Jackson, Isaiah

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Isaiah Jackson


Isaiah Jackson, a brilliant and renowned conductor, has been guest conductor for many of the world's greatest orchestras. He was the first American and the first African American to serve as principal conductor and later music director for the Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, in London, England. Jackson is credited with helping the London orchestra achieve a higher level of performance.

Jackson was born on January 22, 1945, in Richmond, Virginia. Jackson's family lived in a middle-class, segregated neighborhood, and his friends were the children of doctors and lawyers. Among his childhood friends was the famous tennis player Arthur Ashe. Education was an important part of Jackson's family goals as his father and grandfather were both surgeons. His family believed that education was the only useful response to a racist society. Jackson's first introduction to music came as a result of an early childhood accident. When Jackson was two years old, he fell on a milk bottle and severed the tendons of his wrist. His father, who was an orthopedic surgeon, prescribed music lessons for therapy. Jackson took to his lessons with such dedication and obvious aptitude that music became a permanent part of his life. Jackson was a good student, but to make sure that he would meet academic challenges and also be happy, his parents decided to send him to Putney, a progressive and academically intense private boarding school in Vermont. Putney was integrated, and the students were socially conscious. In the 1960s Jackson and his friends picketed the local Woolworth's near Brattleboro in support of the lunch counter sit-ins that were happening in the South for equality and equal access for African Americans.

Jackson enrolled at Harvard University after graduating from high school. Although he wanted to pursue music as an adolescent, his parents had hoped he would join the diplomatic corps once he graduated from college. Jackson's father had taken a diplomatic post in the Agency for International Development in 1967 and saw opportunities there for his son. Jackson chose to major in Russian history and literature, which reflected the international politics of the times. Even though he chose an international subject, Jackson committed himself to a career in music. While at Harvard he had the opportunity to conduct the Mozart opera Cosi fan tuttle. Jackson was so taken by the experience that he decided at that point to pursue music as a career. Subsequently, he went to Stanford University and received his M.A. in music in 1969. He spent a summer in Fontainebleau, France, with Nadia Boulanger, a renowned teacher, before going to the prestigious Julliard School of Music. While still a student at Julliard, Jackson was named music director of the New York Youth Symphony. He became the founder and con-ductor for the Julliard String Ensemble (1970–71), and was appointed assistant to the renowned conductor Leopold Stokowski with the American Symphony Orchestra (1970–71). He served as assistant conductor for the Baltimore Symphony (1971–73). Jackson received his M.S. in 1969 and his D.M.A. in 1973 from Julliard.

After completing his education at Harvard in 1973, Jackson became associate conductor for Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Rochester, New York. He maintained this position for fourteen years while engaging in other orchestral opportunities. Also during this time Jackson met and married Helen Tuntland, president of Hochstein Music School. With an active career in place even before graduation, once he completed his studies Jackson was invited as a guest conductor for many important American orchestras, such as the New York Philharmonic (1978), San Francisco Symphony (1984), Detroit Symphony Orchestra (1983, 1985), Cleveland Orchestra (1983–84, 1986–87, and 1989–92), and the Boston Pops (1983, 1990–92).

Makes Orchestral Debut in Europe

In Europe, Jackson made his orchestral debut with the Vienna Symphony in July 1973. He also conducted the Orchestre de la Suisse-Romande, the Helsinki Philharmonic at the Helsinki Festival, the R.A.I. Orchestra in Rome, and many other prominent orchestras. Jackson performed with the Dance Theater of Harlem at the Spoloeto Festival in Italy. While he was conducting with the Dance Theater of Harlem, the group performed in the Royal Opera House in London in 1981. The management of the Royal Opera House carefully observed Jackson. As a result Jackson was invited to serve as guest conductor for the Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, in London in 1986 and became the music director for the Royal Ballet in 1987. Jackson became the first American and first African American to have a chief role with the Royal Ballet. To meet the needs of this London post, he moved his family from New York to London. By this time his family had grown to include his children, Benjamin, Katharine, and Caroline. Jackson expressed regret that his schedule had increasingly allowed less time with his children and his wife. Once coming to London, Jackson came to love England and its culture and said that it reminded him of Richmond. He was quite successful with the Royal Ballet and was credited with developing the Royal Ballet orchestra into a disciplined and eloquent ensemble. Also in 1987 Jackson was appointed music director of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra.

Jackson became the first African American to serve as music director of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. Jackson is one of only a few African American conductors and one of the very few who make a living at this profession and have a permanent post. Jackson has an extraordinary talent which consists of a keen ear, fine touch, and the ability to reveal the subtle points of a score. Fluent in five languages, Jackson is further enhanced by his broad knowledge of music, spanning from European composers to African American ones. Jackson has said that works of art are capable of transcending cultural differences.

Jackson has also been active in the recording industry. He made three recordings with the Berlin Symphony: string music by the film composers Bernard Herrmann, Miklo's Ro'zsa, and Franz Waxma; dance music by William Grant Still; and a live-performance CD of the orchestra's 1991 New Year's Eve concert. Also among his recordings is one of harp concertos of Ginastera and William Mathias for Koch with the English Chamber Orchestra and Ann Hobson Pilot as soloist. Another CD features Jackson conducting the Louisville orchestra and gospel choirs from the Louisville, Kentucky area under the direction of Alvin Parris III. The CD grew out of a project between Jackson and Parris. The project opened the Brisbane Biennial Festival of Music and was presented in fourteen U.S. cities.


Born in Richmond, Virginia on January 22
Begins music lessons as therapy for wrist injury
Attends Putney, a private boarding school in Vermont
Graduates from Harvard (cum laude) with a degree in Russian literature and history
Receives MA from Stanford University
Receives M.S. from Julliard School of Music
Receives D.M.A. from Julliard School of Music
Serves as associate conductor, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Rochester, New York
Begins serving as guest conductor for numerous orchestras from New York to Berlin
First American and African American appointed principal conductor, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, London, England
First African American music director appointed Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra
First American and African American appointed music director, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, London, England
First African American music director appointed to Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston

Jackson is the music director of the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston and the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra. He is also the musician in residence at the Memorial Church at Harvard University. His contributions to the orchestral community have been rewarded with numerous awards, including the Signet Society Medal for Achievement in the Arts from Harvard University in 1991. Jackson joins past recipients such as T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Robert Lowell. He remains in great demand by orchestras and music organizations around the world.



Burgess, Majorie. "Isaiah Jackson." In Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 3. Ed. Barbara Carlisle Bigelow. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.


Story, Rosalyn. "Have Baton—Will Travel." American Visions. Vol. 8 (February-March 1993): 42-5.


"Isaiah Jackson Biographical Information." http://maximaltd.com/ijbio.htm (Accessed 30 March 2006).

"Isaiah Jackson." Pro Arte: Isaiah Jackson. http://www.proarte.org/concerts/Pro%20Arte%20Isaiah%20Jackson.htm (Accessed 30 March 2006).

"1992 Honorees—Isaiah Jackson." Dominion. http://www.dom.com/about/education/strong/1992/isaiahjackson.jsp (Accessed 30 March 2006).

                             Lean'tin L. Bracks

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