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In the Artist's Own Words

Bill Dixon: Excerpts from Vade Mecum

By Published: January 29, 2010
Introduction by AAJ Contributor Clifford Allen.

It is rare in the climate of this music to be presented with a view of an artist that is truly multifaceted, even though the collected works of most artists operate at a number of levels and, on occasion, in a number of media. Bill Dixon is probably best known as a trumpeter and composer; he is also a visual artist, professor (Bennington College, 1968-1996), and has created an expansive body of written material, only a small amount of which have been published. These writings include journals, letters, lectures, and short pieces that, in toto, could give one an exhaustive portrait of the state of one artist's vast experiences within an art form and often in complex relief to how that art form has been manifest in our culture.

Bill Dixon

Dixon first presented his writings alongside scores, photographs, and drawings in the monograph L'Opera: A Collection of Letters, Writings, Musical Scores, Drawings, and Photographs (1967-1986), vol. I (Bennington: Metamorphosis, 1986, currently out of print). A companion volume has not yet surfaced, though Dixon maintains a collection of post-1986 writings that he has given the name Vade Mecum, or a "journal." It is something that he hopes to one day have published, along with a revised edition of L'Opera. Dixon has allowed exclusive access to some selections from these writings for publication here; they are unedited and maintain the prosaic and stylistic approach that characterizes his writings (i.e., all brackets, parentheses, and non-traditional punctuation are Dixon's), with a nod to the stream-of-consciousness.

When I visited Dixon in 2008 at his home in Bennington, Vermont, the idea of a "selection" was both necessary and anathema—I spent several days discussing music, art, aesthetics, philosophy and criticism with him, a huge amount of information that somehow had to be shaped into a publishable and concise article. With the thoughts, ideas, reactions, and opinions presented here, it's difficult to tell a reader (much less a compiler) where a "good starting place" is—the beginning isn't always the beginning. Since the title of the broader work is Vade Mecum, I chose to begin with Dixon's responses to a list of questions and ideas presented by the writer Graham Lock, who had been asked to write the liner notes to Vade Mecum 2 (Soul Note, 1996), the second volume of quartet music joining Dixon with drummer Tony Oxley

Tony Oxley
and bassists Barry Guy
Barry Guy
Barry Guy
and William Parker
William Parker
William Parker
bass, acoustic

What follows are some of Dixon's writings on ensemble and solo playing ("process" writings), a letter discussing the relationship of artists (and Dixon specifically) to certain parts of the jazz/new-music press, and the responses to two then-graduate students writing their theses on Dixon's work. These excerpts stand as a companion to the AAJ interview Bill Dixon: In Medias Res and the selections of visual art available at the AAJ Photo Gallery (search for the "Bill Dixon" tag). Ultimately, however, my hope in presenting this material is that it may provide a window into the thoughts that, in part, have given rise to and resulted from a half-century of Bill Dixon's music.

Chapter Index

  1. To Graham Lock
  2. The Art of the Solo
  3. Materials and Ideas for Discussion for Workshop in Contemporary Improvisation and Composition as That Relates to the Performance
  4. For Alexandre Peirrepont: The Weavers
  5. Answers to Additional Questions from Andrew Raffo Dewar
  6. Harnette Notes

To Graham Lock

This one side of a faxed exchange between Bill Dixon and writer Graham Lock, where questions are answered and ideas explored in preparation for Lock's liner essay to the second volume of Vade Mecum recordings for the Soul Note label (released 1996). It may be helpful for the reader to have these in hand while re-reading Lock's notes to the album and in (partly) experiencing the recording, but they stand on their own equally well. —CA

Dear Mr. Lock:

I am in receipt of your fax of 20 April 1996; I was in NY for a few days and only returned on Saturday. Since time is of the essence I will attempt to provide answers / that are clear / to your queries.

  1. The main reason(s) for Vade Mecum, 1 and 2, circulates around the idea that, as soon as it was possible to record ideas that I felt would sustain the time factor of a recording, I have attempted since 1980 when I began recording more / for me / "prolifically," I attempted to do so. Whether to the listener it is aurally visible or not, I have gone through great pains to space the recording of my work that is commercial recording: I have, for many years, personally, by recording, documented almost everything that I've done / so that that work that did become accessible to the interested listening public could, as much as possible, reflect the different stages or formations, regarding musical ideas that I was involved with. For me there always IS a reason: I'm working on a specific area; line, density, intervals, spacings, etc.; how does that INTERACT, if it does, with what other members of the group, if a group is involved, with what THEY, individually and/or collectively, are working on; the nature of SOUND and the placement OF that sound relating to attack and duration as THAT relates to the basic nature of the trumpet and how that is articulated concerning the myriad of ways that one can NEGOTIATE notes out of the instrument / and the list continues, etc... / and that reason serves to dominate my thinking relating to the RECORDING of my work and in the case of Vade Mecum served for the impetus of that work.

  2. The MAIN problem that was addressed relating to Vade Mecumcentered around the idea of doing a complete work with the barest minimum of verbal or academically notated / via manuscript / instructions to the musicians that would be complete, cohesive, and non-reflecting of the methodologies utilized in its realization, faithful to my concept of composition / those "compositions" being authored by me / and yet "free" enough to permit the feelings and personalities of the musicians to exist and co-exist sans the general "hell-for-leather" musical attitude that is generally / and erroneously / associated with areas of this genre of music.

