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Bill Dixon: An In-depth Look into the Accomplishments, Philosophies, and Convictions of the Man


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I knew I was not going to be controlled. I knew there was a price for this, but I did not know there was as large a price as it turned out.
This interview was originally published at One Final Note in October 2002.

When one reflects on the innovators who were fundamental in propelling the second wave of the new music movement in the 1960s, Bill Dixon's name always appears near the top of the list. His accomplishments as a musician and educator are vast, a small sampling of which includes his work as architect of the Jazz Composers' Guild in 1964; the formation of the Black Music Division at Bennington College, Visiting Professor in the School of Music at the University of Wisconsin, and Distinguished Visitor in the Arts at Middlebury College; his election as a Fellow to the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences; and his ongoing and challenging performance schedule that most recently saw him reunited with pianist Cecil Taylor and drummer Tony Oxley. Bill Dixon has released about 20 recordings over the years featuring his work as a composer, solo performer, small group leader, and orchestral director. He has a trumpet/flugelhorn/cornet sound that is immediately identifiable by the cognoscenti as uniquely his. Bill Dixon continues to influence younger musicians and to produce exhilarating music in this, his 54th year as a professional musician.

We met recently with Bill Dixon at his home in North Bennington, Vermont, where the artistically uncompromising trumpeter openly discussed some extremely vital musical and social topics. For ease of reference, I have divided the material by these broad subject categories:


I was in the audience in 2000 when your large orchestral piece "Index" was performed at the Vision Festival. You mentioned in the car on the way over that you have in mind a major project you would like to undertake dealing with a new and more complete performance of this piece, and that you anticipate it could cost as much as $100,000 to do as it should have been done.

This focuses on how ideas concerning the presentation of this music have, historically been undervalued. It seems that, always, lurking there somewhere in the shadows, is this nickel and dime attitude to the extent that musicians do not believe that a project such as the one I am talking about either warrants that kind of financial outlay, or that the project is even possible to erect. If you think about it, $100,000 in terms of a recording is not a lot of money. For musicians who are cranking out a lot of this uninteresting commercial music, it is not unusual for that amount of money to be allocated for the lunch commemorating the signing of one of their recording contracts. Okay, I'm joking, I take it back. It is a lot of money, but for a serious project to be done properly, like anything else that also requires money...

Would you produce it yourself?

One of the reasons I deplore the term self-produced is because, in so many instances, it has to do with the generally accepted idea that musicians who take the initiative to manufacture and produce projects, in addition to creating the music, will not be able to do a first class job. In the text, the spellings are going to be wrong, the overall quality of whatever it is, naturally less than perfect—it just can't be believed that a musician who is able to do good music should also be equally interested in presenting that music on a commensurate level. Therefore, while it may appear extravagant to think that that kind of outlay for this piece of music "Index" might be considerable, that is not the way I feel about it. As a consequence, if I produce it, I will stage it as a performance. A small audience will be invited; rehearsals of the sections will be done in the mornings, and those sections will be recorded in the afternoons. Since the musicians would all be in New York, I can allot a full week for it, and the entire event would be either filmed or videoed for later lease to the public television station and to some of the European networks. So, the financial outlay would take into consideration the rental of the space, salaries to musicians, fee for the filmmaker, and recording fees. It may very well be that I've underestimated what would be required financially. This will be how it will be done.

What made you unsatisfied with the Vision performance?

For quite a few years the Vision Festival had expressed interest in my doing a large work for the orchestra, and in 2000 they managed to get a grant that allowed the commissioning of "Index." I worked very hard on the piece. I was paid my fee for the composition, but they were unable to provide the number of rehearsals I needed to give a first class performance of the entire composition. So, while I wanted at least six rehearsals, I ended up getting three. I also wanted to have an open rehearsal for the public, a rehearsal on the afternoon of the performance. That also proved to be something that could not happen. On the afternoon of my sound check, the schedule got changed and I was put back to permit someone else to do his. If you will recall the time factor was such that as I was completing my sound check, the audience was entering the room. I wasn't even able to go back to the hotel to change my clothes for the performance. I was also unaware that the performance space was going to be as crowded as it was. I had no idea that a platform was going to be built. I thought the orchestra would be on the floor at the same level as the audience, a situation that would have permitted the musicians not to be so packed in together. If you will further recall there wasn't even enough room on the stage for me to have a music stand to place the score. I had to hold all of that paper in my hand for the duration of the performance while I conducted the orchestra. I had also wanted the performance of "Index" to be the sole event of that evening. The piece, as composed, is an evening-length work. The musicians worked very hard and performed on a very high level, and I think that, with all things considered, the performance went quite well.

