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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.
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