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Bill Dixon: In Medias Res


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Trumpeter and composer Bill Dixon is one of those rare figures in creative music who was both there as it took its initial steps and currently remains at the forefront of contemporary improvisation. In the last two years, he has directed or co-led orchestral configurations and recorded and performed with hand-picked small groups of international renown. The modern brass language and its expansion of vocal sounds into areas hitherto rarely occupied by any instrument certainly are reflected in Dixon's years of solo work and sculpting of sound.

Chapter Index

  1. Prologue
  2. Early History
  3. Teaching, Mentoring and the Highest Art
  4. The Sound's Eye
  5. Dixon and Criticism
  6. Epilogue


"Someone is always trying to get you away from the thing that you do." It is a statement that trumpeter/composer Bill Dixon utters frequently in conversation, and being 83 years old gives him a huge amount of perspective. In talking about the current state of Dixon's life, fellow trumpeter and former student Steven Haynes characterized it as comparable to the last decade or so of Dizzy Gillespie's life, where not only was he getting newfound recognition beyond what was attached to his status, but he was also continuing to turn out important work. In some ways, the end of this decade might be "his"—alongside his collaboration with trumpeter Rob Mazurek, Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra (Thrill Jockey, 2008), 2008 also saw the release of 17 Musicians In Search of a Sound: Darfur (AUM Fidelity), a recording of an orchestra that convened at the 2007 Vision Festival. Slated for release in November, 2009 is a small brass orchestra on the Firehouse 12 label, Tapestries for Small Orchestra. Here, Dixon leads and directs aggregations with fellow trumpeters Mazurek, Haynes, Taylor Ho Bynum and Graham Haynes, cellist Glynis Lomon, bassist Ken Filiano, bass clarinetist Michel Cote and drummer Warren Smith.

Viewing this time as "his" is somewhat ironic—Dixon hasn't produced any more or less work than previously, as his prolific catalog (most of which is still in print) attests. While orchestras might seem like a broadening of scope, Dixon has always worked orchestrally as an instrumentalist and composer, including a rarely-heard cornerstone of the "New Thing," Intents and Purposes: The Bill Dixon Orchestra (RCA-Victor, 1967). The largesse of these projects is at least matched (if not exceeded) by collections like Odyssey, a boxed set of solo trumpet works issued on his own Archive Edition imprint (2001). Never in the last decade has there been a paucity of available material.

Bill Dixon

Oddly, most literature on Dixon's contributions to this music reads like a history lesson—one that, when generous, stops in the late '60s, but usually ends in 1964-5 with the dissolution of the Jazz Composers' Guild. As a figure in this music, a look at Dixon's oeuvre paints an extremely broad picture, only portions of which can be sufficiently discussed here. Dixon is, or has been, all of these things: teacher and tenured faculty member at Bennington College (1968-1996), painter, photographer, writer, organizer of the Jazz Composers' Guild, record producer, arranger, transcriptionist, United Nations Jazz Society head (1956-1962), concert organizer, mentor, guide and instigator.

One has only to step into Dixon's home to see the range of his work—an upstairs study packed to the hilt with reel-tapes, scores, CDs and records, with his trumpet and flugelhorn in their cases at the ready. His first-floor art studio is a similar treasure trove of paintings, lithographs and workbooks, and every wall in the house seems to have at least one of Dixon's visual works tastefully hung. His writing area is enveloped in a library of history, volumes of letters, art monographs and musicology texts—a generous slice of written culture. Yet, to cram not only what he knows but also what he has experienced and given rise to in a few short pages is an impossible task, akin to a Cliffs Notes on Boswell's Life of Johnson. And, like Samuel Johnson, Dixon is a complex character—he is a serious artist in nearly every discipline, brimming with the utmost conviction, and unafraid to show disdain for a critical body that has been less than receptive to nearly 50 years of work.