  3. The sound of Vade Mecum is exactly what I had in mind and could not have been realized without the players that were used. I wouldn't characterize the sound as "foggy'; it seems / to me / to be a liquidly dark and light sound that is, because of the instrumentation and the manner in which the musicians are able to extract things from their instruments, is able to cross both the borders and the boundaries of extreme high and low; seemingly with ease. In that instance, there is more of a pointillistic approach to the sound / relating to painting / rather than the alla prima / or more specifically glaze approach that might be likened to Turner or Monet. Again, for ME, THIS analysis is, of course, in hindsight, only able to be even THOUGHT of after the fact; since at the time of execution it is the THING that I'm after and NOT how it is done. And, in that instance, there are no accidents. The intuition, sensitivity, musicality and performanceability / if I can coin such a word / of things and ideas only vaguely suggested / by me / TO the musicians, completely dovetailed, consequently rendering the idea of "accident" as being non-existent.

  4. I could hear that this music / or this series of thoughts / was indeed possible if I had this group of players. I had not played with either TONY OXLEY or BARRY GUY but had done an extensive amount of work with WILLIAM PARKER. I knew of both Barry's work and Tony's work. And it was Cecil Taylor
    Cecil Taylor
    Cecil Taylor
    , while we were doing the concerts in Italy and France a few years ago, who virtually insisted that I meet Tony since it was his feeling that Tony and I shared musical sensibilities.

  5. I view Vade Mecum as more formally DISTILLING things that I've been interested in and due to that instrumentation / and the particular players / permitting a certain KIND of evolution.

  6. The "accident of purpose" can best be viewed if you will consider the way and manner in which the "OCTETTE I" was done. I wanted the sound and textural feature of eight players; and I had four. I knew I could overdub but I didn't want the MECHANICAL sound and feeling of that kind of device. IN recording the piece the first time it was just done; the second time, I used headphones so that I could hear / and thus PLACE / what I had previously played within the FRAMEWORK of that. I wanted that kind of symmetry. The other players opted NOT to use headphones for the second time around of recording and, as a consequence, there are places where the "accidental" bumping into each other is EXACTLY what I like since I, through what I was playing and how I was placing it could BALANCE, in terms of line, height, and weight the TOTALITY of the sound. Am I being clear??? Listen to it closely.

  7. The suggestions that I gave were, as mentioned earlier, deliberately sparse and left open to interpretation by the players. You don't HAVE to play in any specific tonality, if the feeling for being metric or pulsative seems to indicate that that is what you do, do it. Space, texture, lines and counterlines are desirable, as is the idea of unison, octave unison, if it occurs naturally depending on the direction of the music; I will indicate possibilities of where one can go by what I play; dynamics can be observed by the ability to hear all of what everyone is playing at all times. Regarding the authorship of the compositions, what I play is the composition, and what the players do are their reflections or reactions to these compositions; hence the orchestration and the arrangement, however you want to designate it. In that instance, from how I view music / in this portion of the 20th century, after 2000 years of man's making music / any indication of ANYTHING to any musician that causes that musician to respond in any way other than what he would were it not so indicated, IS notation. And since I define composition as "the assembling of musical materials, generally accessible to every musician, into a NEW order" and improvisation as the INSTANTANEOUS realization of composition without the benefit / or demerit / of being able to change or alter anything for ME, all music is both composed and improvised.

  8. With the exception of one piece / for the time span of the CD / all works were done in the order that they appear.

  9. I've answered this as much as I can at this point.

  10. You are exactly right in "supposing" that the titles come after the music and that, in some cases suggest a quality that / I / hear in the music. PRIOR to that, however, I do make a determination concerning what THIS particular music / relating to what I am attempting to do / is about. If you will go through the titles of my works, including the very titles of the albums themselves you should be made aware that I'm quite conscious about the idea of the documentation of both ideas and the placement / in time / OF those ideas. For example: INTENTS & PURPOSES; THOUGHTS; CONSIDERATIONS; BILL DIXON IN ITALY; HAROLD IN ITALY????/; etc.

    VADE MECUM has several meanings; I used the meaning "NOTEBOOK" or "JOURNAL." INCUNABULA has several meanings; I used the meaning "early books" or "beginnings" / And it IS Latin. / smile//. The supposed "link" referring to the music and painting/drawing is NOT, as far as I can determine, pre-ordained DELIBERATELY by me. If there is a CONSCIOUS link that would have to do with the fact that I do both and would therefore had a NATURAL affinity for attempting / even if subliminally / a rhythmic stratification / relating to sound / AND the articulation of words that might attempt either a definition or simulation OF that sound through the titling of the music, etc. As far as DELIBERATELY plotting such a course architecturally to intellectually affect or attempt a DOVETAILING of the work / music and painting / I don't do that.

  11. There hasn't been a "hint" or a "whisper" of Intents and Purposes being reissued on CD. A few years ago there were some mumblings but that is as far as that went. I've asked SOUL NOTE to see about purchasing it from RCA VICTOR.

  12. I prefer both the alto flute, which is what the late George Marge played on "NIGHTFALL PIECES," and the bass flute which I've done some work with. I'll send you a cassette of some of that work when I can get around to it.

    L'OPERA, which is about 400 pages and would only be of interest to those that might have an INTENSE interest in my work and my thinking about a variety of things. I hope to publish it next year and am currently working on a revised edition of the first volume of L'OPERA, There is also the possibility that there will be a Japanese edition of L'OPERA in the near future. Ben Young's DIXONIA, which he is calling a biographical discography and documentation of the performances of my works, is being published by Greenwood Press and is slated for publication in 1997.

