Rudolph Dunbar was born in Guyana, and began playing the clarinet in the British Guiana Militia Band after being inspired by their arrangements of Wagner and Elgar when he was 14 years old. He moved to New York at the age of 19 to study at the Institute of Musical Art (now Julliard), majoring in composition, piano and clarinet. He became involved in the Harlem Jazz scene and featured on recordings by The Plantation Orchestra.
He moved to Paris in 1925, and spent time in Vienna, studying with some of the top musicians in Europe including Felix Weingartner and Louis Calusac. He was once invited to give a private recital to the widow of Claude Debussy of members of the Paris Conservatoire. He then moved to London and set up the first ever clarinet school, which lead him to write the textbook Treatise on the Clarinet (Boehm System) which became the standard reference work for the clarinet.
In London, he made pioneering recordings with the All British Coloured Band and Rudolph Dunbar and his African Polyphony. He also composed a ballet score Dance of the Twenty-First Century, which was broadcast nationally. In the years following, he became the first black man to conduct the London and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras, as well as conducting in Russia and Poland in the late 50’s and early 60’s.
Unfortunately, he has never truly been recognised as a pioneer not only of classical music, not only of British classical music, but of Caribbean music too. With so much focus on the likes of Louis Armstrong and other African-American musicians, the feats of many Caribbean musicians in Europe and indeed has gone under the radar. Let’s help change that.