Early History

Dixon was born on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts on October 5, 1925. "It was idyllic—you could always, wherever you were, hear the roar of the ocean. That sound was always there. For many years, I didn't realize it was missing when I moved to New York." At age nine he moved to Brooklyn and then Harlem. From the time he was small, he was interested in drawing and draftsmanship. "My first thing was illustration—Wyeth, Hogarth's Prince Valiant and things like that. I always drew—it started when I went to school, and that was a poor kid's thing. You don't need supplies; we used to have grocery bags and I'd cut them up to draw on. It was the same texture of paper Michelangelo and Leonardo used."

Though one might assume that Depression-era New York wasn't a place for a child—especially a black kid growing up in Harlem—to get "culture," it wasn't a problem for the young Dixon. He lived only a block from the New York Public Library's Schomburg Collection on 135th St. between 7th and Lenox Avenues, which had murals by Aaron Douglas, the first black visual artist he saw. He would take a daily allotment of books from the library, and his mother taught him from early on that there was no distinction between adults' books and children's—"If you wanted to read it, you read it." Though not growing up with material wealth, Dixon's family never instilled in him any sense of poverty. "The way I was brought up was very poor and very proud, and the one thing they said which was hard to take at the time was, 'William, you don't have to do anything you don't want to do.'" Early on, he was taught a value system that offered a huge amount of resolve and strength of character, something that has served him inordinately well in the climate of this music.

Bill DixonDixon came to the trumpet rather late, at age 20, at a time when bebop and small-group cutting contests had taken hold of New York. It was, in fact, right after returning from a year of Army service (1944-5)—he was stationed in Morganfield, Kentucky; Cheyenne, Wyoming and in Germany—that he began to study the instrument seriously. In 1946, Dixon enrolled at Hartnette Conservatory in Manhattan, where he studied until 1951. Of course, the trumpet was not something completely out of left field. As a young artist, he gravitated to musicians well before he could play—the vibraphonist Earl Griffiths (who later worked with Cecil Taylor) was his childhood friend, and he was surrounded by music on the radio and in the streets. "The teacher I had who was the most sensitive to me at the time [that I was beginning to play] was Steven Gitto. He was a very good teacher and I did something once—I brought him the Gillespie folios and he sight-read it, though what he played wasn't what Diz did. That informed me that notation isn't everything—it can be read but not spoken the same way. Teaching the articulation was very important, and because I was older, I knew more intellectually than what I was able to do. When I got ready to play, I didn't want to play like Louis Armstrong; I wanted to play like Miles, Diz, Kenny Dorham, Fats Navarro, Idrees Sulieman and all the trumpet players I heard live. It wasn't until years after I'd learned to play the instrument that I went back and discovered that without Louis there wouldn't be anything else."

Dixon worked as an arranger and played with small groups in Queens and the Bronx; meeting alto saxophonist Floyd Benny resulted in a 1954 regular engagement in Anchorage, Alaska, of all places, which provided him with regular pay and even health insurance. He returned to New York at the end of the term, and within another year had found his way into employment at the United Nations and instituted the UN Jazz Society, all while organizing small concerts and showcases in Village coffeehouses and becoming intimate with a lesser-known segment of the city's jazz players—those who might aesthetically be associated with bebop, chamber jazz and the nascent "New Thing." As a concert organizer in the Village, Dixon met many musicians who were unable to consistently perform professionally, and this became the base on which the Jazz Composers' Guild was built.

The formation of the Jazz Composers' Guild, and showcases like the October Revolution in Jazz (at the Cellar Cafe, 1964) and Four Days in December (Judson Hall, 1964) are among the activities that defined the decade for this music. The Guild itself was formed in response to new musicians, both black and white, not being allowed the opportunity to present their music in clubs or concert settings, let alone get record dates, in New York. One goal of the Guild was to put the music back into the hands of the musicians and force the club and record industry to treat artists fairly as a group. There was a partial boycott in place, in that if one Guild member was asked to perform or record, then all of the members should be given the same opportunity. In addition, presenting concerts themselves at places of their own choosing or ownership was part of their scheme. Guild members included saxophonists Archie Shepp and John Tchicai, trombonist Roswell Rudd, pianist/composers Cecil Taylor, Burton Greene, Paul Bley and Carla Bley, Sun Ra, bassist Alan Silva and trumpeter Michael Mantler.

