Bill Dixon: In Rehearsal, In Performance


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Do what you do, and do it definitively. If you do this, it will work.
—Bill Dixon
"Composition is the assembling of musical materials that are generally accessible to every musician and their placement into a new order."

"Improvisation is the instantaneous realization of composition without the benefits or demerits of change or alteration." —Trumpeter/Composer Bill Dixon on Composition and Improvisation.

Bill Dixon "Don't just jump in—don't play right away." Bill Dixon's rich baritone voice quieted the assembled musicians without ever rising above a mezzoforte. "Listen to the note you're tuning to before you start to play—I mean really listen to it."

The rehearsal had barely begun, and the concert was only hours away. It was June 20, 2007, and Dixon was to have his newest orchestral work premiered on the second night of the twelfth Vision Festival at the Angel Orensanz Center. Even before the first note of the third rehearsal sounded, Dixon had proven himself the profound teacher he has always been, rendering tuning an object lesson concerning the listening required for his music.

Starkly removed from history and tradition, and yet eerily and achingly redolent of its revolutionary moments, Dixon's compositions form an equally disparate and unified body of work that ranks among the finest this country has offered the world.

Born in 1925 in Massachusetts, Dixon moved with his family to New York in the 1930s, as it became the heated cultural amalgam that would produce so many important musical figures and movements, but Dixon's work has always existed at an angle from whatever trends he has encountered and absorbed. An admirer of musical forces as diverse as Charlie Parker, Boyd Raeburn and Anton Webern, Dixon began developing a voice that truly synthesized and transcended his influences.

Dixon often insists that he developed late, not picking up the trumpet, or any instrument for that matter, until 1946, after he had left the military. A visual artist before he had ever composed or played, he nevertheless developed his musical craft rapidly, studying hard and listening constantly, beginning a ceaseless search for that which would push his music forward. His organization and execution of the October Revolution in Jazz (October, 1964) and his subsequent formation of the Jazz Composer's Guild should be seen as just one facet of his lifelong effort to win proper and long overdue respect for what Dixon repeatedly calls "This music!" He has no patience for the term Jazz, which he sees as one more manifestation of the racism that has made small groups the primary vehicle for Black music and kept it in the indifferent settings of clubs and bars, where selling drinks and enforced inattentiveness remain paramount.

Bill Dixon

As with the October Revolution, 1964 saw what must have appeared to be an extraordinary development in Dixon's compositional style. His side of a shared LP with saxophonist Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon/Archie Shepp (Savoy, 1964), was leaps and bounds ahead of their 1962 Savoy album, Archie Shepp - Bill Dixon Quartet, but Dixon's compositions on live contemporary Five documents, released after the fact, reveal stunning compositional clarity. By the time the orchestral masterpiece Intents and Purposes was recorded for RCA in October of 1966, Dixon's work sounded like no other. Since then, each work has inhabited an elastic but defined universe; even if it shares motivic ideas with previous compositions, as happens with several of Dixon's 1960s pieces. His visionary approach to timbre and orchestration, dictated equally by necessity and invention, ensures the autonomy of each venture and of each involved individual's contribution to the whole.

There was a pregnant silence before the Sound and Vision Orchestra began to tune; the note was sounded and, again, a pause, a passage of enough time for the note to penetrate—into the room, then through every sound outside the room. The transformation in the orchestral playing was immediate and breathtaking, a precursor of what was to occur that evening.

This was my first exposure to a live Dixon rehearsal, for what was to be my first Dixon performance. For a year-and-a-half I have had the privilege of very frequent conversations with Dixon about his music, the music of his generation and before, about literature and about the politics of his generation and before—in short, about everything. I have heard rehearsal documents from his vast archive, but now I had the chance to watch Dixon's vision unfold in real time.

A significant portion of the rehearsal was spent discussing solos, but certainly not in any conventional sense. I have often heard Dixon define a solo as "the smallest orchestra possible." Blurring the lines between self and surroundings by essentially dismissing both concepts as falsehoods, this startling view of the solo imbues the performer with the freedom of unlimited sonic possibility. "If you're playing at a volume where you can't hear everyone else in the orchestra, you're playing too loud," Dixon stated, years of conducting and playing experience informing the prescriptive observation. After some group hesitation when the solos were to begin, Dixon summed up his philosophy as simply and as beautifully as I've ever heard: "Do what you do, and do it definitively. If you do this, it will work."