Your requests do not seem unreasonable.

Since I don't get that many opportunities to do work here, and because that was a special piece of music, I wanted to take full advantage of it. I had also thought that since a studio recording was an eventuality for "Index," why not also get a good performance recording so that a limited edition recording of the performance and the studio recording could be released at a later date. That was my reason for wanting additional money and rehearsal time for the musicians. So, relating to "Index," I did object to several things. I wanted about six or eight rehearsals, that's what I wanted; I wanted musicians to be paid union scale, in the event I recorded something I could release commercially. I also wanted that piece—and this is not by way of complaint, to be performed under the conditions that I've outlined, and there was nothing extravagant about that. I am just telling you what I originally wanted and what I got after much fooling around. I wanted the entire evening devoted to that work. I did not want anything else performed that night.

You were part of a four or five group lineup, as I recall.

Not only that, I had only 45 minutes. The late sound check was the reason I was late finishing. So, I did what I could. The musicians really worked hard for me, but we had so few rehearsals... that's a frighteningly difficult piece of music when one considers the overall nature of its organization, the notated portions, the areas for the soloists, how the solos were to be placed, the juxtaposition of the chordal and strata situations that outlined and framed the solos, etc. It came out as well as it did because those musicians were able to give me their all, and I think that they enjoyed performing the piece.

Did the work get the reception that you expected?

Yes, it did, but let me try to explain something. I was born in 1925, Pierre Boulez was born in 1925, Karlheinz Stockhausen was born in 1925 or 1926, Hans Werner Henze was born in 1925 or 1926, Luigi Nono—all of those people are automatically accorded a certain kind of respect relating to the presentation of their music. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not attempting to equate myself or what I've attempted to do with the worldwide achievements of those people. What I am attempting to say is when it comes to this music, it just seems to be a foregone conclusion that there is going to be some kind of excuse for things not being able to be implemented that are deemed necessary for the successful realization of the music. I know that this is sounding clumsy and that it could easily be misinterpreted, but one doesn't have to be a brain trust to make the observation that I've just made. Why is this then?

Your accomplishments would certainly warrant comparable respect.

If it is about age, I am not 21; I was also born in 1925. What is it then? Is it because their music, which I like and have studied a considerable amount of, is superior, benefits the society more, makes a more broadly based contribution to culture? What is it? Is it because their music is not jazz music? Because if it is not jazz music, then it automatically can command a certain kind of respect and can also expect a kind of reverence. So, it must have something to do with the how and the why of music itself, and who does the variations on the how and the why, and who gets the credit and the support for what are considered the contributions that are made, if they are considered contributions. It's an aesthetic point. Someone—the omnipresent 'they,' a long time ago, managed to obtain the necessary positions of power that would enable them to be able to set the tone and also to dictate. And musicians, especially in this area of music, tacitly and overtly accepted this, and as a consequence of this when you ask for something that you feel is necessary but that is more than what is normally relegated to this music, because it is the expectation that by now you would have caught on to how the game is played, they think you are being lofty for even suggesting that you should have more than what is normally doled out. If, when making reference to a larger musical grouping, you say orchestra, you can readily expect that they will seek to correct you and let you know that it's really a big band. Continued insistence over the years has only served to make those people think you are being pedantic.

Yet, I sensed an enormous amount of respect from the people in the audience.

That is true. I have always gotten that from the people.

It seemed like the return of a conquering hero.