Bill DixonThough somewhat supported in words by John Coltrane and (mercurially as ever) Ornette Coleman, infighting exacerbated by Archie Shepp's acceptance of an Impulse contract and other artists accepting contracts from ESP and Fontana eventually dissolved the organization (1). "What I was trying to tell people in the Guild, when that music was new and just beginning, was that we had the ability to gain control of the music by withholding it and only doing it in places we owned. But early on, people began to pick other people out, and there were some who had never played the Village Vanguard. Right away musicians flew the coop. The day musicians understand that because they do the music, they have the power—if no musicians do music, there is no music industry. You can do music without the industry supporting you, but it can't support itself without people doing music. So we have the power."

Most of the concerts he put together during this period featured one of his several small groups that were active throughout the first half of the decade, including such sidemen as saxophonists Shepp, Tchicai, Robin Kenyatta, Giuseppi Logan, bassist David Izenzon and drummers Rashied Ali and Charles Moffett. Shepp and Tchicai constituted most of the group's front line from 1962-1964, a partnership which crossed over into Dixon's arranging for the New York Contemporary Five. Kenyatta and Logan, along with tenorist Bob Ralston and trombonist Gary Porter, made up the front line of an unrecorded but top-notch band Dixon led in late 1964, which played both the October Revolution and Four Days in December. It's unfortunate that so little of this fertile period has been documented on record—one and a half Savoy releases, to be exact—though for the intrepid researcher, a close reading of Ben Young's Dixonia (2) provides ample detail.

Teaching, Mentoring and the Highest Art

A week prior to the recording sessions for Dixon's watershed Intents and Purposes, he was part of the front line in the Cecil Taylor recording of Conquistador (Blue Note) in the fall of 1966. The band then included stalwart altoist Jimmy Lyons, drummer Andrew Cyrille and bassists Henry Grimes and Alan Silva. This was Dixon's lone appearance as a sideman during the decade, though he himself suggested that Taylor use Mike Mantler on the date. Dixon didn't stick with the group because, prior to going on a European sojourn, Taylor decided to break the band in at Slug's on the Lower East Side. This was against the agreement fostered in the Guild a couple of years prior to avoid playing clubs. Incredibly—despite Dixon's vast amount of leader-work since and the proximity of this record date to one of Dixon's own defining works—this sideman appearance is given a huge amount of weight in his discography. But it's undeniable that this record is one of Taylor's finest, and it's clearly a result of Dixon's presence. Thus, some background on their association is probably necessary.

Bill Dixon"I remember us meeting for the first time in Harlem at the Sportsmen's Club, which was on 7th Ave. between 145th and 144th next to the Roosevelt Theater. In the basement, there was a private club for young people, and they had a bar and a small dance floor. They had a trio and you'd go there cattin.' Thursday night was jazz night and we'd all go over there. The first time I heard Taylor play was at that club. He says when his father moved to New York from Queens, he was walking up 8th Avenue and heard the sound of a trumpet and followed it into the studio, around 116th. Right on the corner was a place called Newby Studios, and he gets there when I was rehearsing with a group. That would have been between 1950 and 1951. I have known him a hell of a long time, and I am probably the only person who doesn't ask him for anything, doesn't bullshit him, and if he does something I don't like, I let him know immediately."

There's something that Dixon brings to the table on Conquistador that makes this date atypical in the Taylor canon. After Dixon takes his sparse, wispy solo, underpinned by percussive knocks from Cyrille and Grimes and Silva's softly shrieking arco, things change completely. The tune's second theme is rendered with an extraordinary, expansive weight and Taylor's flourishes become ever more delicate—communal rather than showy, as though this were a band in search of a whole, rather than Taylor and his cohorts. Such democratic music is not often what one thinks of with respect to Taylor's work.

