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Artist Profiles

Bill Dixon: The Morality of Improvisation

By Published: August 20, 2005
Dixon was mentor during the '60s to reedmen like Archie Shepp, John Tchicai, Byard Lancaster, Giuseppi Logan, Marzette Watts, Ed Curran and Arthur Doyle, multi-instrumentalist Marc Levin, drummer Bob Pozar and bassist Alan Silva, a coterie of musicians for whom the term 'underground' frequently has been applied - using them in his various groups as well as producing records for a number of them under the guise of Savoy. Dixon has orchestrated a number of situations in an attempt to circumvent the negative treatment of 'new' musicians at the hands of both club owners and record companies, through both organization and education - both of which ideally lead to mobilization. In this climate, Dixon formed what would be the Jazz Composers' Guild in 1964 - an organization which included Sun Ra, Paul and Carla Bley, Cecil Taylor, Burton Greene, Roswell Rudd, Archie Shepp and Jon Winter among others. Though the lack of conviction of some of its members eventually resulted in the Guild's dissolution, it is fair to say that the perception of the music is necessary political for Dixon, and it has to be in order to bypass confusion: "[In concert music] they know more, because they know theirs is a music, both the people who write about it and the people who do it. In this music, people are not too sure whether it's entertainment, whether it is art, and they won't admit it. As for education, Dixon has not only mentored, but he has also taught the music formally from an academic perspective - and did so for twenty-five years. "I actually engaged in the enterprise of teaching [academically], when I decided to do it, and the way [most teaching] actually worked was that you had a lot of musicians who wanted to do work of a certain kind, and they gravitated towards people so they could get some information. For Dixon, "teaching has to do with the idea of passing information, facts, history, the aesthetics, philosophy, the morality of the situation, who the people were, the periods, and cannot leave out any of that. Now, as I said the other day, if you're going to ascribe to this music [the quality of] art, then those things apply to it. If it is solely entertainment, then those things do not apply to it, and I think people are very confused sometimes because they want it both ways. Conviction in so many words is morality, and a moral music must be taught.

Knowing for a fact that one's work is of necessity should carry even more weight now - both for Dixon and for the improvised music community as a whole - than forty years ago. "Once the initial shock of the thing being what it is, once it has been assimilated, if there isn't some kind of thing to keep it moving forward, it disappears - which is one of the reasons why some of us contest this idea of what boundaries for development this music should have, because if it's an art form, there are no boundaries. What you do is not have to worry too much, because if something that isn't significant [allows itself into art] it's going to disappear anyway. However, once you put shackles on a person's creativity, you're playing Russian roulette. The history of this music is that I remember even when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were getting some begrudging recognition in the mid-40s, Thelonious Monk was still hanging on and they didn't know how to categorize him. I make the observation that, as far as the development of this music is concerned, and especially with reference to myself, if certain things are not happening for me and if areas of my work are being made invisible, I'm not the only one. They must be doing it to others too, so we have to question the entire documented 'history' of this music. Dixon is not entirely popular for his views, but even among the improvised music community, there is a palpable fear of circumventing a canon to allow the significant work to function on its own aesthetic level: "Anything that you do, for it to be interesting to someone else, it's almost magical because we're so varied, and if something you really do is attractive to someone else, that's almost a miracle. This is a conviction in not only Dixon's own work, but the work of any artist who, worth their salt, creates something out of the need to express it. One must necessarily extrapolate what it is that drives Dixon as what drives anybody else doing something creative, and that the same need for allowing that art to exist on its own terms applies to anyone who is doing the work.


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