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Bill Dixon: In Medias Res

By Published: September 15, 2009

Dixon and Criticism

For all his accomplishments, the strength of his approach sonically and visually, and his position as one of the rare university professors who could teach this music and its value system to a diverse range of people and players, Dixon has often been left out of the music's history and current dialogue, and at times is roundly criticized when he is mentioned. This has necessarily placed him as an outsider in the very community he has worked so hard to foster, but Dixon is eager to point out that being "outside" has no adverse affect on his work itself. He learned what it meant to be divorced from his peers early on: "When I first came to New York, I hadn't seen that many people in my life, let alone black people, and when I went to school, I was made fun of by other kids for the way I spoke English. There were things that you did that people let you know you weren't one of them. It was what I had to contend with; when you're young that's the way things are. One learned that what one did wasn't always going to be appreciated."

Bill Dixon Bill Dixon and Angelo Leonardi, Ferrari Gallery, Verona, 1981

More harshly, Dixon characterizes the negative aspect of being an outsider in no uncertain terms. "Society has its ways of making people believe in the uniqueness of their separation even though they prefer not to be segregated. I can understand the defensive mechanism of native pride, but people say, 'Bill acts too white; Bill plays too white; Bill teaches too white.' Now if it means to say that 'I don't think it's so hip if somebody says, 'What's a C7th chord?' and I say, 'What do you think it is?' What if the person is asking me because he thinks I can tell him? People think an honest answer is too white. I've been as severely criticized by members of my own race as I have been by the white race: my music is too white, my paintings are too white. There's absolutely nothing you can do about that; it's a protective device for the person who's saying it."

Black critics and writers on the new music have either not mentioned or have resoundingly disparaged Dixon's work, either because they didn't grasp his decidedly far-from-populist aims or because racial politics were more important to them than the work produced. During the 1960s, writers like LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and A.B. Spellman gave him continually short shrift despite his centrality in the New York milieu. "LeRoi Jones was reviewing a record we'd done, each one half, and LeRoi writes that Archie Shepp had the serious music on his side. If you read the criticism I went through—A.B. Spellman said, 'Bill Dixon as a space age trumpet player is in trouble—he has no chops and has fuzzy tone, and in him you can hear all the players who are hip.' So I wasn't one of them." Stanley Crouch has said almost nothing of Dixon's work, though the two have known one another for a long time. Of the copies of Odyssey that have been given to critics and educators, few have even mentioned the work in any light.

Dixon is annoyed that even today, his name was absent from the results of polls conducted by the Jazz Journalists Association, despite his production of significant works in the past year (Down Beat wouldn't publish an article on Dixon some time ago because "[his] work was mostly done in Europe."). He was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2007 Vision Festival, but that hasn't resulted in much currency outside the new-music community. He has been on boards for the NEA and the Vermont Arts Council, but neither institution has approved grants for his work. Even when the reception is on his side—the rave reviews in Chicago with the Exploding Star Orchestra, for example—the general paucity of press and persistence of ignorance is a difficult pill for him to swallow. "I hear people say 'Well I was writing about you when...' and it's not my fault people aren't writing about me. I would've been better served if someone had been bringing food to my house when I didn't have a job. What do you want me to do? Something so they'll write about me? It's like Napoleon—you didn't like him and you prefer Wellington, so no matter what Napoleon did, you made believe he didn't do it."

Bill Dixon "For Charlie Parker" - Lithograph, 50 x 34.5 cm. Villeurbanne, France. [Winter/1994]

The question that results from the knowledge that a significant body of work and the producer of that work have been left out of discussion is, obviously, why? It isn't simply a matter of not liking Dixon's tone or the vocal approach he has had toward some uninformed critics, less the racial politics that beset the new music in its youth. It seems now that the discrimination is toward an artist whose work is difficult. Dixon called on the phone one critic who had a negative attitude toward his work. The critic replied that he didn't understand it, and asked Dixon to explain his approach to him. A problem for critics and reviewers is that in Dixon's work there is a sense that it has to be lived with, approached repeatedly for a significant amount of time, in order to be truly appreciated. It also may be hard to assess its importance over the decades if one can't find an easy way "in" with a single recording.

Nevertheless, just because a body of work is extremely hard to assess doesn't mean that it hasn't been accomplished. "I'm a firm believer that if you want the thing done the way you want it done, you have to do it, hoping that someone really sensitive is going to set it up and throw themselves in line with you. You can't have someone telling you your stuff is inferior and isn't as good, and you also can't expect them all the time to support you as an entity. In the end, they might pick a few individuals that they can deal with musically and socially better than you, but I want to know what the hell is going on."

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