There are only two other recordings of Dixon and Taylor playing together—in a trio with drummer Tony Oxley recorded live in Victoriaville, Quebec (Cecil Taylor/Bill Dixon/Tony Oxley (Victo, 2002)) and in a series of staggering duets that remain unissued—Taylor brushing and plucking the strings and making his bricks into sand while Dixon's half-valve growls and tense smears project the fire of post-storm ball clouds.

Never having heard Taylor play like this (and now rethinking his playing on Conquistador), I asked Dixon how he got this result from someone so seemingly singular (3). "He was given the opportunity. Instead of having 39 people bilking him for energy, he was allowed to reflect and make music. I told people years ago, the funny thing about Cecil is that if you're playing with him and you bring something into the music that catches his attention, he'll pay attention. Furthermore, everyone knows that whatever I play, I mean it. I play orchestrally and I play to include. If I play a note, it is felt. People gravitate toward things that will allow them to assemble and reassemble ideas. In this music, cliches and conventions—musicians are so busy learning those and making sure they're authentic [that] when the opportunity comes to be with a strong player, they take that opportunity. Someone said this about the thing in Canada, that Cecil was subdued. No—the parameters of the music changed and he didn't need to trot out the old Taylor-isms because they weren't going to work. He knew he could do some music and not be totally responsible for its success."

Bill Dixon / Cecil TaylorThe Dixon-Taylor environment is part of the mentoring process that he has engendered for many years. Teaching new musicians in New York was something he was almost immediately involved in, with players who had a wide range of abilities and approaches. "During that time, Eddie Gale was on the phone with me; he'd play things over the phone and we'd discuss them. Eddie was a student of mine, Rashied Ali was a student of mine on trumpet—he was a very good trumpet player. Dewey Johnson was another; one person I couldn't teach was Donald Ayler—he wanted to play in lower registers, but the music he was doing and the context he was in didn't demand it. His instrumental approach was coming from a different place, despite what he may have wanted to try and do.

"Almost all trumpet players of a certain persuasion came to visit me at certain points in their career, whether it is common knowledge or not. They all know I know. I was the one who took Ornette Coleman up to Zottola to get him a mouthpiece because he wouldn't return mine that he liked. When Ornette decided to play the trumpet, he came to see Bill. There was a reason why guys did this—I was very didactic and systematic." Ric Colbeck, Jacques Coursil, Joe McPhee, Marc Levin—the list of vanguard trumpeters of that era (and since) who made their stamp as a result of Dixon's work is rather long. Today, one might look at people like Mazurek, Bynum, Cuong Vu, Nate Wooley, Peter Evans, Axel Doerner and others who act within the sphere of Dixon's approach to the instrument (whether they credit him or not is another matter).

Dixon's teaching then didn't just include the trumpet section—Silva ("back then, he couldn't play the same thing twice"), drummer Cleve Pozar, saxophonists Ed Curran, Marzette Watts and Byard Lancaster, and dancer/choreographer Judith Dunn (4) ("she didn't improvise before she met me") all made significant work either with or as a result of their experience with Dixon. What is interesting about this is the varied levels of musicianship some of these players had—from a classically-trained percussionist (Pozar) to saxophonists who may not have been playing for long, to a dancer who became integral to Dixon's 1960s ensembles, so much so that the group was billed as the Bill Dixon-Judith Dunn group. The gravity of their output under his tutelage is remarkable. This carries over to the Bennington students he worked with—getting players who ranged from the good to the untrained to collectively play the same work with equal contributive force might seem unheard of. Significantly, there is no pandering or "playing down." How is this even possible?