  13. The orchestra work that is being released sometime this summer is the work with TONY OXLEY'S CELEBRATION ORCHESTRA that was done at the Berlin Festival in 1994. I'm a soloist on that work.

  14. The VADE MECUM quartet will be known for the two recordings, done in 1993, one issued in 1994 and the other one / that you're doing the liner essay for / sometime in the summer of 1996; and the concert in November 1994 in Villeurbanne, France at the Espace Tonkin. Incidentally, there is a video of the performance in Villeurbanne. As far as recording is concerned, I have an orchestra work that I'd like to record; Andrew Hill
    Andrew Hill
    Andrew Hill
    1937 - 2007
    and I have / over the years / periodically discussed the idea of a duo recording; I'm thinking of a solo piano recording; and there are various ideas like that coruscating around. I'm currently discussing a tour / for fall, October 1996 / for Italy, France and possibly Germany,that would be followed by some work in Israel. There is also work being done for some concerts in Japan. Of course there are some new paintings that I'm outlining for work now in addition to my wanting to publish a calendar of my lithographs done in Lyon, France in 1994.

  15. It is not so much that "New Music" has been under attack as it is patently being ignored as a music that generated certain valuable additions to the language / vocabulary of music. It is my feeling that no matter how one tries to deny the past that past has existed. There is a kind of "palatable" niceness and "softness" of much of the music / this music / that lacks a kind of / for want of a better and possibly more politically correct word / "masculine" bite to it. We used to call it cocktail music and while there is absolutely nothing wrong with it, it is at times galling that we are made to believe that that is all there is. Yes, it would be useful were you to pursue that kind of thought. It might just wake someone up.

  16. If you can get a copy of BILL DIXON IN ITALY, Vol. 2, which has just been released on CD by SOUL NOTE. The original notes in the interview I had with Angelo Leonardi, were replete with errors which I have, in this edition, corrected. Read what I try to explain there and it should give you some idea as to what I mean.

  17. In going through my works to arrange and catalogue them in the last four or five years for the radio programs that Ben Young has done for Columbia University's radio station WKCR, I began to view the work in a different light. There is a tremendous amount of work and, considering its breadth and scope, by ANYONE's standards, some of it has got to be good. While that is not the basic reason WHY I have done this work, it hasn't escaped my attention that work of any magnitude, or done for any reason, is not completely fulfilled AS WORK until it has been given the opportunity to be either heard or scrutinized by an outside public. Of course, we have a hostile public; a non-caring public who willingly and blindly have their minds turned in the direction of the so-called purveyors of taste and aesthetics. And they seemingly accept carte blanche what is put before them without even a glimmer of questioning. I used to tell students, when they, when it was convenient, complained about the inaccessibility of the new music, that when they went into a record store to buy what they bought / always the heavily touted and advertised more popular stuff / that they ASSIDIOUSLY avoided the other music; they HAD to pass by some things to get to others. That if they did NOTHING about a problem they had, in fact, done SOMETHING about it. So if Van Gogh's SUNFLOWERS are NOW worth about $12 million, how is that possible??? HE couldn't sell them, so they couldn't have been worth anything. And if they weren't worth anything then, then they can't be worth anything now!!!! We know that things derive their value from their marketability or their lack of same. So I was arguing, at that time about the viability of my own work and someone had suggested something to me that was anathema to me. But that was in the summer of 1976, I was on my way, that fall to do the AUTUMN FESTIVAL in Paris. In twenty years I just may have changed my mind... I don't know, but I am assembling my works to make up my estate and the final decision may be left up to the person who will be managing that estate.

  18. You should, by all means, call both Barry Guy and Tony Oxley. I'm certain that they will, in a less turgid fashion than I can, supply you with relevant and important information as seen from their eyes and experienced by them.

    Graham, though I may have tended to ramble a bit I hope that you can sift through all of this and come up with what is important and necessary for you to know. I'm looking forward to seeing how you will handle this as I find in your writing a knowledge, integrity and passion for the music that, unfortunately is in short supply in your profession.

Ring me if you need to speak additionally.

BILL DIXON /22 April 1996/

The Art of the Solo

The Art of the Solo was prepared for delivery when I was in residence at Wesleyan University in 2005. I never fully delivered it there due to the fact that I was so busy and the solo trumpet concert that I gave there seemed [to me] to more eloquently present my points than any words could. I also had the same experience at McGill University [in Canada] a few years prior to that when I presented my work in music and visual art [via slides and power point] where the talk that I gave and the performance of solo trumpet [in addition to the visualness of the slides of the paintings] served to make my points as definitive as they could be made. —BD

What I am attempting to do within the framework of the construction of a solo has to do primarily with creating a solo composition that, as a composition, is complete within itself.

The form or structure of the solo seams itself into the solo simultaneously as the solo is being performed.

There are no pre-existing performance patterns that I know, have taken the time to learn or use, consciously, that I can, at will, "call into play."

I don't approach my work on the instrument in that manner and never did.

I, right from the beginning, when I started to learn the instrument and was working on the fundamental things in music that support musical thoughts and ideas, for the security of their realization, dependent on knowledge (personal playability) that "guides" when the "nod" to utilize a scale passage is made apparent, for example, and in the music that required it, when to, in the music that required it, to arpeggiate the chord, or when to further identify the quality of the material as that related to further identification of the piece of music being examined [played], either by alteration, rhythmic or intervallic, or use of the melodic structure and rhythmic layout in a more variegated manner that, in its formal structure (the way the primary composer had organized the piece to reflect it as being an "original"), I still resisted the learning of preordained or pre-thought out or pre-worked out, either passages or sequences or phrases since my feeling was that if what one was supposed to be doing [as a player] had to do with the idea of spontaneity, then any other way that avoided that, the learning of or the insertion of things thought out in advance at pivotal points might be "hip" and capable of getting the crowd to respond but, to my ear, it wasn't fully musical, from the standpoint of being creative [on the spot], and it certainly wasn't spontaneous.

