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A two-part Lyceum Series program on Saturday, April 6 will mark Tuskegee University’s annual tribute to 1921 graduate William L. Dawson. The university’s annual lecture and concert bearing his name celebrate his memory and successful career as an acclaimed composer, conductor and director.
The first of the two events — the 28th Annual William L. Dawson Institute for Classical and Folk-Music Lecture — will feature remarks by Dr. Paul Kwami, who currently serves as the director of choral activities at Fisk University. When appointed as musical director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1994, the Ghana native became the first African to hold the position. From 1996 to 2003, he chaired Fisk’s Music Department. Under his direction, the Jubilee Singers have received numerous awards — including induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Music City Walk of Fame, a Grammy nomination, and a Dove Award.
The lecture is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. in the Tuskegee University Chapel.
Later that evening, the university will host the William L. Dawson Institute Concert, featuring Tuskegee’s Golden Voices Concert Choir, Concert Band, and Alumni Choir. The concert, which will begin at 6 p.m. in Logan Hall, will also include performances by the Alabama State University Choir and Florida A&M University Concert Choir.
Both events — which are free and open to the public — are sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Fine and Performing Arts. They are being held in conjunction with the university’s annual Founders’ Day Weekend alumni reunion events, hosted by the Office of Alumni Affairs.
Dawson, after graduating from then-Tuskegee Institute in 1921, went on to study at the Horner Institute of Fine Arts and the American Conservatory of Music — and with composers Adolph Weiding and Thorvald Otterstrom. He returned to Tuskegee, where from 1930 to 1955 he directed the Tuskegee Institute Choir and led its School of Music. In addition to the choir’s participation in numerous concert tours and nationwide radio and television programs during his tenure, it performed at the White House for President Hoover, in New York for President-elect Roosevelt, at Radio City Music Hall for its opening as part of a four-week engagement, and at the unveiling ceremonies for the bust of Booker T. Washington in New York University’s Hall of Fame.
Dawson’s compositions, choral and orchestral works received national acclaim, which included three first-place Wannamaker Contest Prizes for composition and in the Chicago Daily News’ contest for band conductors. He also was first trombonist with the Chicago Civic Orchestra. In 1934, the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra performed the world premiere of his “Negro Folk Symphony,” with Leopold Stokowski conducting.
Dawson was one of 20 American composers commissioned by the Columbia Broadcasting System to write orchestral music for the American School of the Air in 1940. An article he authored entitled “Interpretation of the Religious Folk Songs of the American Negro” was published in Étude in 1955. The article has been reprinted in a number of professional publications. In 1956, the U.S. State Department sent him to Spain to conduct various choral groups of that country.
Dawson resigned his position at Tuskegee in 1955. He later received an honorary degree from Tuskegee Institute in 1956, the prestigious Tuskegee University Board of Trustees Distinguished Service Award in 1989, and passed away in 1990. Today, he is among the celebrated figures who have been laid to rest in the university’s cemetery on the campus’ grounds.
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