Well I don't know too much about that, but I have gotten that kind of attention in almost every place that I have been. But are you at all aware that "Index" was not reviewed here. And the Vision Festival events were, for this music, very well covered that year. Ben Ratliff didn't mention my name in the New York Times. However, the French magazine Improv Jazz did a cover story review of "Index" and I also received a full-page review, with a photograph, in the Paris daily paper, Le Monde. And it was a standing-room only event, and quite a number of New York's serious music cadre sought me out after the performance to let me know that they had been there and appreciated that work.

So your intent with "Index" is to take all the inequities you saw and make it right.

Now while "Index" is my latest, and for me a very significant orchestral piece, it is not politically narrative in any sense of that kind of feeling or sentiment. It is called "Index" because it is a thesaurus or compendium of the musical materials that I have concerned myself with over the years as that relates to large group writing and the incorporation of the solo within that framework. That is essentially what "Index," as a composition, is.

Certainly, the tempo, the voicing, everything I heard in the performance was you.

The solos, what kind of solos; their nature and character; when and how the solos take place; the masses of sound that sometimes accompanies or introduces them; this then as a series of events that culminates in the performance realization, as an event irrevocably marked in time (it was recorded) serves to reflect how I feel about large group writing and performance. "Index" also exists as a formally—my formality-notated score, so you could have 25 different groups of guys perform it and come up with a different schematic each time. I feel that it is a valuable piece. And if I have existed at all, then this is something of what I have done.

That one piece, then, is the culmination.

That one piece attempts to sum up how I have used, for certain things, musical materials, especially for the large group that would be peopled with experienced soloists. I have over 40 or 50 large pieces like "Index" that I have done over the years, which have seen no public life, other than on college or university campuses, because opportunities to do more than a quartet or quintet in public performance come few and far between.

That is a huge amount of material.

I have hundreds of hours of this music on tape performed by orchestras at the college that, as I said, have never seen the light of any other day.


Are you making a distinction between the American respect for this music and the European?

Not only respect for this music but acknowledgement of its creation and its existence. In certain areas of this music, especially since the 1960s—and that is no coincidence—certain people have been singled out for attention and the others have been totally ignored to the extent that the interested music public has been made to believe that they no longer exist.

And why do you think that has occurred with a man of your enormous talent?

Let me give you some background. When I got into the music—remember, I did not make my first recording until I was 37. People talk about my relatively small catalogue of recordings, but I did not make my first recording until I was 37. I did not even start to study music until I was 20, so my whole thing is completely different. I entered music at a time when New York was this cauldron of incredible artistic and cultural activity.

This was in the 1940s?

In the middle 1940s. You could see all of these people—Bird and Dizzy; I heard everyone live. Painting, the theater; everything was happening. It was an exciting time when New York was the place to be. So, my orientation was a different orientation. You saw and were able to bask and take in all of this cultural development. This music—Dizzy and Bird were electrifying—was very significant, and you also saw how, unfortunately, a lot of those creative people outside of their music were taken advantage of and treated very badly as people.

This is after the so-called demise of swing when bebop was coming to the fore?

Exactly. The battle between the moldy figs and the modernists had even the founding father of the modern trumpet Louis Armstrong being very unkind in his assessments of the music's merits. Musicians, out of love and respect for him, to this day do not mention that part of his persona. But he was horrible in his analysis of 'the harm' that this bebop was going to do to music—to jazz music. He was right in one respect because jazz as a way of life, as a way of thinking, as a way of designating the way musicians were to act, was on its way out.

But the New Orleans music of Armstrong had evolved to a point where musicians had just about said everything that could be said for that style. It needed change. It seemed to me it was almost mandated.

You are right, but why was it resisted?

It is a natural reaction for people to resist change.

Well, you can look at it this way. I used to tell students when I was teaching formally that, there are two essential ways you can attempt to view things relating to the pros and cons of the acceptance of the development of this music. If you are prone to the acceptance of this music as an art form, it is one thing. If, on the other hand, to you, it is only entertainment, that's another thing. For a large faction of the listening public that supports certain areas of this music, the entertainment factor completely overrides the art factor. People know what they like and they know how they want what they like done, and where they want it done, and by whom it's to be done, how it's to be done, and when and under what circumstances.