Of course I know that anything that we do has to do with having knowledge of that thing that quite possibly we didn't know we had.

In other words, it is not possible to play something that on some level one didn't know something about, or on some level, intellectual, philosophical, metaphysical or methodological, have some kind of "inroad" knowledge about what one was playing. But that doesn't mean that one doesn't try to keep the mind "clear" and not "cluttered" with things so that at the right moment one will be able, both to respond and to execute those things that one didn't know that one knew, and freely as though it, as an idea, had just occurred. This is the high point, in my opinion, of the performance of any genre of music.

My approach to the solo at this point in my performance on the instrument focuses on the sounds that may be placed at my disposal and my attempt at their placement in the areas that they must be placed that will identify them, or what I play, as having the order and logic, in terms of hearing and experience, of a more academically "formal" constructed or thought of piece of music as experienced through being listened to in performance.

Sound and the fuller penetration of sound becomes the universe or the slate that can either be written upon {placing a sound on it} or extrapolated from, "taking" if that is possible, if there is a "body" or a mass to this sound, things out of the sound; much as one would carve something out of something.

In that instance I try to pierce the innermost qualities of the sound; I feel, because it is in this instance "cube-like," that I can "walk" through the sound and each sound has a multitude of layers that, again, much like something that can be carved, alterations can be made upon.

In my work, or my explorations with the instrument, I am currently and have for some time ceased to look or feel that the trumpet has to be eternally linked with what it has done {and excellently} in the past and continues to be doing, in the hands of rather incredible players, in the present.

I, myself, for a variety of reasons, am not that interested, for myself, in that aspect of the trumpet.

I am also not that interested in the formulations of the literature that have generally been the foils for the instrument and the development of its subsequent identification. I am interested in trying to "find" those things that I am interested in that sometimes I don't know that I would be interested in until I am faced with the fact that they are emerging from the instrument as I am playing and that I have indeed found them. I have a vision of how I want to begin to place some things; some lines; some textures; some points of rhythmic interruption of those sounds, but most of the time I am content to let the "sounds" themselves dictate where they must go, what they must be, the qualities they must have, their interlockings and their durations and their densities. I try to be ready to grapple with the elements that are produced.

In that instance, the sound in the room, how the instrument is responding, whether there is attentiveness on the part of who is there witnessing; and even my own feelings about what I am doing and does a composition really have an ending? If you will consult the work in ODYSSEY: SOLO WORKS there are pieces that can be traced that lead you, much as I was led, to where, for me, the work on these solos is currently focused.

The works: Albert Ayler

Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler
1936 - 1970
sax, tenor
, done in 1970, concerned itself almost totally with what I call the "mass" of the sound, almost brutally; MOSAIC, done during the same period, "permits" the emergence of a "linear" quality to arise out of that mass.

The piece "TRACINGS II" [1974-1975], are those masses of sound, less "thick" in texture, that serve as punctuations; "SHRIKE" [1973], is like, what I would call a "velocity" knife thrust of slowly elevating horizontal sound, frightening in its intensity; I wanted to see, then, if it was possible to "blow the bell off the horn." I don't need to do that anymore...

Ideally, for this presentation I would have, by recording, played the three solo pieces that I did in 2004 in Donaueschingen, Guimaraes, and London. And there are portions of the quartet work that I did at the FONT Festival in NY in August.

You would then and because I am pointing out those things that serve to define the "curve of departure" from one area of performance thought, as that relates to how the instrument is being used to another, be more aurally in touch with the linkages of those things.

As an explanation, this is clumsy I know, but it will have to do for now. Any of you who may be familiar with the work of the Viennese trumpeter Franz Hautzinger, who is quite an interesting young player, will have to read my liner essay to his work Gomberg (Grob, 2000), where I detail more graphically [there are drawings, etc.,] some things about the process that while not at all necessary for coming to terms with this music, for those that would want that kind of clarity, it is there.

Regarding the explanation of the process, I know that I have been wordy; I also hope that I have been clear.

This performance is dedicated to the memory of an old friend, the poet and writer Allan Polite.

It is also dedicated to the work of an American artist that I hold in high esteem, Gordon Parks.

BILL DIXON February 2005

Materials and Ideas for Discussion for Workshop in Contemporary Improvisation and Composition as That Relates to the Performance

This text has been used (by me) whenever I've done an orchestra or ensemble workshop where I felt that the experience(s) of the participants merited that kind of view in addition to the physicality of the work itself. —BD

  • What is the ensemble?

  • What is the instrumentation?

  • What is (or are) the methods of presenting the material to be used in the performance/rehearsal situations to be used?

  • How are the pieces of material to be practiced by the members of the ensemble?

  • What will be the methods of notation; aural; instrumental (tpt, cello, piano, vocal); spoken; use of calligraphy; the assigning of pitch systems laying out of textures on the piano?

  • From the standpoint of rhythmic propulsion.

  • Setting a harmonic situation on the piano and then playing out all the parts on the horn (the various members of the ensemble left then to notate their own parts at will after their parts have been "described" to them).

