“ Playing the dances you would learn how to hold a beat. ”
“I was out a lot because I worked all the time,” Dixon remembers. “Whenever I was in the city we would speak to Alfred Lion at Blue Note and tell him we had put something together and if he agreed to it he would give us the okay to go ahead and rehearse the music.” The drummer not only helped organize sessions for the label, he wrote tunes for the dates. He began composing years before, inspired by a song Milt Jackson wrote for his mother. “It was so beautiful it inspired me to write a song for my mother.” Born in Gaffney, S.C. and growing up in Washington, D.C., Dixon remembers, “Always in my mother’s house I heard jazz. Swing and jazz and R & B.” The musicians who impressed him the most were Charlie Parker and Art Tatum. When he started playing drums he would slow down their records to examine the rhythmic intricacies of their playing and emulate them in the development of his own style.
The first drummer who impressed Dixon was Buddy Rich, whenever Jazz At The Philharmonic played D.C.’s Uline Arena. “I liked Buddy, but then when I heard Max it was all over. My main influences are Max, Art and Philly Joe. Those three kind of placed their imprint on me.” Dixon got his first paper set of drums when he moved to Buffalo, to live with his father, who played three string guitar and sang. After returning to D.C. he would practice on friends’ kits and began making some local gigs until he went to college on a basketball scholarship. In ‘55 Dixon came back to D.C., working in the post office for a while and gigging with Buck Hill and Shirley Horn using borrowed drums. Finally, he bought some drums and went to work with trumpeter Webster Young.
In the summer of 1956 Dixon moved to New York to become part of the city’s burgeoning bebop scene. The following year he made his recording debut on Ray Draper’s Tuba Sounds for Prestige, with Jackie McLean, Mal Waldron, Spanky Debrest and Young. He was working regularly around New York and then in January of ‘58 he went out on the road with Lloyd Price, spending three years with the R&B legend. “It helped me become a better drummer, because we played mostly dances,” he says. “Playing the dances you would learn how to hold a beat. You would hold that beat and the rhythm that the people would be dancing to would get all into you, the imprint of the fabric of what you were doing. It helped me with my reading, it helped me with my arranging, it helped me with my composing. It just helped me all the way around musically.”
John Patton was the pianist in Price’s band. When Dixon left Price, the organ was beginning to become popular in jazz and he encouraged Big John to take it up. Eventually the two would join forces in Lou Donaldson’s group and the rest is Blue Note history. Throughout the ‘60s the drummer was busy recording regularly and touring periodically with Lionel Hampton. When his second daughter was born in July of 1962, Dixon didn’t get back home to see her until Christmas. That was enough for him. Gradually weaning himself from the jazz scene to raise his family, for 30 years he rarely played in public.