GUYANA-born, RUDOLPH DUNBAR (1907-1988) was a musical genius and a brilliant journalist

RUDOLPH DUNBAR – The Pioneering Musician, Campaigning Black Journalist and World War II Correspondent Who Covered The Liberation Of Europe With A Conductor’s Baton In His Knapsack

Rudolph Dunbar

Tim Crook | The Journal

GUYANA-born, 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.

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

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

Dunbar persuaded the UK’s war-time Minister of Information Brendan Bracken to write and publish an article in the Sunday Express September 20th 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.

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

Dunbar’s 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 and 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 and jazz – but he always insisted, and to me in particular, on the importance of classical music. His distinguished work must be seen in relation to the strong prejudice against coloured classical artists.’ 

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. 

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

Dunbar 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.

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

Dunbar 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.

Dunbar, in 1939, 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 [deleted] of Dunbar in September 1945 taking the baton in front of the Berlin Philharmonic.

This was seen by the Allied Armies as a symbol 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.’ 

Dunbar 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 Dunbar 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.’ 


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.’ 




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  • Clyde Duncan  On 02/19/2021 at 12:22 am

    Rudolph Dunbar – A Musician for the Ages – by Dr. Dhanpaul Narine was posted here on Guyanese Online in March 2015

    It is worth a follow-up in the comments section

  • Clyde Duncan  On 02/19/2021 at 8:41 am

    Kenrick V. Whitney wrote:

    In 1951, I had the opportunity on two occasions to play under the Baton of Sir Rudolph Dunbar. The first occasion, with the British Guiana Militia Band playing Eb Clarinet, the second occasion playing Viola with the British Guiana Philharmonic Orchestra. I was thrilled, and he became my Idol.

    NB: Dunbar was NOT Knighted
    – Ken Whitney owned a School of Music in British Columbia

  • Kman  On 02/19/2021 at 4:46 pm

    Never heard about this gentleman before, but thrilled to know of his success.

    Those of us non white folks could take a lesson or two from Mr. Dunbar, instead of always complaining and waiting for handouts.

    • Dennis Albert  On 02/20/2021 at 5:12 pm

      We Guyanese and the Caribbean as a whole are hardworking people.

      Locally, when the WPA was asking for royalty cheques on oil revenues, the PPP lambasted it as handouts, but the PPP was and is giving free concessions to the oil corporations and the Indo-Caribbean elite to build 12+ mega storey hotels and American expat communities along the ECD.

      There is going to be a 19-storey high condo tower in Mahaica and I doubt that the taxes will be paid for unless it’s Badal or BK who gets targeted by the PPP.

      What is considered a handout when corporate welfare is a growing problem in the developed world?

  • dhanpaul narine  On 02/20/2021 at 7:59 am

    I did his profile in 2015. And yes, someone will make a movie about him. His life has all the ingredients for a Hollywood bio-pic.

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