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In the Artist's Own Words

Bill Dixon: Excerpts from Vade Mecum

By Published: January 29, 2010
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

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