Howard University Library

Howard University Library 2

New York Times

The History Makers

New England Conservatory

New England Conservatory 2

RAYMOND JACKSON emerged onto the international concert scene in the second half of the twentieth century when a new generation of concert pianists was beginning to appear. In his childhood he had been inspired by great artists such as pianists Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz, the magnificent voices of Marian Anderson and Marilyn Horne, violinists Jascha Heifetz and Isaac Stern, along with scores of other great artists. Years later William Kapell, Natalie Hinderas-- and still later, Andre Watts—became trail blazers among succeeding generations of successful new keyboard artists.

In the span of a decade, following his years at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music (Boston, MA), The Juilliard School (New York City) and The American Conservatory of Music (Fontainebleau, France), Raymond Jackson began to receive numerous honors, awards and ecstatic critical reviews that brought him attention in a world-wide arena from New York and Boston to Paris and Vienna… and most recently in parts of Russia. Where did this story begin for the African-American youngster who grew up in the New England city of Providence, RI where he studied piano from the age of four?

In the 1930's and 40's, Providence was certainly not what most would call a cultural mecca. Without question it was his family and church affiliation that were perhaps most important in his development as an artist of great integrity. Raised by parents that exemplified service, generosity and compassion for the less fortunate, Sunday mornings found him riding in the family’s 1938 Buick, seated beside his mother Beulah, ready to jump out to open the car door for the neighborhood elderly and infirmed who were being provided transportation to church. While three o’clock radio broadcasts of The New York Philharmonic Orchestra—featuring renowned conductors like Arturo Toscanini, Dmitri Mitropoulos and Sir Thomas Beecham—expanded his musical literacy, he found immense satisfaction playing the piano for a retirement home occasionally on Sunday afternoons.

Recognizing his early mastery of the piano, his parents—with typical insight and foresight—also encouraged him to study the organ which expanded his musicianship and keyboard skills and later financially supported his college education. For the next five years he endured traveling in the harsh winters, climbing over treacherous snow banks to board two buses that would transport him to a cold, unheated suburban church in order to practice and have weekly organ lessons. As a teenager his mastery of this new instrument led to an appointment to play in his own church on its newly installed pipe organ where he served as both organist and choir director. For “The Little Professor,” as he was fondly known for carrying a briefcase full of books and music, recognition of a burgeoning career became more and more evident.

As a teenager he had already earned the respect and admiration of all who witnessed his rapid development and enormous talent. At age 13 he made his formal public debut, performing a prodigious recital in Providence’s Trinity Auditorium. The program included a Beethoven Sonata, a Rhapsody by Brahms, Chopin’s “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat, and shorter works. A few years later the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra was formed and the young prodigy—who was initially a season subscriber—made his orchestral debut as a soloist under Founding Director, Francis Madeira. Little did he know how this accomplishment would foreshadow many other early achievements such as being a three-time soloist with Washington, DC’s acclaimed National Symphony conducted by Maestro Howard Mitchell.

Outgrowing the instruction of local piano teachers while only in Junior High School, his parents enrolled him for piano lessons at The New England Conservatory of Music. Each Saturday for five years he stood at a corner bus stop to board a Greyhound bus for a 43 mile northbound journey to Boston that would further prepare him for his history-making years as a full-time Conservatory undergraduate student. Upon graduating from Providence’s Hope High School, he was awarded The Hope Key for Outstanding Service and Achievements, after which he became a full-time Conservatory Piano Performance Major.

Earning a Bachelor of Music Degree he made front page headlines in Boston newspapers as the first in Conservatory history to simultaneously graduate first in his class--summa cum laude, receive the prestigious George Whitefield Chadwick Medal—the Conservatory’s highest honor, and perform as concerto soloist with the Conservatory Orchestra. Fifty years later, continuing “at the top of his game,” the Conservatory presented him with its Outstanding Alumni Award.

After graduating, he went to New York City to attend The Juilliard School where he received Bachelor of Science, Master of Science, and Doctor of Musical Arts Degrees and a Professional Diploma. His distinguished teachers were Beveridge Webster, Sascha Gorodnitzki and Ania Dorfmann. It was in the final degree program that he began the all-important research that led to his significant doctoral document–“The Piano Music of Twentieth Century Black Composers”—which reportedly became The Juilliard Library’s most frequently requested title. Interrupting the formality of these degree programs, a summer of study at The American Conservatory of Music in Fontainebleau, France was coupled with a year of private study in Paris with the dynamic French pianist, Jeanne-Marie Darre.

As the winner of a National Association of Negro Musicians Piano Competition and a JUGG, Inc. New York Town Hall Debut Award, his successful New York recital became a springboard that catapulted his career into an even larger arena. His international career began auspiciously with debut recitals in Vienna where a critic of The Podium called him “a God-gifted musician.” In Munich the Suddeutsche Zeitung labeled him “A masterly talent;” and following his performance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in Mannheim, Germany, he was called “…a first class virtuoso.” Other stunning reviews followed recitals in London, Berlin, Paris, Stockholm, Geneva, Athens and Rio de Janeiro.

In 1976, fifty years after Gershwin premiered his Rhapsody in Blue as soloist with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in New York City’s Aeolian Hall, Jackson was engaged to perform in commemorative concerts held in the Philadelphia Academy of Music and in New York City’s Carnegie Hall. The jazz orchestra, with original jazz instrumentation and a few of the 1926 players, was conducted by Emory Davis. The following evening at Concordia College in Bronxville, NY where he was a member of the music faculty, Jackson gave a third performance, this time with full symphony orchestra.

Perhaps his most significant achievements were in being among the top 3 prizewinners out of nearly 150 international pianists who competed in The Marguerite Long International Piano Competition in Paris, and The Tenth Annual International Piano Competition in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Significantly, all of his European performances of works by Frederic Chopin generated tumultuous audience and press responses. Of his memorable interpretation of the Barcarolle, Paris’ Presse-Diffusion published: “The audience was electrified.” In praise of his performance of Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 the Berlin Kurier wrote: “It was like hearing it for the first time.” Recent performances before standing-room-only audiences in Russia received no less acclamation as he was showered with flowers and gifts for again providing memorable performances of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Returning to America, Jackson’s home town of Providence commemorated his successes as he became the first African-American, first musician, and youngest person to be inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame. He was also made an Honorary Member of Providence’s prestigious Chopin Club and Chaminade Club. Recently in Providence he received the Black Heritage Society’s Matilda “Sissieretta” Jones Award for the Humanities with a Focus on Cultural Literacy and the Arts. At the same occasion he was awarded commemorative Citations from the Mayor of Providence and Senator from the State of Rhode Island.
As compelling as he was on the performance stage, his expanding reputation as a lecturer and inspiring teacher began to bring him recognition as an academician. This resulted in appointments on the faculties of the Mannes College of Music (New York City), Concordia College (Bronxville, NY) and for summers at the University of Rhode Island. A few years later Providence’s “Little Professor” served as an Adjunct Piano Professor at Washington, DC’s Catholic University of America, and most importantly fulfilled a childhood prophecy by becoming a Full Professor where he now teaches at Howard University in Washington, DC. In these early years of the 21st century the legacy and the odyssey continue.

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