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Lucille Dixon's years of good music making as bassist and bandleader

An pink album cover with a black and white photograph of 17 female musicians.
Marian Tatum-Webb/Archives Center
National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
Early in her career, Lucille Dixon toured with one of the first all-women swing bands, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Pictured here is the "International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Hottest Women's Band of the 1940's" album cover released by Rosetta Records, 1984.

A church pianist, jazz bassist, bandleader and symphony manager, Lucille Dixon defied the norms of her time. A Black woman who played the contrabass, considered "a man's instrument," Dixon faced discrimination throughout her extensive music career.

Born in Harlem on Feb. 27, 1923, young Lucille Dixon played piano for her father's church services. She picked up the bass in high school, and studied with the New York Philharmonic's principal bassist Frederick Zimmerman.

Dixon performed with her high school orchestra and attained the bass chair in the prestigious All-City High School Orchestra of New York. She also played in the WPA's National Youth Administration Orchestra in the early 1940s.

In her sophomore year at Brooklyn College, Dixon toured with one of the first all-women swing bands, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Jazz pianist Earl Hines hired her for his band in 1942.

Dixon joined New York City's Musicians Union Local 802, in 1946, and was later the first woman elected to that local union's Executive Board.

From 1946 through 1960, Dixon led her own jazz band, the Lucille Dixon Orchestra. She employed outstanding Black musicians who had worked in popular swing bands, like trombonist Tyree Glenn (Cab Calloway, Don Redman); saxophonist Buddy Tate (Count Basie); and drummer Sonny Payne (Harry James, Count Basie).

Dixon credited race discrimination for why musicians such as these weren't already engaged in more desirable, steady jobs.

Dixon also freelanced with well-known jazz singers and other artists, and joined the Boston Women's Symphony for their 1964-65 season. But career opportunities often came with a test.

"I've learned one thing — a male musician is generally accepted until proven otherwise. A female musician has to prove herself first," Dixon toldmusician and author D. Antoinette Handy in July 1975.

A founding member of the racially integrated Symphony of the New World Orchestra, Dixon took over management of the orchestra in 1972. One of her goals was to provide well-trained young musicians of color experience playing in a symphony orchestra; an important building block for their careers.

"I should like the children of today to have a choice. If they want classical, there is a place for them to go. If they want jazz, they can go into jazz," Dixon said in her interview with Handy.

"I don't want black youth of this and future generations to experience some of the things that you [Handy] and I experienced."

Despite Dixon's determination to combat discrimination, the Symphony of the New World orchestra struggled with funding throughout its lifetime. The group gave its last performance in April 1978, 13 years after its debut at Carnegie Hall.

According to an obituary published by the Local 802, Dixon and her husband retired to Puerto Rico in 1996. At age 79, she picked the bass again and started playing jazz in a San Juan café and lounge, eventually releasing a recording made there.

Dixon died two years later in Sept. 23, 2004. In her 1975 conversation with Handy, Dixon hoped for "many more years of good music making" — which certainly came true.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.