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Interviews

Bill Dixon: In Medias Res

By Published: September 15, 2009


Teaching, Mentoring and the Highest Art

A week prior to the recording sessions for Dixon's watershed Intents and Purposes, he was part of the front line in the Cecil Taylor recording of Conquistador (Blue Note) in the fall of 1966. The band then included stalwart altoist Jimmy Lyons

Jimmy Lyons
Jimmy Lyons
1933 - 1986
sax, alto
, drummer Andrew Cyrille
Andrew Cyrille
Andrew Cyrille
b.1939
drums
and bassists Henry Grimes
Henry Grimes
Henry Grimes
b.1935
bass, acoustic
and Alan Silva
Alan Silva
Alan Silva
b.1939
bass, acoustic
. This was Dixon's lone appearance as a sideman during the decade, though he himself suggested that Taylor use Mike Mantler on the date. Dixon didn't stick with the group because, prior to going on a European sojourn, Taylor decided to break the band in at Slug's on the Lower East Side. This was against the agreement fostered in the Guild a couple of years prior to avoid playing clubs. Incredibly—despite Dixon's vast amount of leader-work since and the proximity of this record date to one of Dixon's own defining works—this sideman appearance is given a huge amount of weight in his discography. But it's undeniable that this record is one of Taylor's finest, and it's clearly a result of Dixon's presence. Thus, some background on their association is probably necessary.

Bill Dixon"I remember us meeting for the first time in Harlem at the Sportsmen's Club, which was on 7th Ave. between 145th and 144th next to the Roosevelt Theater. In the basement, there was a private club for young people, and they had a bar and a small dance floor. They had a trio and you'd go there cattin.' Thursday night was jazz night and we'd all go over there. The first time I heard Taylor play was at that club. He says when his father moved to New York from Queens, he was walking up 8th Avenue and heard the sound of a trumpet and followed it into the studio, around 116th. Right on the corner was a place called Newby Studios, and he gets there when I was rehearsing with a group. That would have been between 1950 and 1951. I have known him a hell of a long time, and I am probably the only person who doesn't ask him for anything, doesn't bullshit him, and if he does something I don't like, I let him know immediately."

There's something that Dixon brings to the table on Conquistador that makes this date atypical in the Taylor canon. After Dixon takes his sparse, wispy solo, underpinned by percussive knocks from Cyrille and Grimes and Silva's softly shrieking arco, things change completely. The tune's second theme is rendered with an extraordinary, expansive weight and Taylor's flourishes become ever more delicate—communal rather than showy, as though this were a band in search of a whole, rather than Taylor and his cohorts. Such democratic music is not often what one thinks of with respect to Taylor's work.

There are only two other recordings of Dixon and Taylor playing together—in a trio with drummer Tony Oxley

Tony Oxley
b.1938
drums
recorded live in Victoriaville, Quebec (Cecil Taylor/Bill Dixon/Tony Oxley (Victo, 2002)) and in a series of staggering duets that remain unissued—Taylor brushing and plucking the strings and making his bricks into sand while Dixon's half-valve growls and tense smears project the fire of post-storm ball clouds.



Never having heard Taylor play like this (and now rethinking his playing on Conquistador), I asked Dixon how he got this result from someone so seemingly singular (3). "He was given the opportunity. Instead of having 39 people bilking him for energy, he was allowed to reflect and make music. I told people years ago, the funny thing about Cecil is that if you're playing with him and you bring something into the music that catches his attention, he'll pay attention. Furthermore, everyone knows that whatever I play, I mean it. I play orchestrally and I play to include. If I play a note, it is felt. People gravitate toward things that will allow them to assemble and reassemble ideas. In this music, cliches and conventions—musicians are so busy learning those and making sure they're authentic [that] when the opportunity comes to be with a strong player, they take that opportunity. Someone said this about the thing in Canada, that Cecil was subdued. No—the parameters of the music changed and he didn't need to trot out the old Taylor-isms because they weren't going to work. He knew he could do some music and not be totally responsible for its success."