Curran notes in the liners to his lone LP on Savoy (Elysa (1967), produced by Dixon, with Pozar, Levin and bassist Kyoshi Takunaga) that he is among the new breed of musicians who have started their work with the new music and are only influenced by what is contemporary. Most of Dixon's students probably would say the same thing—that where they are, is now. Dixon explains it by saying, "You start from where you are. To write a novel, you don't have to study Charles Dickens—you'll do that in time. You'll exhaust your limitations first—don't forget, tradition is all around you. You're sinking in it, breathing it, and you can't escape it or resist it. To force it as a prerequisite—the most you can get out of it is that it presents you with such a phenomenal bunch of facts about how things are done that you're intimidated from ever doing anything. Art goes on forever, and my experience is that you start from where it excites you and if you're intelligent, you look from where the hell did this thing come? So you took a beginning person in the room and you stayed in the room till the thing was done. The one thing I tried to impress upon people was that if you are in the room, you are as important as anybody else. It's not about this overt virtuosity—it's about everyone being a part of the whole." Yet what's also crucial is maintaining and accentuating integrity. A constant refrain of Dixon's is rooted in the idea that "somebody is always trying to lead you away from the thing that you do." Part of mentoring and educating is finding out not only what that thing is, but how to expand upon it and perhaps bring it into a collective venture.

Hired in 1968, Dixon only intended to teach at Bennington College in Vermont for a year in order to save money. "I was going to move to Europe and I decided I'd work a year or two and save my money, because I didn't want to go there like other musicians—I'm no good at working out of a paper bag, you know? I also didn't want to go to Europe and be forced to do work I wouldn't do here just to survive. I never did get the money I needed to move—I'm still working on it!" Aside from creating and running the Black Music Division from 1973 to 1985 and being a central figure in the college's Music Department from 1968 until his 1996 retirement, he's one of the rare musician-composers to have reached tenure status in a university setting—"When I came up for tenure, it was like the shot heard 'round the world. I was a faculty member."

Bill Dixon / Cecil Taylor / Tony OxleyThough not common knowledge, musicians like reedmen Marco Eneidi, Sam Rivers, Arthur Doyle, Steve Horenstein, and trumpeters Stephen Haynes and Arthur Brooks were among the players who flocked to Bennington once Dixon was there, either as visiting artists or adjuncts, even working in mills—whatever they could do to be part of the music. Says Dixon, "If I hadn't been able to use outside musicians, I wouldn't have been able to do what I did." Student musicians, some of whom later became known in this music, also had tremendous import—drummers David Moss and Henry Letcher, bassist Xtopher Farris, and pianist John Blum all participated in the Division's ensembles.

Yet, to many in this music, becoming an educator is like dropping out of the scene. As Dixon tells it, "The mantra was those that do, do and those that can't, teach. I was told a few nights before I went up there, disparagingly, 'Go on up there and teach those kids what we're doing.' The interesting thing to me was that very few professional musicians were equipped, either by temperament or skill, to teach. They thought it was going there until the phone rang, and canceling a class for George Wein. During the entire time I taught at Bennington, I had maybe four things that were important enough that I took them during the term and got someone else to teach a class. I had my winters and summers off, but my work never stopped—you have to put yourself into it, and teach those people." Indeed, wherever one is becomes Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, or Slug's.

A fascinating window in this process is comparing Dixon's introductory classes taught at Bennington to the veritable master class he often gives to orchestras that he's bringing together to perform a piece. The intellectual output and the demands placed on each are remarkably similar, disarmingly so. Teaching Jack or Jill Smith about the history of this music or how to get more projection on the flute is on an equal level with getting the right contributions from [trombonist] Conny Bauer or [vocalist] Phil Minton (5). "You have to be able to speak in a language that musicians can find ways to identify with. Concert composers do everything off the page; the notation is there and the conductor—you do what he tells you. In this music, it is a summation of all the people who are doing it. So that has to come through, and there are all kinds of ways of rehearsing an orchestra. No piece of music is so fragile that it can't have certain things not go right and still come off. I prefer rehearsing and putting together, the process, to actually performing. I know what it's finally going to be."