But don't you think the media forms the opinions of the people. People are told what they will like, and the people respond to this domination of their ability to make choices.

No question about it at all. But I also apportion some blame and responsibility on the people who create the music, not just the people who accept it. I think musicians have not been as demanding or responsible to the music they claim that they want to create. Too many things manage to get in the way. The idea of personality, egos, the idea of self—who is the most successful or the most 'in demand' or 'most sought after,' who is the most 'popular,' who makes the 'most' recordings,' who makes the 'most' money, who 'works'—no matter the level of that work—who 'places' in the polls, who do the critics anoint as, for the moment, being 'in'—all these things get in the way. There are a myriad of things that have managed to successfully get in the way. It is one thing to be talking about a they, or look what they are making us do. Musicians readily deny they act in this manner but when the crumbs are thrown out and the rush for the attainment of a portion of these crumbs ensues, that initiates the ceremony of the backbiting and the backstabbing.

Those crumbs often entail nightclub performances, which seems to be loosing appeal as a jazz venue.

The idea of the nightclub as a supported and supportive venue for the creation of music is as outdated and outmoded as an idea as even thinking about it as a venue for the creation of the music. A nightclub is a place where you are supposed to have fun and drink and carry on. And why not? Why shouldn't people be able to have fun, let their hair down—kick up their heels without having to also have attached to it the intellectual and other 'baggage' that some areas of creative music, because it is creative, naturally brings with it? So rightly or wrongly, I assign blame to the musicians, not the media. If musicians don't do any music, then there isn't any music. Musicians are very tricky and can be quite elusive. If you interview a musician for Down Beat magazine, or the Jazz Podium, or Musica Jazz, or the Jazz Forum, and you ask the musicians the identical questions, they give you different answers depending on what they expect the reception is going to be.

They tailor it to their audience?

They do that, and so does everyone else, so you can never be sure when you are speaking to this person whether he is telling you the truth, as he knows it and has experienced it, or he is telling you what he thinks you want to hear. The syndrome has to do with not rocking the boat and certainly not biting the hand that feeds you.

So, when you came into the music, did you know what you wanted to do?

Yes, I knew to a degree what I thought I wanted to do, but I never thought I would be able to do it. My career has been different from most people, but I knew what I was not going to do. I knew I was not going to be controlled. I knew there was a price for this, but I did not know there was as large a price as it turned out to be.

Do you think that this is why you, personally, have not received the acclaim your talent demanded?

I know it's the reason.

But there are other musicians who have not compromised their principals. Cecil is a good example. Others continue to adhere steadfastly to their philosophies and appear to thrive.

But there is naturally a method to this madness and of course, and like everyone else, I have also been a prisoner to my experiences. Let me put it this way, and know that it is an oversimplification. For everyone for whom it has worked, there are the others that have managed to have it work yet another way. Thus, the way this 'system' works is predicated on the principle of 'letting some people in.' However, to maintain the status quo and yet, on the surface, continue to affect a seemingly caring and humanistic position, they appear to be extending opportunity and providing support. But those who control and wield the power are ever cognizant of the necessity to inculcate seeds for thought that will emerge as perceived original thoughts and patterns from those under control. They rely on the principle of 'letting some in' so that what is being done systematically and on a mass level does not appear to be, or seem, as intellectually or otherwise oppressive, as in fact, it really is. In so many ways, it is like basketball. There is a tournament held in New York every year called the Rucker tournament. I am a veteran of World War II, and it is named for a man with whom I was in the service named Holcombe Rucker. If memory serves me, as a player himself, stylistically, he would have been like an Earl 'The Pearl' Monroe player. When we came out of the service, there was no such thing as the Black professional basketball player in White organized basketball. Rucker, like a lot of us, went back to school; but he prepared himself to teach the young kids in the playgrounds in Harlem. And he organized the players he taught into teams so that they could play and develop. I come from a generation where the dreams and aspirations of a whole lot of young men were sacrificed at the altar of getting some kind of menial job. So, while it ultimately became possible for some to 'get in,' a whole lot have been, and will continue to be, left out.