  • "Loosely" attacking the situation by the immediate approaching of the musical idea through instant playing; setting the mood and character of the piece and cuing the other members of the ensemble as to when they should enter also giving them the range area in which they are to explore, and indicating by hand signals the density each individual member will use on his instrument and also whether or not they will play (by hand signal) melodically or vertically (as the case may be) also indicating whether they will "trade" off with other instruments (as far as their space situation in the composition is concerned) and indicating the level of the dynamics.

  • Define the role and character of the solo.

  • How are solos to be taken?

  • What is the content of the solo?

  • How is it determined whether it will be harmonic; melodic; rhythmic; or a combination of all three?

  • Define the use of space; silence; rhythmic silence; and the sound of the room.

  • Describe how the soloist makes use of the material; of what has preceded his lone entrance; what takes place (if anything does) while he is playing alone and what will take place at the termination of his "alone" playing.

  • Describe how the entire ensemble sets and maintains textural balances as this relates to the individual horns and the horns in tutti.

  • How are balances (orchestral) entered into and maintained?

  • Define (for this type of ensemble) the use and designation of the term "energy'; define the use of line; define how rhythmic complexity is entered into and maintained (the introduction of lines stated at different times (tempi).

  • Describe how all of these so-called "restrictions" will limit the element of freedom of choice for the player and how the players relate to it.

  • Discuss also the idea of the sometimes complete abandonment of constituency (the being able to single out the "identity" of individual instruments); discuss the idea of the "feeling presence" of certain instruments, the new idea of color, the fact that even though some of the instruments cannot themselves be heard by the listeners, the players can "feel" the presence of the instruments and therefore this "feeling" plays a heavy role in the selection of the material they have at their disposal.

  • Discuss the interchangeability of the pieces of material even after they have been assembled in the slot of final playing order /or performance order/ and how sometimes this "order" changes depending upon the circumstances of performance; the room; (the sound that the room "makes") the audience; the mood of the players; the composer; the idea of defeating the over "slickness" that is almost ever present when a piece of music is played or rehearsed for a long period of time, etc.

  • Describe some of the technical achievements that have been entered into and dealt with.

For Alexandre Peirrepont: The Weavers

The following text was written as a letter to French poet/author/visual artist Alexandre Pierrepont, whose quarterly publication The Weavers focused on "creative writings about creative music."

It is good that you are publishing an anniversary issue of The Weavers that will include the writings and thoughts of musicians. It is to be hoped that those musicians who will be invited to participate will take this opportunity to deviate from the largely artificial stance that so many take when they are interviewed and speak honestly and directly to the issue of their work; those that have work, that is.

If you will recall a few years ago it was on areas of this subject that we disagreed in terms of who you supported via your own writing in the jazz press.

I thought then and I continue to think now that so much time and space has been expended in attempts, in my opinion, to both deify music and its practitioners that for whatever reason(s) people seem to like, that other, and sometimes more important areas and developments of the music itself, relating to continued longevity and artistic merit, is, unfortunately [unfortunately because there seems to be design to it], entirely left out of the picture.

Now I can't be that certain but it is my feeling [and it has been my experience] that in that group of people [albeit a small group] that are more concerned about the music itself, the developments [the pure ones]; problems of the music's presentation; the making available to them of creative people that, for whatever reason(s), are not that often presented, the recordings of these artists, where these artists are working (if they are), than they are with the same old same old and thoroughly recycled ideas (and by now tired and archaic thoughts) about the "spiritualness" of the more overtly theatrically laden performances of that small group of musicians that manage to be put before the public's eye (and ears) due, in my opinion, more to the safety and intellectual "attractiveness" of their exoticness Siamesed to their performances and styles of performances that in themselves, are seldom, unfortunately, able to disguise (successfully) the paucity of musical ideas supposedly resident in the "newness" of their music in addition to placing in bas relief their own severe lack of respect for the traditions of the music that originally placed more emphasis on the music and its development and attempts at artistic propagation (whether audiences were with them or not; whether they were popular or not) rather than the complete surrender to the viciousness that is the gravitational pull annexed to the more commercial aspects of both the burlesque house and the music hall.

When I first got into music serious musicians, doing serious music, knew well the difference between being an artist and an entertainer and saw to it, by their performance, their deportment, their dress and their serious acknowledgement of the audience, that that audience also knew that they knew it.

And whether musicians, significant ones and less significant ones, want to acknowledge it or not, there is a considerable difference between commercial music, music that is deliberately constructed to please and to satisfy what it is that that audience is in attendance for and the basic premise of creative music that music that is supposed to reveal to the listener what the artist is concerned with, relating to the story that he has to, or has chosen to tell.

And fusions, forced or otherwise, or collages of everything to either convey or suggest being hip or attempt a mollifying of the uninitiated to those areas of things that normally would be prone to ignorance or making believe it didn't exist are never things that really, from the standpoint of the larger picture and endurance past the immediacy of the smallness of the time span occupied have never invested in the assurance of the positiveness of the cause of any real enterprise. But who knows this? Who is aware of this? Are musicians aware? Are critics, writers and journalists (and poets who "love" the music and function in their writing because of it) aware of this? And if they are, do they love the music sufficiently to care?

And if they know it and are in a position to inform someone about it, where are they and why are they so silent?

Is it that they also don't know? Have they become so satisfied that they no longer (if they ever did) know?

I always wanted to know about music, how it was made, who were the people that did it definitively, why did they do it, what were the components that were available to all of them such that when this player played something it sounded so different than when that other player played seemingly the identical thing?