Bill Dixon / Cecil TaylorThe Dixon-Taylor environment is part of the mentoring process that he has engendered for many years. Teaching new musicians in New York was something he was almost immediately involved in, with players who had a wide range of abilities and approaches. "During that time, Eddie Gale

Eddie Gale
Eddie Gale
b.1941
trumpet
was on the phone with me; he'd play things over the phone and we'd discuss them. Eddie was a student of mine, Rashied Ali was a student of mine on trumpet—he was a very good trumpet player. Dewey Johnson was another; one person I couldn't teach was Donald Ayler
Donald Ayler
b.1942
—he wanted to play in lower registers, but the music he was doing and the context he was in didn't demand it. His instrumental approach was coming from a different place, despite what he may have wanted to try and do.

"Almost all trumpet players of a certain persuasion came to visit me at certain points in their career, whether it is common knowledge or not. They all know I know. I was the one who took Ornette Coleman up to Zottola to get him a mouthpiece because he wouldn't return mine that he liked. When Ornette decided to play the trumpet, he came to see Bill. There was a reason why guys did this—I was very didactic and systematic." Ric Colbeck, Jacques Coursil, Joe McPhee

Joe McPhee
Joe McPhee
b.1939
reeds
, Marc Levin
Marc Levin
b.1942
—the list of vanguard trumpeters of that era (and since) who made their stamp as a result of Dixon's work is rather long. Today, one might look at people like Mazurek, Bynum, Cuong Vu
Cuong Vu
Cuong Vu
b.1969
trumpet
, Nate Wooley
Nate Wooley
Nate Wooley
b.1974
trumpet
, Peter Evans
Peter Evans
Peter Evans

trumpet
, Axel Doerner and others who act within the sphere of Dixon's approach to the instrument (whether they credit him or not is another matter).

Dixon's teaching then didn't just include the trumpet section—Silva ("back then, he couldn't play the same thing twice"), drummer Cleve Pozar

Cleve Pozar
Cleve Pozar

percussion
, saxophonists Ed Curran
Ed Curran
b.1940
sax, alto
, Marzette Watts and Byard Lancaster
Byard Lancaster
Byard Lancaster
1942 - 2012
saxophone
, and dancer/choreographer Judith Dunn (4) ("she didn't improvise before she met me") all made significant work either with or as a result of their experience with Dixon. What is interesting about this is the varied levels of musicianship some of these players had—from a classically-trained percussionist (Pozar) to saxophonists who may not have been playing for long, to a dancer who became integral to Dixon's 1960s ensembles, so much so that the group was billed as the Bill Dixon-Judith Dunn group. The gravity of their output under his tutelage is remarkable. This carries over to the Bennington students he worked with—getting players who ranged from the good to the untrained to collectively play the same work with equal contributive force might seem unheard of. Significantly, there is no pandering or "playing down." How is this even possible?

Curran notes in the liners to his lone LP on Savoy (Elysa (1967), produced by Dixon, with Pozar, Levin and bassist Kyoshi Takunaga) that he is among the new breed of musicians who have started their work with the new music and are only influenced by what is contemporary. Most of Dixon's students probably would say the same thing—that where they are, is now. Dixon explains it by saying, "You start from where you are. To write a novel, you don't have to study Charles Dickens—you'll do that in time. You'll exhaust your limitations first—don't forget, tradition is all around you. You're sinking in it, breathing it, and you can't escape it or resist it. To force it as a prerequisite—the most you can get out of it is that it presents you with such a phenomenal bunch of facts about how things are done that you're intimidated from ever doing anything. Art goes on forever, and my experience is that you start from where it excites you and if you're intelligent, you look from where the hell did this thing come? So you took a beginning person in the room and you stayed in the room till the thing was done. The one thing I tried to impress upon people was that if you are in the room, you are as important as anybody else. It's not about this overt virtuosity—it's about everyone being a part of the whole." Yet what's also crucial is maintaining and accentuating integrity. A constant refrain of Dixon's is rooted in the idea that "somebody is always trying to lead you away from the thing that you do." Part of mentoring and educating is finding out not only what that thing is, but how to expand upon it and perhaps bring it into a collective venture.