This was when the Globetrotters were making a name?

Yes, but while they were a remarkable group of players and could do almost anything with a basketball, they were, for want of a better word, a more comedic team. They brought a lot of comedy and entertainment to viewers of the game. There was Black basketball, Black baseball, but the world at large was a different place not then ready to accept the premise of ten men -sometimes nine or ten of those men being Black—running up and down this court playing a fantastic game of basketball with innovations now a part of that game that can be linked to what this music has also done in terms of additions to and alterations of the language of music. It has now come to be about money, and people want winning teams. In the music, even though we have parceled it out differently, there are similarities. If you read any of the magazines that attempt to focus on this music, you will see it has completely changed.

In what way?

So many technically but in reality ordinary players now are being touted in ways and for 'achievements' that extend far beyond their artistic, innovative or creative achievements. Journeymen players generally know they are journeymen, yet they are respected by everyone for what they bring to the music performance. But there is an overindulgence in the propagation of pseudo musical catholicism emanating from their insistent claiming of not wanting to be pigeonholed. They want to play, for example, with the New York Philharmonic one night, to play hip-hop on another night, with the Boston Pops on another night, ad nauseam. Haven't they pigeonholed themselves by the very act of what they do? You hear this silly kind of talk, yet they can't be taken seriously relating to art or creative music. They are journeymen. They provide entertainment. And there is nothing wrong with that. But they do not create the thing out of which other things can happen. I don't recall this 'I've got to do everything' attitude being in existence among musicians to this degree when I started to study. So, you have now the parent society telling you what and how you should play it, by the way music is bought, sold and marketed—film, television, advertising, etc.—to the extent that the idea of creative music now exists, for some musicians, on the same level as networking for work does, and all that that entails. Musicians today do not even stay together in a group. I don't know how it is possible, aesthetically, to play with ten groups at one time. How is it possible? What and where is your identity? Who are you and what do you do?


Imagine the Sound was supposed to be a video history of the 1960s, wasn't it?

When it came time to do Imagine the Sound, I initially resisted, and finally I said I would do it. At one point I was asked what I would do if I were going to do a history of the music of the 1960s, and I said it is very simple. I would set up a room and get the names of all of the people I was aware of who had had any kind of experience or involvement—as a musician, performer, or as a listener—and have them speak to the issue of what that experience was; what they did—good, bad, or indifferent—and then I would have a group of people in the beginning and end give us some historical references. I would then just shoot footage of these conversations interspersed with examples of the various approaches that had been undertaken by the musicians. They decided to do Imagine the Sound as a film that concerned itself with Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley, and me. As you noticed, none of us appears in any footage together in that film, because for various reasons none of us had the kinds of relationships that would lend itself for that kind of situation at that time. The film apportions a certain amount of time for each of us to do some music and, through conversation, address issues of significance and importance. A lot of work went into that film. It was filmed in Toronto, a city that I enjoyed immensely. The film was screened in various places, including, over the years, at several festivals in New York. From what I understand the film was well received, and although it would be a stretch to even suggest that it was representative of the totality of the music and situation that was the sixties, it did, I felt, give some indication of what the four of us were concerned with and involved in relating to our own music and the vicissitudes of our own individual lives. It did, at least, focus on that period.

Most people who have viewed that film came away with the idea that you were an angry young man. You and I spoke earlier, and you said you had conversations for two days, and there were only bits and pieces of your conversation sewn together in the film.

If you will consider that I was filmed for about two days, logic strongly dictates that I must have spoken seriously about more things than what I am represented in the film as having done.

Yet, you are labeled with the persona that came out of that film.

