Two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, composer and educator Roger Dickerson reflects on his music, teaching and lifelong friendship with Ellis Marsalis.
It wasn’t long after a teenaged Terence Blanchard began piano and composition lessons from Roger Dickerson, Sr. that Blanchard experienced the holistic nature of the composer’s teaching style. “He asked me what I wanted out of music,” Blanchard recalls in the book,Contemporary Cats: Terence Blanchard and Special Guests. “He planted the seed for me to really deal with being an artist.” More than three decades later, Dickerson—the recipient of this year’s Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement in Music Education Award—is still helping young musicians open their minds to unlock their creative spirits.
“My philosophy of teaching is to get the person to discover their own creativity and how they work,” Dickerson says from his Algiers Point home, where a centrally located piano and writing desk, along with numerous paintings and books, seem designed to stimulate the imagination.
“The key is being able to find something that the person has experienced themselves,” he explains, “because then [the music] makes sense for them—they have some kind of reference. It’s like playing instruments: each instrument has its own specific characteristics. … We are, as individuals, instruments, too.”
At 80, Dickerson is primarily recognized as a classical composer and pianist with a love for jazz. He often credits accolades such as his Pulitzer Prize nominations (for the 1972 Louis Armstrong requiem, “A Musical Service for Louis,” and 1976’s U.S. Bicentennial-commissioned “New Orleans Concerto”) with his experience studying at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, Austria on two Fulbright scholarships. But when discussing the evolution of his work as an educator and music lover, he comes back repeatedly to his long-standing friendship withEllis Marsalis, whom he met at Sunday school when they were children in New Orleans.
“This conversation [about music] started then and it’s still going on,” says Dickerson.
In addition to sharing a love of jazz, Dickerson says he and Marsalis felt a common “seriousness” about their art and, eventually, about their work as educators.
“There’s only one truth about it,” Dickerson declares. “It’s never really been what it should be and that’s the truth of education, period, not just music education. That the things that we should have, we’ve never really had them. What you did as a student and as a serious teacher, you did in spite of the situation or despite the situation … and you transcended the contradictions. And of course this is not limited to any one group. The contradictions are in the heart of the society.”
Recalling the experience of growing up during segregation in New Orleans—“blatant American apartheid,” as he aptly terms it—Dickerson says he and Marsalis discovered together that their “love for learning and for the music” yielded “great joy” that allowed them to deal with the daily ugliness of institutionalized racism.
Meanwhile, teaching at Xavier, Dillard and Southern University of New Orleans (SUNO) provided an outlet for his own continuing education.
“You learn a lot from students,” says Dickerson. “That’s a great thing I loved about university teaching was that they gave you energy. They gave you new perceptions of things across this chasm of years and age.”
Dickerson retired from his post at SUNO in 2002, but his composition class at the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Jazz Camp remains one of the program’s mainstays.
“No matter how old a student is, Roger believes they should start thinking about writing early on,” says the camp’s co-founder Jackie Harris. “He works one-on-one with each student on each of their pieces. He takes students who start from, ‘I want to be able to play this song,’ to a point where they can express themselves musically and culturally.”
In that respect, Dickerson’s approach to education runs parallel to that of his compositions, many of which deal specifically with the strengths and legacies of real New Orleanians like Henriette Delille and Armstrong.
“It has to do with a basic feeling that I have about my work: That it is an expression of devotion and freedom, the kind of thing Ellis and I shared, the kind of thing that really combines the love of the music with human relationships—and [with] coming out of New Orleans,” he explains.
That fascination with marrying relationships to art also bleeds into the less traditional forms of education Dickerson has also pursued. When he evacuated during Hurricane Katrina to Roswell, New Mexico (via the Superdome), for example, he found himself living in a community that, despite welcoming him, had very little going on, jazz-wise. He worked quickly to change that, and today the Roswell Jazz Festival he helped found is heading into its 10th season.
“It’s a real education as to what music can do for a community,” he says. “They’re finding out that music is about more than music: It’s about getting people to celebrate themselves, coming together, discovering things, working together in harmony—the same kind of thing musicians do on the stand.”
Dickerson believes there are always new ways to perceive the world around us, which means there’s always room to learn more.
“Generally when we talk about education we’re talking about formal education in a classroom,” he says. “But I don’t keep it locked up in a building on a campus somewhere.”