In the rehearsal video of the orchestra from 2007's Vision Festival, such methods as having Jackson Krall turn around several times before sitting at the drum set in order to approach the cymbals with the proper amount of looseness, made visible how the physicality of subtleness can be manifested. Similarly, in getting the ensemble to play a line a certain way, Dixon asked them to think of three different painters' approaches (whether they knew the painter or not) in getting towards what the section was based on, so as to bring to the fore "the visualness or the approach of the painters in their work—in terms of line, color, temperature of the color and collectiveness of the two—and how these things were attempting to either depict or reinforce, relating to the totality of the picture and the sound." Encouraging musicians to hear and see beyond music to get into a space collectively is just one of myriad methods that Dixon the conductor, teacher and mentor finds valuable.

In both his classes in Black Music and dealing with the exigencies—the process—of putting together an ensemble piece of music, Dixon's philosophy is very direct. Though referring mostly to instructing students, the following thoughts are hugely indicative of his mentoring approach no matter who the recipient: "I always said if I was in a [teacher's] position, students would not leave a class without being clear. I actually put myself in the place of the students I teach and imagine myself taking the class and knowing nothing. I try to be clear without teaching down to them—you have to take everyone seriously. As far as I was concerned, a beginner didn't require any less of your attention than anyone else. You also required of them the same input.

"I've always been good at explaining things like that—it's a gift that I have. For me, for all of my classes, I was teaching myself as one of my own students. Speaking plainly—you have to know when to use common parlance and what kinds of anecdotal material to bring into the room, when it's important, you have to know the subject and when to give a music lesson to clear up debris. In teaching, you're dealing with a person's mind. You're putting stuff in there, and your negative or positive impact will be with a student the rest of their lives. It's really serious business. And it's true that, though many people put teaching down, few can open every door of inquiry by themselves—almost everyone needs to be guided a bit. Studying provides you with the information, but you have to do the work."

Bill DixonRob Mazurek has been studying with Dixon intermittently since they met in Guelph in 2006. It shows on recordings such as that with Tigersmilk (with drummer Dylan Van Der Schyff and bassist Jason Roebke) on their latest album, Android Love Cry (Family Vineyard, 2008), or Mazurek's Sound Is (Delmark, 2009). Mazurek's phraseology is cloudy and ephemeral but somehow extraordinarily direct, projected with extreme presence. In the dining room one afternoon, I watched Dixon instruct Mazurek on the projection of wispy, half-valve sounds, and it brought the point home that somehow, getting the thing that's needed requires a combination of intent and relaxation. It doesn't have to be perfect, but meant—and that can be done not only mentally but physically, in terms of holding one's body in a certain way as the most delicate sounds are being produced. Yet Dixon rarely gives one-on-one classes: "You tell students who want a personal lesson that one to one is very advanced. You have five or six people in the room and you see that many different ways of solving the same problem. Also, you have to convince them that though they're not getting their private time with you, they will learn how to critique each other and emulate without competition."

Dixon's work with Mazurek is just beginning; so far it has resulted in one of the most significant discs of 2008, finding Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra in collaboration with the elder trumpeter (Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra). Instigated by Dixon's appearance with the Orchestra at the Chicago Jazz Fest, a new collaboration occurred in August at Lisbon's Jazz em Agosto. On disc, two versions of Dixon's piece "Entrances" (written for the Orchestra) and Mazurek's composition "Innerlight (For Bill Dixon)" were recorded following a seamless performance at the 2007 Chicago Jazz Fest. Dixon's playing on Mazurek's piece is a rarity—he almost never participates in others' music. But his low brass rumble and architectural sense of space have a perfect affinity for the open and backlit writing that has long characterized Mazurek's work. Dixon's own piece is deliciously out of tempo, a repetitive tandem percussion riff buoying fuzzy dissonance, with drummers John Herndon and Mike Reed updating something remarkably akin to "Metamorphoses 1962-1966," from Intents and Purposes.