Hired in 1968, Dixon only intended to teach at Bennington College in Vermont for a year in order to save money. "I was going to move to Europe and I decided I'd work a year or two and save my money, because I didn't want to go there like other musicians—I'm no good at working out of a paper bag, you know? I also didn't want to go to Europe and be forced to do work I wouldn't do here just to survive. I never did get the money I needed to move—I'm still working on it!" Aside from creating and running the Black Music Division from 1973 to 1985 and being a central figure in the college's Music Department from 1968 until his 1996 retirement, he's one of the rare musician-composers to have reached tenure status in a university setting—"When I came up for tenure, it was like the shot heard 'round the world. I was a faculty member."

Bill Dixon / Cecil Taylor / Tony OxleyThough not common knowledge, musicians like reedmen Marco Eneidi, Sam Rivers

Sam Rivers
Sam Rivers
1923 - 2011
sax, tenor
, Arthur Doyle
Arthur Doyle
Arthur Doyle
1944 - 2014
saxophone
, Steve Horenstein, and trumpeters Stephen Haynes and Arthur Brooks were among the players who flocked to Bennington once Dixon was there, either as visiting artists or adjuncts, even working in mills—whatever they could do to be part of the music. Says Dixon, "If I hadn't been able to use outside musicians, I wouldn't have been able to do what I did." Student musicians, some of whom later became known in this music, also had tremendous import—drummers David Moss and Henry Letcher, bassist Xtopher Farris, and pianist John Blum
John Blum
John Blum
b.1968
piano
all participated in the Division's ensembles.

Yet, to many in this music, becoming an educator is like dropping out of the scene. As Dixon tells it, "The mantra was those that do, do and those that can't, teach. I was told a few nights before I went up there, disparagingly, 'Go on up there and teach those kids what we're doing.' The interesting thing to me was that very few professional musicians were equipped, either by temperament or skill, to teach. They thought it was going there until the phone rang, and canceling a class for George Wein

George Wein
George Wein
b.1925
piano
. During the entire time I taught at Bennington, I had maybe four things that were important enough that I took them during the term and got someone else to teach a class. I had my winters and summers off, but my work never stopped—you have to put yourself into it, and teach those people." Indeed, wherever one is becomes Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, or Slug's.

A fascinating window in this process is comparing Dixon's introductory classes taught at Bennington to the veritable master class he often gives to orchestras that he's bringing together to perform a piece. The intellectual output and the demands placed on each are remarkably similar, disarmingly so. Teaching Jack or Jill Smith about the history of this music or how to get more projection on the flute is on an equal level with getting the right contributions from [trombonist] Conny Bauer or [vocalist] Phil Minton

Phil Minton
Phil Minton
b.1940
vocalist
(5). "You have to be able to speak in a language that musicians can find ways to identify with. Concert composers do everything off the page; the notation is there and the conductor—you do what he tells you. In this music, it is a summation of all the people who are doing it. So that has to come through, and there are all kinds of ways of rehearsing an orchestra. No piece of music is so fragile that it can't have certain things not go right and still come off. I prefer rehearsing and putting together, the process, to actually performing. I know what it's finally going to be."

In the rehearsal video of the orchestra from 2007's Vision Festival, such methods as having Jackson Krall turn around several times before sitting at the drum set in order to approach the cymbals with the proper amount of looseness, made visible how the physicality of subtleness can be manifested. Similarly, in getting the ensemble to play a line a certain way, Dixon asked them to think of three different painters' approaches (whether they knew the painter or not) in getting towards what the section was based on, so as to bring to the fore "the visualness or the approach of the painters in their work—in terms of line, color, temperature of the color and collectiveness of the two—and how these things were attempting to either depict or reinforce, relating to the totality of the picture and the sound." Encouraging musicians to hear and see beyond music to get into a space collectively is just one of myriad methods that Dixon the conductor, teacher and mentor finds valuable.