Before I began studies in music [and mind you, I was a late starter, I was twenty going on twenty-one before I started music; peripatetic studies in high school, on a clarinet, no less, I wanted a trumpet but there wasn't one available, don't count] and had an insatiable curiosity about the entire enterprise. One day I went to a rehearsal with a friend; I picked up a piece of manuscript paper and looking at the calligraphy that musicians could look at and then extrapolate all of these marvelous sounds, I saw what I later came to know as a chord symbol affixed above the melodic line and it said C7.

The musician I was with was an older musician; he was a trumpet player who had memorized the trumpet solo that Bobby Hackett

Bobby Hackett
Bobby Hackett
1915 - 1976
(if memory serves me), took on the Glenn Miller
Glenn Miller
Glenn Miller
1904 - 1944
recording "String of Pearls," so he was into something, so the uninitiated among us were prone to think.

I casually asked him what a C7 chord was; what did it mean; what did it do; what did it tell the musician?

He looked at me with the kind of disdain that only the uninformed can muster when they have been called on the carpet about something that they either don't know themselves or if they do know have difficulty attempting a coherent explanation to someone else. "What do you think it is," he said trying to mount as much of a Socratic stance as he could imagine one should have when speaking to an "inferior."

Naturally it is an oversimplification to say that the very next day I enrolled in a school where I could have these questions answered.

I knew that this musician didn't know and I knew, at the time, that I didn't know. And I wanted to know.

Nothing was to be gained by wasting time in that situation.

The same thing holds for the premise that I advanced earlier.

A lot of the music, a lot of the recordings and a lot of the music being passed off [and sanctioned] has been done and done definitively a long time ago. So why is it and its practitioners, at the expense of some of the musicians who are trying to create a new music that speaks to the issue of a new experience and a newer investigation of older experiences, continuing to be heralded?

Is it because it is easier? Is it because that music is more comfortable? Does it, like most things that "mellow" with their absorption by time, satisfy and satiate? Is it that the so-called audience for this music is no longer interested in something that will really make them think?

Were it possible for a Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
, Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
, Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
or a John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
to re-inhabit the earth, what would they think? Where would they go? What would they do? How would they be received and perceived?

In 1998 Greenwood Press published Dixonia: A Bio-Discography of Bill Dixon. Because it is my feeling that a book on music should also have some examples of the music I published in 2000 a six CD box set of my work entitled Odyssey.

To my knowledge neither of these works has been reviewed in the French press and if they have, I am not aware of it.

But I have, in recent years, seen quite extensive coverage granted to some musicians who are, in my opinion, artistically vastly overrated, relating to their past and present artistic abilities, history and achievement in addition to being over-recorded. And some of what these musicians (two immediately come to mind and I won't dignify them by naming either them or their would-be piano playing interviewer) say, or are permitted to say, is an embarrassment to the history of this music. Because some of us know; we were there.

So I have to conclude, based on the evidence, that there is more interest in the "energy" of the music; the so-called "shamanisms" and twenty-first century fakery laced onto the authenticity of the music, than in the actual musical developments themselves.

And that is a shame, because some members of the small public for this music, and there are some, would like to be made aware of the totality of the creative aspects of the music.

Anyway, congratulations on the anniversary of The Weavers and I hope that you have many more.

Remember, nothing can ever be old, if it is never allowed to be new.


Answers to Additional Questions from Andrew Raffo Dewar

Andrew Raffo Dewar completed his MA in Ethnomusicology at Wesleyan in 2004 and the subject of his thesis was the visual art and music of Bill Dixon. The paper itself is titledThis is an American Music': Aesthetics, Music and Visual Art of Bill Dixon. It will be reprinted as a revised text in the Winter 2009/2010 issue of Jazz Perspectives. Here, Dixon provides Dewar with an analysis of the situation of solo music as it existed during his early career. —CA

Bill Dixon

I can't recall when I "first hear(d) unaccompanied (single-line instrument) as 'full-fledged' soloists." Aside from musicians that played in the street (and their playing "solo" had to do with the utilitarian nature of their situation), as far as I know there was no concentrated effort on the part of the other players (who would have been artistically capable) to effect addition of this to the performance legacy of their instruments. The "practical" exception to this, though, went into effect if, for example, one missed a train (I lived in Long Island when I was studying and had a sometimes one and a half or two hour (if I missed connections) train and bus ride to make it from the school in Manhattan to my house), and in that instance, to make profitable use of having missed the train one could take out the instrument and either practice [at that juncture in my career, that was what I had to do] or, for some other musicians, they could play. I also don't think that anyone thought of it as "solo" playing per se, since it was obvious that one was without the "necessary" (as it was musically felt then) piano; bass; drums or guitar that served to eliminate that kind of "emptiness" or feeling that something was "missing" in the sound.

Solo playing for certain instruments had a long methodological gestation period; the period where the players learned to completely (by what they were playing and how they were compelled to play it) get rid of the dependency on the aforementioned rhythm instruments. This was still a chord based music and the dependency on the chord or the harmonic situation to serve as the underpinning for whatever was being played melodically (even if the player was running the chords) was severe, and the ear's dependency on that harmonic situation was not yet alleviated to the extent that in musical and aesthetical quality of the solo playing that we have come to expect from instrumentalists, no instrument would continue to be dependent on that format.

