Jackson, Isaiah 1945–
Isaiah Jackson 1945–
“He is, by most accounts, a brilliant conductor,” penned Ebony correspondent Charles Whitaker about maestro Isaiah Jackson. “The British press credits him with almost singlehandedly transforming the Royal Ballet Orchestra—once described as ‘sloppy’—into what the London Standard now calls a ‘sparkling, rhythmically taut and eloquent’ ensemble.” Earning an international reputation of prominence when he was music director of the Royal Ballet during the late 1980s, Jackson was the first black and the first American to occupy a chief position with the company. He is also the first Black music director of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. One of a scarce number of blacks in the symphonic field, Jackson related to Marilyn Marshall in Ebony,“It takes a long time to develop a classical musician and it takes money. More important than any of that, it takes commitment on the part of the child and the parent.”
Born on January 22, 1945, in Richmond, Virginia, Jackson was raised in a middle-class, segregated, neighborhood. His father and grandfather were surgeons, and one of his childhood friends was tennis star Arthur Ashe. Growing up among the children of doctors, lawyers, and journalists, Jackson had all the advantages possible on his side of the color barrier that divided Richmond: he started piano lessons at the age of four, was sent to a private boarding school in Vermont when he was 14 years old, and traveled with his high school class to the former Soviet Union.
Although he wanted to be a musician as an adolescent, Jackson knew his parents, who preferred he join the diplomatic corps, were not enthused about his career choice. His father had quit practicing medicine to take a diplomatic post, entering the Agency for International Development in 1967. Jackson eventually enrolled at Harvard University, where he graduated cum laude in 1966. Concentrating on a degree in Russian history and literature while in college, he also conducted at Harvard. Upon graduation, Jackson decided to pursue studies in music at Stanford University and the prestigious Juilliard School of Music.
While a student at Juilliard in New York City, Jackson served briefly as assistant conductor to the renowned Leopold Stokowski at the American Symphony Orchestra. Established in his career shortly after graduation, he directed major American orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Pops, and the Los Angeles
Born Isaiah Allen Jackson, January 22, 1945, in Richmond, VA; son of Isaiah Allen (a surgeon) and Alma Alverta (maiden name, Norris) Jackson; married Helen Caroline Tuntland; children: Benjamin, Katharine, Caroline. Education: Harvard University, B.A. (cum laude), 1966; Stanford University, M.A., 1967; Juilliard School, M.S., 1969, D.M.A., 1973.
Orchestral conductor, Juilliard String Ensemble, New York, NY, founder and conductor, 1970-71; American Symphony Orchestra, assistant conductor, 1970-71; Baltimore Symphony, Baltimore, MD, assistant conductor, 1971-73; Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Rochester, NY, associate conductor, 1973-87; Flint Symphony Orchestra, Flint, MI, music director and conductor, 1982-87; Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, music director, 1987—; Royal Ballet, London, England, principal conductor, 1986, music director, 1987-90. Guest conductor for numerous orchestras, including New York Philharmonic, 1978; San Francisco Symphony, 1984; Detroit Symphony Orchestra, 1983 and 1985; Cleveland Orchestra, 1983-84, 1986-87, and 1989-92; Boston Pops, 1983 and 1990-92; Toronto Symphony, 1984 and 1990; Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, 1985 and 1988; BBC Concert Orchestra, 1987; Berlin Symphony, 1989-91. Member of board of directors, Ralph Bunche Scholarship Fund, 1974—; member of music panel, New York State Council on the Arts, 1978.
Awards: First Governor’s Award for the Arts, Commonwealth of Virginia, Richmond, 1979; Signet medal, Signet Society, Harvard University, 1991.
Addresses: Home —Dayton, OH. Agent —c/o United Arts, 3906 Sunbeam Dr., Los Angeles, CA 90065.
Traversing the United States, Jackson retained concurrent positions with several highly respected regional orchestras, including a 14-year appointment as associate director of the Rochester Philharmonic in Rochester, New York, where he met his wife, Helen Tuntland, president of Hochstein Music School. While conducting for the Dance Theater of Harlem—which was on tour and performing at the Royal Opera House in London, England, in 1981—Jackson was observed by management of the Royal Opera House. Attracted by the ambience and the orchestra at the Opera House, more generally known as Covent Garden, the conductor disclosed in Ebony,“Everyone was responsive and nice. It was like a family, and they welcomed me into their family.”
Jackson’s career in Covent Garden was launched in 1985 when he appeared as guest conductor with the orchestra of the Royal Ballet. He advanced quickly from his post of principal conductor to become music director of the organization in 1987. That same year, Jackson was also appointed music director of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra.
In the summer of 1987, Jackson moved his family from Rochester, New York, to a borough of Greater London called Hammersmith. “I am an Anglophile. I love England—the clothes, the food, the manners,” Jackson divulged to Whitaker. “So much of it reminds me of Richmond.” Confessing regret that his schedule with the Royal Ballet denied him much contact with his children—Benjamin, Katharine, and Caroline—Jackson remarked in Ebony,“Sometimes I think I must be a fool to chase this kind of career when the only children I’ll ever have are growing up half a year without me.”
Urbanely attired in wool blazers and pants, Jackson is more akin to the customary, unflappable English temperament than the flamboyant personality that typifies many of his musical counterparts. Fluent in five languages, he finds the collaborating necessary to stage ballet performances his most difficult test as a conductor. Jackson commented in Ebony,“You have to be responsive to the dancers, but you’ve also got this orchestra which has its requirements. Your job is to make it work for everybody, including the audience and yourself.” In great demand as a conductor, he told Whitaker, “My dream is to work in all areas of conducting—orchestra, ballet, opera—with first class musical organizations on both sides of the Atlantic. That’s what I’m working for.”
Boston Globe, June 26, 1990.
Down Beat, August 1986.
Ebony, September 1985; April 1988.
Jet, July 31, 1989.
CBB spoke with Isaiah Jackson on June 17, 1992.
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