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

Frank Rubolino By

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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:

ORCHESTRAL WORKS

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.
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