I have been labeled with that kind of persona for a long time, and in certain ways and about certain things, they are absolutely right. But if one, without prejudice, were to pay attention to what was being discussed and include the period and the time frame that was under review, why should I have been compelled to reflect, by countenance or speech, the persona of a happy person? What was there to be 'happy' about? There were serious issues, at least I considered them serious, under discussion. We were talking about this music, its creation, existence and survival. We were discussing its history and the reception, critical and otherwise, by and in the society. And, at the same time, trying to create venues where work could be generated for the musicians. But was I the only one who was unhappy about what was happening? Due to the fact that one doesn't appear in films on a yearly basis, I would have liked my small part in the film to have included more of the other things that I discussed that also presented or would have shown me as a more 'rounded' person temperamentally. In that instance, I can say that I was bothered about the way that I was portrayed. We spoke about some things that I viewed as being very important politically and culturally. I had, and naturally continue to maintain, a personal point of view, but that was not the way it was felt that I should be presented, and I wasn't. The Europeans are more aware of my work and the approaches to that work than my fellow Americans because of opportunities extended to me to do some work there buttressed with information about the genesis of that work through interviews and articles. There wasn't anything that I said in Imagine The Sound, whether I was angry or whether I was as calm as John Tchicai was supposed to have been years ago when he was portrayed as a 'Calm Member Of The Avant-Garde,' that one could take issue with. This used to be brought to my attention ad nauseam, but I also thought that interested people might have wanted to know what he said rather than dwelling on the point that Bill Dixon was angry. And what were the areas that you might have disagreed with him about?

You spoke the truth.

As is the case with others, I spoke the truth as I saw and knew it and from my experience. I don't—and won't—be critical about the film because there should be room for a film like Imagine the Sound and we should have lots of other films on the subject to add to the documentation of the history and to present different perspectives. You can't probe only when you want to probe. The problem for me with Burns' film was that he dismissed an entire period of this music in about 20 minutes. Why was he allowed to do that? Well, we know what his impetus was, and we know where his information came from, but where are the other films to give the other side of the story? There are other films, but they are the el cheapo type that do not get exposure and are dismissed because they are not able to be viewed.

The Toronto experience, I take it, was not a pleasant one.

While there were some problems of a technical nature relating to how I wanted my work recorded, the experience of making Imagine the Sound, all things considered, was not a bad one. There were some people associated with the film that easily thought and interpreted my insistence on being recorded the way that I wanted to be recorded as being obstinate and a troublemaker. Nothing unusual when one considers that it is not unusual for almost everyone to attempt to tell musicians what is best for them. And when a musician continues to insist, that musician is naturally considered a troublemaker.

You mentioned the Ken Burns series. It has been extensively critiqued in the press.

I have taped the series myself and while I have not seen it in its entirety, I have watched it in pieces. I think he did as everyone else does. It is highly selective. The real problem is, while everyone has a right to his or her opinion, the people who are informed have more of a right. Now what they did was to present jazz music as jazz music—not as music but as a genre of music. Some of us think we do music and actually believe that. What he did, coupled with the excerpts from the old film shorts that he showed, was manipulate history. All the people who were left out and the others who were hyped up was how it was done. The defense for that is that you get more people interested in the subject. There is this mixed-up idea that if you distort or 'lighten up' the representation of history, then there is going to be a rush by the public to know more. I do not know if I want to buy that. Why can't you do it the way it happened? Who should determine who is doing major work and who is doing lesser work? I, myself, have never met anyone who considered himself or herself a minor person. Ellington could not have done what he did without all the people he had; yet, you hear some people say the best Ellington band was the band of 1941 or 1942. I don't think Ellington thought that way; otherwise he might have had the tendency to stop right there. So, you have this stuff thrown out and everyone speaks that way without even thinking. I used to give this example. When you are teaching history, either a thing happened or it did not happen. You can watch a political debate, and when it is over, you have these reporters telling you what you have just heard, and in so many instances, it is not what you just heard at all. If they are doing this in our own time, how can we trust them to be accurate in their assessments of events that transpired when none of us was there? In that instance, the margin of error is great. Napoleon did something, but you don't like Napoleon, so you downgrade it, or you ignore it or worse still you ascribe, as an achievement, what Napoleon has done, to someone else. So, you come to have a body of people who deliberately—by their choice or selection—and systematically, decide what you are going to be told relating to what has actually happened.


What was the controversy with the initial CD release of your solo work Collection?

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