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.


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