Part of the reason that the Thrill Jockey record is so musically significant is because the environment was one that could foster and nurture the music. "When Rob asked me to come, initially I wasn't going to make a recording. Rob talked me into doing it, and when I got to Chicago, the interesting thing was that everything pretty much was ideal (this isn't usually the case). We were put up in the right part of town, across from the park. Everyone treated me with respect, so all I had to do was deal with my private things. The musicians were incredible with me. I didn't critique people, just made suggestions, and made the landscape possible so when a person was doing something and I said certain things, it mattered. We did the pieces in front of an audience and held open rehearsals, so right from the very beginning it was easy to figure out what as individuals and a body politic they could pull off. I was relaxed and able to go with the flow." In this case, Dixon felt supported through an environment of respect and hard work, as well as the preparedness of the musicians and the festival for what was about to take place. They respected him as both an instructor and a collaborator, and the project came off tremendously well—one can hear for oneself the recorded fruits.

The Sound's Eye

Critical in Dixon's work is his visual approach to structuring sound, something that fits with his painting and photography. As mentioned earlier, Dixon was a draftsman well before he began in music, starting drawing from a young age. As a painter, he studied with Earnest Critchlow in New York (a WPA artist), and he now mentions such influences as Edgar Degas and Robert Motherwell. Dixon's own work is mostly abstract and uses both line and field in interesting ways, though he wasn't always an abstract painter. "My work was all representational up until maybe 1960—I had a complete utter disdain for abstraction until then. I think at the same time I stopped reading novels I also abandoned representation. I remember one day when I was working at the UN and I was reading a novel, AJ Cronin or something, and I'd just finished it and said 'I don't need a singular figure telling me how a group of characters behave.' That was the last novel that I read." The early 1960s is probably about the same time Dixon began to distance himself from the standard repertoire and compose his own pieces, with pragmatic names like "Trio" and "Quartet" (titles based on arrangements of notes, rather than group personnel).

Bill Dixon Untitled Painting - Ink, Acrylic & Printing Process on Paper, 30 x 32 North Bennington, VT. [2000]

In Dixon's canvases, motifs such as a nude back and bottom detached from the figure into line and shapely area, circular objects akin to a sun, planet or trumpet's bell, calligraphic scrawl reminiscent of later Brice Marden all factor into the composition. There are fragments that come from something—a tradition, if you will—but they are elements of language used in a wholly abstract, for-itself way. His visual works range from large-scale paintings and lithographs to smaller works spanning time spent in administrative meetings at Bennington (some would say "doodles"). Dixon has had one-man shows in Italy, notably at Verona's Ferrari Gallery in 1982, but has long boycotted the American gallery system because of its treatment of black artists. Nevertheless, almost all of Dixon's releases carry an image—either scaled down or in detail—of his visual art, so one can at least get a sense of his approach to the canvas. Dixon's spatial organization of sound goes beyond the two-dimensional, and the openness engendered in his painting and photography is not entirely something flat.

The way in which he views sound is both architectural and (especially in light of his work with Judith Dunn) extraordinarily choreographic. The idea that a soloist need not be out front—rather in the ensemble or behind other soloists, moving or sounding entirely relative to other players and to the space—is not the way this music is usually approached. Certainly, Dixon's voice can be below or behind what the ensemble is doing. Indeed, on a recording like Son of Sisyphus (Soul Note, 1988, with Pavone, Cook and tubaist John Buckingham), Dixon's trumpet seems to be in another room than the rhythm section—an acoustical approach that lays a very different set of parameters on the listener.