With regard to (Coleman Hawkins

Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins
1904 - 1969
sax, tenor
) PICASSO, which came out around '48 or '49 (I heard it broadcast on the radio; Leonard Feather had a program and he played most of the significant music as did Symphony Sid Torin, so you could hear some records before they had been officially released), I have to say that that kind of performance (and I realize what this must sound like) wasn't the kind of thing that I was primarily interested in listening to at the time. I was more interested in the larger formations and pieces like Gillespie's THINGS TO COME (with Gil Fuller
Gil Fuller
) and the things that George Russell
George Russell
George Russell
1923 - 2009
wrote for Dizzy, and the piece that also came out at the same time as PICASSO called THE BLOOS by a writer named George Handy (they were all on that record The Jazz Scene). Don't forget that this was also around the time of the Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
Birth of the Cool situation and that particular formation was of intense interest to the people I was spending time with. We were attempting to study those things and emulate them with a lot of intensity. There were a lot of musicians writing a lot of interesting stuff; there were a lot of bands rehearsing; George Russell's "A BIRD IN IGOR'S YARD" (recorded by Buddy DeFranco
Buddy DeFranco
Buddy DeFranco
) was also being played on the radio; Gil Evans
Gil Evans
Gil Evans
1912 - 1988
was writing all of those charts for the Claude Thornhill
Claude Thornhill
Claude Thornhill
1909 - 1965
band and there was such a bevy of musical activity that involved groups (and I was, at the time, primarily interested in learning how to write) that the idea of the solo, as a vehicle, held scant interest for me. That wasn't where the "action" (for the ear) was.

With regard to the unaccompanied clarinet track on the 1957 Jimmy Giuffre record Clarinet, while I must have heard it, I have no recollection of it. Again, it was the writing that I was interested in and the arrangement of Giuffre's "My Funny Valentine" and how he used the instrument arrested my ear.

Now there were lots of pieces in the literature of music that mated, to their performance realization, the idea of the unaccompanied solo. "A Night in Tunisia" has a long section that is done by a singular instrument before it goes into the choruses. Lots of the pieces had codas attached where there would be performance by one instrument with the rest of the band laying out. In certain of the pieces there would be times when a musician might (in either a twelve bar blues or in some of the other songs) take either an entire chorus (or more) in the former and in the latter might take the bridge unaccompanied. So there was always, within the framework of certain performance practices (sometimes to be "slick"), solos that could (and sometimes did) arise out of the music on the shoulders of a single instrument. It was more of a performance device for certain pieces of music and for certain occasions done by special players. In that instance it didn't seem unnatural. It was part of that musical performance and it was "extending" the possibilities of the instrument's role in the group.

For the most part it might have been (aesthetically and from the standpoint of performanceability on a par with the conviction displayed in other areas of the music), "too early" for a more full incorporation of the solo as we have come to know it.

In a conversation I had with John Coltrane, I asked him why he continued to use the piano as a chordal instrument and he said to me that he still felt that he had to have it there for a certain kind of support.

I don't recall any solo pieces in the '50s-'60s [even though the law of averages is strongly suggestive that there must've been some] that I was exposed to that "interested" me at the time because, as I've outlined above, my interest(s) in attempting to acquire knowledge about music [aesthetic and otherwise], coupled with the fact that I've started to study late, were musically focused [again, as I've outlined above] elsewhere.

10 April 2004

Harnette Notes

The following is an excerpt from Bill Dixon's notes to Michael Heller's MA thesis So we did it ourselves: A Social and Musical History of Musician-organized Jazz Festivals from 1960 to 1973 (Rutgers, 2005). The following provides as detailed an account of the Hartnette School of Music in New York as one is likely to find anywhere. —CA

Bill Dixon

The Hartnette School of Music (The Hartnette Conservatory, Hartnette Studios; known at various times by all of those titles) was a professional school located in the basement, when I went there from late 1946 to 1951, of the Strand Theatre Building. It was on Broadway between 48th and 49th street, across the street from Lou Walters" Latin Quarter and the Royal Roost. The students that went there were largely professional and working musicians taking advantage of the GI Bill and all subjects relating to the teaching of music at the conservatory level were taught there.

The faculty was made up of professional musicians; some, like Paige Brook, the flutist and saxophonist, were doing other things in their own professional work. Brook was playing with Thomas Scherman's Little Orchestra Society and waiting to be called, which happened later, to join the NY Philharmonic. I took arranging with him. Charlie Byrd

Charlie Byrd
Charlie Byrd
1925 - 1999
, the guitarist, taught that instrument there; Benny Ventura, the brother of Charlie Ventura, taught baritone saxophone. Pat Crusco taught the double-bass. Leon Addeo and Lee Hedden also taught arranging. Hal Bourne taught arranging and harmony and theory, as did Hedden. Jimmie Blake, a former Dorsey player, taught the trumpet. Steven Gitto also taught the trumpet. I had some lessons with Blake but preferred Gitto and spent most of my time on the instrument, while there, with him. Tony Fruscella also taught at Hartnette. I didn't study with him, but his friends, altoist Chic Maures and drummer Chick Foster, would take me on sessions with them. Tony wrote out some exercises for the instrument that I use to this day.

The studies at Hartnette concerned themselves with harmony, theory, counterpoint, sight-singing, arranging, composition, instrumental instruction, small and large band performance and the Schillinger System of Musical Composition. So while it was not Julliard, Manhattan School of Music or Mannes, it taught things that those other places did not and with a faculty that was experienced in the practical applications of those things that they taught, at an ongoing level.

Sy Oliver and Dick Jacobs also had a course in arranging. I was at first primarily interested in arranging, not composition, which they taught in the Brill Building. I had some sessions with Dick Jacobs as the same time that I was a student.

