Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Rudolph Dunbar- the pioneering musician, and campaigning black journalist and World War II correspondent who covered the liberation of Europe with a conductor’s baton in his knapsack

Rudolph Dunbar (1907-1988) was a musical genius, a brilliant journalist and indefatigable campaigner for racial justice- but post Second World War, he was discriminated against and excluded from the riches of success he so greatly deserved.

He was featured and celebrated for his appearances as a conductor and musician on BBC Radio during the 1930s.

He challenged the colour bar against US servicemen in London by questioning General Eisenhower at a press conference in London.

He persuaded the UK’s war-time Minister of Information Brendan Bracken to write and publish an article in the Sunday Express September 20th in 1942 which declared that the ‘Colour Bar Must Go’ for all black people in Britain.

Mr Bracken credited Rudolph Dunbar for inspiring and requesting his intervention:

‘There is, of course, no legal Colour Bar in this country. Mr Dunbar has himself pointed out that most coloured people in Britain come from the British Colonies. They are, therefore, British citizens with, in theory, the same rights as any Englishman.

It is deplorable that he should have to write “in theory”, but it is in fact true that there is still some colour prejudice in this country and still social barriers against coloured people.’

Bracken totally agreed with Dunbar to ‘End it quickly’. Bracken concluded: ‘The prejudiced must be taught by precept and example to overcome their prejudices’ and ‘the sooner the better.’

Dunbar was highly influential because he was the London Editor for a reporting agency representing more than 200 United States Black newspapers.

He was famous for a recent triumph at the Royal Albert Hall conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

His Guardian obituary published in 1988 explained he was part of a ‘small, pre-war group of blacks who pursued international careers of distinction with London as their base.’ Dunbar ‘had the aspiration and talent to place him in a trio with Paul Robeson and C.L.R. James; like them, he had a multiple career combining music, journalism (as a war correspondent) and campaigning against racism.’

C.L.R. James offered this tribute on his death: ‘Dunbar was a striking example of his musical period. He was first of all a master of popular music- jazz- but he always insisted, and to me in particular, of the importance of classical music. His distinguished work must be seen in relation to the strong prejudice against coloured classical artists.’

Rudolph Dunbar with clarinet illustrated in his Treatise on learning for the Clarinet. Scanned from original copy owned by Tim Crook.

Leaving British Guiana (present day Guyana) at the age of 20, he settled in Britain by 1931, studied in New York, worked in many parts of Europe and eventually lived out most of his life in London.

He was the first black man to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in 1946.

He was the first black man to conduct orchestras in Poland (1959) and Russia (1964).

During the 1930s and 40s he was a leading journalist working as a music critic for Melody Maker, writing for the BBC’s Listener, and a foreign and war correspondent for the news agency representing African American newspapers.

He covered the D-Day landings and liberation of Paris.

He is credited with the heroism of saving the US 969th Battalion during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 when, after he lost his way near Marchin, civilians warned him of a waiting ambush of German tanks down the road where the 969th was headed.

The preface and signed picture of Rudolph Dunbar from his celebrated Treatise on learning the instrument first published in 1939 and scanned from a copy owned by Tim Crook.

In 1939 he wrote a Treatise on learning the Clarinet and bridged the classical and jazz traditions with a modernist and progressive approach in his playing, teaching and composition. The book was reprinted in multiple editions throughout the 1940s.

At the head of this article is a remarkable photograph of Dunbar in September 1945 taking the baton in front of the Berlin Philharmonic.

This was seen as a symbol by the Allied Armies of the defeat of genocidal racism because the talent and dignity of a black classical conductor of music was directing the orchestra of what had previously been the capital of Nazi Germany.

It is a tragedy that the Guardian should observe in its obituary that he became ‘a case history of the prejudice meted out to others he had campaigned against’ and all his energies were channelled into ‘the political fight against racism.’

He believed he was subject to black-listing by the BBC. There is certainly evidence of what could be construed as racism in an exaggerated mocking in the Times newspaper of his conducting of a 13 year old Spanish pianist prodigy in 1955.

A BBC Two television documentary broadcast in 1989 argued that he died ‘a bitter and impoverished man.’ In his unfinished autobiography titled: ‘Triumph and Tragedy’ he claimed that there were powerful elements within the English music establishment working against him.

A BBC Radio Four documentary first broadcast in 2007 argued that he died in obscurity in Britain, ‘convinced that the BBC in particular had barred his way to greater things.’

The Chartered Institute of Journalists believes Rudolph Dunbar deserves renewed and elevated commemoration for his achievements.

There is every reason to appreciate his anger and resistance and to give him credit for the integrity and endurance of his fight against racism that benefited so many people during the Second World War and the future generations of Black people in Britain afterwards.

The Guardian ended its obituary 32 years ago with the observation: ‘Dunbar’s life seems to be the stuff movies are made of: perhaps one will be of his.’

We would certainly endorse and give power to this sentiment now.

This is the first part of a ten part series of feature articles on significant black and asian journalists who have made an important contribution to journalism history.