Revelatory moments such as this define Dixon's approach to the dual arts of music and education. He is nothing if not clear, his speech is as musical as his music is rhetorical; his love of the theater and of sound in general being ever-present, transmitted with equal vigor to those he teaches. It was evident in the room just before the performance, anticipation growing palpably through the moment when a lifetime achievement award, advertised for the evening, was conspicuously not presented to Dixon. It swelled as the applause welcomed composer and orchestra and reached fever pitch in the expectant instant before the first note, a crystalline saxophone invocation, the embodiment of chilly precision that suspended time and dispelled rational thought. Again, I could hear Dixon exhort: "Don't just jump in—wait."

How best to encapsulate a glacially frozen moment? More than any other concert at the festival, Dixon's work seemed as simultaneously natural and complex as the drawing of breath. All parts of the orchestra coalesced in huge waves of sound, but each ripple was also readily apparent, a staggering blend of macro and microcosm; this in itself is not new in Dixon's work, nor are the unison passages that served as a kind of ritornello. The placement of each sound, defined by the moment, and the juxtapositions of each spontaneous emotive and structural event in the overall schema defined the piece. Size, scale and volume became relative; the acoustic space in which we sat seeming to grow and shrink in slow fade as the piece progressed in overlapping spirals. There were valleys of silence, as if all involved were breathing between almost impenetrably long phrases, and then the almost imperceptible motion would continue.

Bill Dixon

An apotheosis of sorts was reached when Dixon finally began to play. Using his now customary reverb/delay combination, he brought simultaneous disorder and focus to the work's second half. His playing has embraced rhythm and melody as a symbiosis; as with every other element in his music, they birth each other, existing in a state of constant transition, the embodiment of Baraka's "changing same" if ever there was one. Building line upon line with the delay, and bringing overtones and breathed inflections to the fore with reverb, the orchestral qualities of a Dixon solo were in full effect. Tones so achingly thin they resembled flute more than trumpet vied with sudden bursts, exclamations so forceful as to be threatening, a quality sadly diminished on record.

The others followed stridently—how could they not follow presented with such disciplined freedom?

Blindness prevented me from seeing who was actually playing what passages, and Dixon's orchestration does not follow any of the conventions associated with the traditions on which he came up—so much the better. Similarly, notions of improvisation and composition were obscured to the point of irrelevance, taking formal considerations with them. Passages of obviously composed material emerged from what I had taken to be collective improvisation, only to vanish as quickly, making me unsure of the method behind what I had just heard, what I was then hearing. Dixon's definitions of improvisations and composition, with which I began this article, encapsulate, with the beauty of precision, the experience of Dixon's music in the concert hall.

Moments stand out in my memory, like beacons in a labyrinth. Warren Smith's short sharp shocks of tympani fanned momentary flames amidst the liquid counterpoint. The trumpet and cornet trio of Taylor Ho Bynum, Graham Haynes and Steve Haynes engaged in a stunning dialogue; there was the final ascent, all remnants of solo absorbed into a terrifyingly beautiful high-volume collectivity that forced an eruption of applause just before the meditative conclusion.

But, best of all, there was the chord. I had heard it in rehearsal, and it appeared in the piece itself—an aggregate of such all-encompassing beauty, of such majesty and magnitude; Scriabin's opening to Prometheus provides a glimpse into the worlds encapsulated by this sonority, but it pulsed, morphed without growing, individual voices emerging to fade and be replaced by another. It embodied the whole piece, the fabric of which the work was woven, and I have never heard a sound like it, live or on disc.

Bill Dixon Only when the ovations had died down, when it was clear that Dixon was not going to come back out, when Steve Dalachinsky had read a poem in his honor, and when Copilots had taken the stage, did I begin to realize fully the enormity of what I'd heard. It happened when the trio began to play, and I became aware of something familiar. Henry Grimes stopped the proceedings, approached the microphone, and dedicated the piece to Dixon; it was a transcription of "Long Alone Song," one of Dixon's solo works from the early 1970s. Faithful and yet imbued with freedom, it was a perfect summation of what we had witnessed, the mystically Eastern flavor of the original and its angelic silences somehow augmented and transmogrified, rendering a conventional piano trio into more than it was. Indeed, almost every group in the festival, and the festival itself, would not exist had Dixon not forged the template—equal parts love and rage—that brought this music to the sociopolitical space it currently occupies.

I don't know if he heard the tribute, and I don't know if he shared my frustration that it was almost the only acknowledgment his fifty-plus years of work received on a night purportedly in his honor. As I've written elsewhere, the man deserves more, much more than he's been afforded. Only now, after the festival and two highly successful post-Vision appearances in Chicago, does it seem that a few brave souls are beginning to listen, to dare to enter the universe he has created and acknowledge previous ignorance. It needs to happen now, while he is alive to reap the benefits of the discovery so that his work can continue in the fashion he desires and so richly deserves. As the old song says, "Now's the time!"

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Thrill Jockey
Bottom Photo: Mark Ladenson

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