerson continued to compose and teach regularly at Southern University, where he also acted as choir director, until his retirement in 2002. Evacuating from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he found himself at a friend's home in Roswell, N.M., where he was embraced by the local arts community. That experience spawned the Pecos Valley Jazz & Arts Festival (now in its third year) and the commission of A Flower Blooms in the Desert, which, sadly, became another requiem when Cory Beck, a newspaper publisher and festival co-founder, died unexpectedly in December 2006. With special dedication to Beck, the piece, written for jazz ensemble and mixed voices, premiered last October at three Roswell venues in the same day.
Speaking from New Mexico, where he traveled for the celebration of Martin Luther King Day, Dickerson laughs about the perceived disconnect between his jazz beginnings and classical background. '[That's] the interesting thing they are curious about here: "You're someone who writes for classical music, for the symphony, and you've had Pulitzer nominations and commissions from orchestras, and you also do jazz,'" he jokes. 'This is a result of being a New Orleanian. That's all part of my heritage. I can't imagine a composer, none of the great masters, not owing something to their folk traditions. As a matter of fact, those traditions really helped to make them who they are. That's what I've been working at over the years: to arrive at a kind of expression that has all that in it, you see; to take the traditions of New Orleans to a broader level of expression, a wider level of expression, one that includes my training and development, which includes Europe and all of that. At least that's how I see an artist developing."
For Dickerson, that development now includes, of all things, the Vatican. For the Love of Jesus, a 2002 piano-and-soprano art song inspired by the life of Henriette Delille, was expanded last year and performed by North Carolina's Wilmington Symphony Orchestra. The LPO currently is working on bringing the piece home to New Orleans, and should Delille join the ranks in the Litany of the Saints, it's likely to go to Rome.
'That piece is one of the works that I'm really excited about, because it is sacred, and about someone from New Orleans," Dickerson says. 'She will be the first African-American to be a saint. And I'm involved! I say all the time, "I found myself in the middle of someone being canonized.'"
And he is the only one who is surprised.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Composer Roger Dickerson will be honored with a Big Easy Lifetime Achievement Award.