I don't remember how I met Carl B. Bowman; I think that I requested studies in composition and the school got him to come in, first to teach me and then he became a faculty member. He played the euphonium, taught at CW Post College, played in the Babylon Symphony Orchestra and had written some works for them that he and I studied when I was more able to benefit from that kind of analysis. When I finished my work at Harnette in 1951 I continued studying with Bowman until about 1953. We became friends. I had him as a panelist on the panel discussion held at the UN when I was working there. Later on he appeared on the Africa Brass recording with John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
1928 - 1964
(Impulse!, 1961).

Jimmie Brokenshire was a saxophonist and arranger. He also did work with the band that was at the Latin Quarter. He was also an authorized teacher of the Schillinger System of Musical Composition. I studied Schillinger quite extensively with him. Alex Grassberg, the drummer, taught rhythmic dictation. He was very good and very patient. Sam Donahue, the saxophonist-arranger, conducted one of the bands there. Steve Gitto did one of the bands; I played in his, but I never played in the Donahue bands.

Charlie Parker had an arrangement with the school to periodically come in and give what we would call today a master class. The more advanced students would play with him; usually disc recordings (acetates) of that event would be made. I recall two or three occasions when Parker came and played. He didn't teach there. Generally if he needed an instrument he would come in and give a master class. These were very special occasions and all classes would be permitted to go into the large band room and watch and listen. A lot of working musicians were always at the school. There was also another school in the building; I think Kenny Dorham
Kenny Dorham
Kenny Dorham
1924 - 1972
did some teaching at that school.

Dizzy and Walter Gil Fuller did some rehearsing at the school, as did some other band leaders. I was at the initial rehearsals of the Benny Goodman band [Goodman wasn't there but Ake (Stan) Hasselgaard was] when Chico O'Farrill
Chico O'Farrill
Chico O'Farrill
1921 - 2001
was rehearsing his chart "Undercurrent Blues." Those rehearsals were peopled by some of the more significant players of the day: Red Rodney
Red Rodney
Red Rodney
1927 - 1994
, Gerry Mulligan
Gerry Mulligan
Gerry Mulligan
1927 - 1996
sax, baritone
; I believe Doug Mettome was there. It was great for us students.

Some of the other students included pianist Gill Coggins; George Barrow; Sam Scavone, who was with Xavier Cugat at the time; Buster Cooper and his brother, a bassist, were there. Peck Morrison and Jimmie Corbett also studied bass there. Sol Moore, the baritone saxophonist, was there. There was a marvelous guitarist named Wally Richardson. I used to hang out with George Kelley, whose brother Ted was with the Gillespie band. Linton Garner was also a student there, as was the saxophonist Danny Quebec West. Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
used to rehearse a larger version of what would become his Jazz Workshop there; that was how I met George Barrow, who was then living in Staten Island. I'm not certain but I think Louis Mucci, who played in John LaPorta's experimental band, might have taught trumpet there occasionally.

Then there was Booker Foster, a tenor saxophonist; Ike Bradley, piano (who was also a remarkable writer and who also became Leslie Uggams' first teacher, I believe), and double-bassist Harold Perkins, who auditioned for one of Mercer Ellington's rehearsal job even though he was only playing in one or two positions on the bass at the time. There was also a trumpet player named Larris Browner, and Larry Ace Townsend, who took his trumpet lesson with Gitto before mine. He got Prestige Records to record one of his pieces which we used to play in one of the bands.

Ernie and Wally Williams used to be there a lot; Ernie, who was occasionally playing with either Joe or Marlowe Morris, was a significant trumpeter [in the shadow of Fats Navarro, as I remember it]. He was always giving me corrections as to embouchure placement, contact pressure, pivoting the instrument, etc.

Steve Gitto, as I mentioned before, played with the Goldman Band and played the music out of that repertoire. Our studies were primarily out of Arban ("the trumpeter's bible"), although we did look at some of the Colin Lip Flexibilities and I worked very hard on the Schlossberg book, my favorite.

I worked hard, went everywhere to sessions and did a lot of writing. When I left Hartnette in 1951, sometime after that they moved to 42nd Street. In 1954 I toured Alaska with a band and I returned in 1955. In 1956 I became an International Civil Servant at the UN Headquarters in New York. I was at the Secretariat from 1956 until 1962. I would, for my music studies, have liked to have gone to either Manhattan or Julliard; I applied to Julliard but was turned down. I had an apprenticeship in art and had to have that reevaluated when I decided that I wanted to study music. I couldn't waste time trying to find one of the "better" schools to accept me. I found Hartnette; they had an ad in Metronome Magazine and they accepted me. I did my initial music studies there only.

The ambience that New York provided at the time for music study was good. All of the players that you heard on recordings that were doing anything you found interesting were there. The music was live; there were theatres, clubs, sessions, rehearsals, music stores, 48th St. (where the practice studios were and one could listen for hours to the more established players practicing). There was Mannie's, under the clock, for sessions on Wednesdays. One was also permitted to try out trumpets in most of the music stores. But it wasn't until 1962 that I made my first recording, for Savoy.

That was the gestation period; one had to learn, one had to study, one had to practice, one had to listen, one had to work, one had to find the work, owe had to encourage oneself, one had to believe that what one was doing counted for something and, more importantly, one had to know that one was doing what one did because that was what one could do and that was what one wanted to do.

And for no one else, for you it was important.

27 April 2005

Photo Credits

Page 1: Courtesy of Bill Dixon

Page 2: Mark Ladenson

Page 3: Frank Rubolino

Page 4: Courtesy of Inconstant Sol

Page 5: Courtesy of Destinaton-Out

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