In both his classes in Black Music and dealing with the exigencies—the process—of putting together an ensemble piece of music, Dixon's philosophy is very direct. Though referring mostly to instructing students, the following thoughts are hugely indicative of his mentoring approach no matter who the recipient: "I always said if I was in a [teacher's] position, students would not leave a class without being clear. I actually put myself in the place of the students I teach and imagine myself taking the class and knowing nothing. I try to be clear without teaching down to them—you have to take everyone seriously. As far as I was concerned, a beginner didn't require any less of your attention than anyone else. You also required of them the same input.

"I've always been good at explaining things like that—it's a gift that I have. For me, for all of my classes, I was teaching myself as one of my own students. Speaking plainly—you have to know when to use common parlance and what kinds of anecdotal material to bring into the room, when it's important, you have to know the subject and when to give a music lesson to clear up debris. In teaching, you're dealing with a person's mind. You're putting stuff in there, and your negative or positive impact will be with a student the rest of their lives. It's really serious business. And it's true that, though many people put teaching down, few can open every door of inquiry by themselves—almost everyone needs to be guided a bit. Studying provides you with the information, but you have to do the work."

Bill DixonRob Mazurek has been studying with Dixon intermittently since they met in Guelph in 2006. It shows on recordings such as that with Tigersmilk (with drummer Dylan Van Der Schyff and bassist Jason Roebke) on their latest album, Android Love Cry (Family Vineyard, 2008), or Mazurek's Sound Is (Delmark, 2009). Mazurek's phraseology is cloudy and ephemeral but somehow extraordinarily direct, projected with extreme presence. In the dining room one afternoon, I watched Dixon instruct Mazurek on the projection of wispy, half-valve sounds, and it brought the point home that somehow, getting the thing that's needed requires a combination of intent and relaxation. It doesn't have to be perfect, but meant—and that can be done not only mentally but physically, in terms of holding one's body in a certain way as the most delicate sounds are being produced. Yet Dixon rarely gives one-on-one classes: "You tell students who want a personal lesson that one to one is very advanced. You have five or six people in the room and you see that many different ways of solving the same problem. Also, you have to convince them that though they're not getting their private time with you, they will learn how to critique each other and emulate without competition."

Dixon's work with Mazurek is just beginning; so far it has resulted in one of the most significant discs of 2008, finding Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra in collaboration with the elder trumpeter (Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra). Instigated by Dixon's appearance with the Orchestra at the Chicago Jazz Fest, a new collaboration occurred in August at Lisbon's Jazz em Agosto. On disc, two versions of Dixon's piece "Entrances" (written for the Orchestra) and Mazurek's composition "Innerlight (For Bill Dixon)" were recorded following a seamless performance at the 2007 Chicago Jazz Fest. Dixon's playing on Mazurek's piece is a rarity—he almost never participates in others' music. But his low brass rumble and architectural sense of space have a perfect affinity for the open and backlit writing that has long characterized Mazurek's work. Dixon's own piece is deliciously out of tempo, a repetitive tandem percussion riff buoying fuzzy dissonance, with drummers John Herndon and Mike Reed

Mike Reed
Mike Reed

drums
updating something remarkably akin to "Metamorphoses 1962-1966," from Intents and Purposes.

Part of the reason that the Thrill Jockey record is so musically significant is because the environment was one that could foster and nurture the music. "When Rob asked me to come, initially I wasn't going to make a recording. Rob talked me into doing it, and when I got to Chicago, the interesting thing was that everything pretty much was ideal (this isn't usually the case). We were put up in the right part of town, across from the park. Everyone treated me with respect, so all I had to do was deal with my private things. The musicians were incredible with me. I didn't critique people, just made suggestions, and made the landscape possible so when a person was doing something and I said certain things, it mattered. We did the pieces in front of an audience and held open rehearsals, so right from the very beginning it was easy to figure out what as individuals and a body politic they could pull off. I was relaxed and able to go with the flow." In this case, Dixon felt supported through an environment of respect and hard work, as well as the preparedness of the musicians and the festival for what was about to take place. They respected him as both an instructor and a collaborator, and the project came off tremendously well—one can hear for oneself the recorded fruits.



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