"I don't think vertically, but horizontally. For me, if I follow a line I'm playing, I would have to turn around and look at the horizon—and what about the depth of the thing? It depends—shooting out a line and using delay or reverb almost has a cloud effect. You can put forth a phrase, the ensemble can come in, and they hover around each other. I think of this as a cube-like thing, that if it were possible I could walk into the sound and play in it like that. It goes someplace and is a collection of something—why wouldn't it have a width, height, while also having all the instruments on the same level? Let your ear select where it wants to go, toward points where there's something up top, something behind, and you hear trumpets like they're inside the other thing. It holds another kind of responsibility on the ear; we draw out the soloist when we hear something. You walk into a party and if you want to hear what someone is saying, you focus on them." Since the 1960s, Dixon's ensemble pieces and often his orchestral situations have required that every member of the group stand in a circle. The basis for that is so "everyone can be a conductor," but it's hard not to see that visually and spatially, so that everyone is involved on an equal, cloud-like level, giving true form to the sound as well as those producing it.

There's an interesting thing that Dixon does in his visual art—he photographs, cuts up and recombines sections of his paintings into new pieces, a sort of "collage" of components that are from his own vocabulary of work. This relates to two axioms constant through his oeuvre. One is that he always starts with more than he can use in a given instance, and that some things not used may find their way into another piece instead. Another is that he often reuses elements that are particularly effective in multiple contexts. Jonathan Chen's violin line in a work Dixon conducted in 2005 for Anthony Braxton's Wesleyan orchestra is based on a line that tenor saxophonist Steve Horenstein played in Dixon's 1970s ensemble, an anchoring repetition that stabilizes immense blocks of sound. It is similar, perhaps, to the vocal part that unifies the massive 1968 piece played by the Orchestra of the University of the Streets. Yet at the same time, these pieces aren't necessarily revisions or recidivism; indeed, for Dixon, "if your dedication is to a different piece of music and the only relation it has to anything else you've done is that you wrote it, things don't necessarily attach themselves by chronology or proximity. Picasso didn't have a Blue Period; he just painted some blue paintings, right?" Drawing a line from piece to piece is what one might be predisposed to do, but when the oeuvre is as much of a cloud as the sound a listener or player is faced with, a tendency is as close as one can come.

Bill Dixon "Vade Mecum, Series II" - Litho & Xylogravure, 76.5 x 56 cm. Villeurbanne, France. [Winter/1994]

Words and sentence scraps also find their way into his visual art, calligraphic doodles and tracings; they could invoke something, save for the fact that they are only visual elements. Dixon's script is expressive and painterly—curious lines that mark the producer's notes to a quartet of Savoy recordings he curated in the late '60s as part of the fulfillment of his contract to the label (dates given to Pozar, Curran, Watts and Marc Levin). Words and language can also be an auditory element—"Letters: Round Up the Usual Suspects" is a piece he premiered at Bennington in 1990, with Sharon Vogel, Robert Sugarman, Brooks Ashmanskas and Beau Friedlander reciting letters written to Dixon, in conjunction with two trumpets, three basses, piano and reeds. The text becomes sound, even as familiar words and phrases pop out. Curiously, Dixon's solo trumpet piece "Webern" is as much (if not more) about the sound of the word of its title than a direct homage to the composer. "The sound of something, the way it looks, what something means (because I'm not good at titling things)—sometimes a piece falls in your lap as a result. If you like the way the words shape themselves and become a name or something like that, it can be useful. There is a bent for investigating literary trends in my work, and every now and then I've seen something I like and used it."

Dixon is ultimately an integrative thinker, perhaps going back to the idea of collage. The entire sphere of the thing is important; one has only to look at the aforementioned Odyssey or The Collection (both Cadence, 1981) to see this. In addition to the music contained, there are samples of visual art and writings by Dixon and others. The forthcoming Firehouse 12 set will include two discs of music, a DVD, writings by collaborators and drawings. One could conceivably look at such an endeavor from a musical, visual or literary angle. He puts it simply, that "it gives you a better picture of who the person is," but it's certainly more than that. "With me it's been stream-of-consciousness. A lot of people, when they first start to do work, go from the beginning to the middle to the end. Then you realize that the beginning might not be the beginning, and once you're freed from this obligation, you can just start. Because everything is editing, you can put it into the order you want." This view of one's work—all of it—as a collage, a plenum and a cloud is what loosely and definitively ties together this vision.

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