Bill Dixon: The Morality of Improvisation


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Followers of improvised music are very good at expanding on the personalities of artists, and that oral tradition has certainly been aided by the musicians through a sort of 'educational mythology.' To be sure, the personalities of Miles, Trane, Cecil, Mingus and Ornette are fascinating and notable, but this interest in the men and their whims often comes at the expense of their work - in other words, the empirical aspect of what these men are doing and have done is lost among reading between those lines. To complicate matters further, what these people have done outside the realms of composition and improvisation is valuable - Coltrane's importance as a spiritual figure inasmuch as he was (and is) a major innovator on his instrument, for example. Bill Dixon, born October 5, 1925 in Nantucket, Massachusetts, certainly has done much outside of being a composer and trumpeter: professor (in Madison and Bennington), painter, guild organizer (the Jazz Composers' Guild, 1964-1965), record producer (Savoy) and arranger (New York Contemporary Five), concert promoter (the October Revolution in Jazz at the Cellar Club, New York, 1964), writer (L'Opera: a Collection of Letters, Writings, Musical Scores, Drawings, and Photographs (1967-1986) [Volume One], Archive Edition 1986), educator of young musicians (Free Conservatory of the University of the Streets, Black Music Division of Bennington College), the list goes on. But there are several problems one encounters when approaching Dixon's work, not the least of which is the fact that, despite all of the components of such an opus, including a significant amount of recordings (though some admittedly rather difficult to obtain), very little discussion has been opened about his work as both an improviser and a major contributor to this music.

One thing that has made Dixon's work a formidable approach is its singularity and conviction, which Dixon himself readily acknowledges: "all of my work is good work, because unlike a lot of musicians, I recognize and acknowledge that whenever I did [a work] that's all I could do at the time, and was capable of. You'll get no apologies coming from me. With a few early-career exceptions and an appearance as a sideman on Cecil Taylor's Conquistador (Blue Note, 1966), all of Dixon's recorded music (compositions and groups) has been his own - something rare even among the jazz vanguard. Yet, in the case of the latter, his work with Cecil Taylor (one record) has been lauded at the expense of recognition for his own contemporaneous work as a leader, the monumental Intents and Purposes (RCA-Victor, 1967), recorded one week after Conquistador to almost no distribution. Another phrase that Dixon applies to his work is that "it is what it is. For as much historical reference, social urgency and personality that critics and followers alike ascribe to music, what one is left with in both performance and recording is the work at hand - no more, no less. Naturally, to be faced with unclothed art is a somewhat frightening proposition, even for the most astute critics and constituents, but all any artist asks is what drummer Ted Robinson said to Amiri Baraka in 1965: "Since God has bestowed me with the want to execute the sound that I feel, I shall proceed. Drive and necessity are theoretically what should be attractive about creative music, though the baggage tends to weigh those perceptions down.

Dixon was mentor during the '60s to reedmen like Archie Shepp, John Tchicai, Byard Lancaster, Giuseppi Logan, Marzette Watts, Ed Curran and Arthur Doyle, multi-instrumentalist Marc Levin, drummer Bob Pozar and bassist Alan Silva, a coterie of musicians for whom the term 'underground' frequently has been applied - using them in his various groups as well as producing records for a number of them under the guise of Savoy. Dixon has orchestrated a number of situations in an attempt to circumvent the negative treatment of 'new' musicians at the hands of both club owners and record companies, through both organization and education - both of which ideally lead to mobilization. In this climate, Dixon formed what would be the Jazz Composers' Guild in 1964 - an organization which included Sun Ra, Paul and Carla Bley, Cecil Taylor, Burton Greene, Roswell Rudd, Archie Shepp and Jon Winter among others. Though the lack of conviction of some of its members eventually resulted in the Guild's dissolution, it is fair to say that the perception of the music is necessary political for Dixon, and it has to be in order to bypass confusion: "[In concert music] they know more, because they know theirs is a music, both the people who write about it and the people who do it. In this music, people are not too sure whether it's entertainment, whether it is art, and they won't admit it. As for education, Dixon has not only mentored, but he has also taught the music formally from an academic perspective - and did so for twenty-five years. "I actually engaged in the enterprise of teaching [academically], when I decided to do it, and the way [most teaching] actually worked was that you had a lot of musicians who wanted to do work of a certain kind, and they gravitated towards people so they could get some information. For Dixon, "teaching has to do with the idea of passing information, facts, history, the aesthetics, philosophy, the morality of the situation, who the people were, the periods, and cannot leave out any of that. Now, as I said the other day, if you're going to ascribe to this music [the quality of] art, then those things apply to it. If it is solely entertainment, then those things do not apply to it, and I think people are very confused sometimes because they want it both ways. Conviction in so many words is morality, and a moral music must be taught.

Knowing for a fact that one's work is of necessity should carry even more weight now - both for Dixon and for the improvised music community as a whole - than forty years ago. "Once the initial shock of the thing being what it is, once it has been assimilated, if there isn't some kind of thing to keep it moving forward, it disappears - which is one of the reasons why some of us contest this idea of what boundaries for development this music should have, because if it's an art form, there are no boundaries. What you do is not have to worry too much, because if something that isn't significant [allows itself into art] it's going to disappear anyway. However, once you put shackles on a person's creativity, you're playing Russian roulette. The history of this music is that I remember even when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were getting some begrudging recognition in the mid-40s, Thelonious Monk was still hanging on and they didn't know how to categorize him. I make the observation that, as far as the development of this music is concerned, and especially with reference to myself, if certain things are not happening for me and if areas of my work are being made invisible, I'm not the only one. They must be doing it to others too, so we have to question the entire documented 'history' of this music. Dixon is not entirely popular for his views, but even among the improvised music community, there is a palpable fear of circumventing a canon to allow the significant work to function on its own aesthetic level: "Anything that you do, for it to be interesting to someone else, it's almost magical because we're so varied, and if something you really do is attractive to someone else, that's almost a miracle. This is a conviction in not only Dixon's own work, but the work of any artist who, worth their salt, creates something out of the need to express it. One must necessarily extrapolate what it is that drives Dixon as what drives anybody else doing something creative, and that the same need for allowing that art to exist on its own terms applies to anyone who is doing the work.

Apart from the artist, those who engage the work must not only accept the conviction of that artist, but themselves exhibit that very same conviction. Can one limit one's interest in an artist to a certain period, or a couple of recordings? "When anyone is doing anything, to say 'well this or that is not interesting,' it may very well not be interesting to you, but unless that person is doing things deliberately uninteresting to himself, it is patently unfair and uniformed to use that as a blanket statement. ...I think that when you become caught up with a person's work, you want every single thing they've done. You want the rejects if you can get them. Just as when Pollock's and Clyfford Still's work make the most sense when exhibited among a large number of their other works, so the art of an improviser must be appreciated and understood not only among that of his or her peers, but the breadth of one's working output - whether constituting 6 recordings or 600. As a leader or co-leader, Dixon has 21 albums, though the book Dixonia: A Bio-Discography of Bill Dixon authored by Ben Young (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998) documents every musical situation Dixon has involved himself with from the moment he began playing trumpet in 1946 until the book's completion in 1997 - this includes unissued tapes (which Dixon has a copious amount of), practices, rehearsals, concerts and in-class performances. For sure, few artists are given context at such a level. To accompany this book in the form of a collection of audio and visual examples, Dixon produced and self-released Odyssey in 1998, a six-disc set of solo trumpet pieces and spoken word spanning almost thirty years, filled out with color reproductions of paintings and drawings as well as essays by his colleagues.

Dixon's stature as an instrumentalist, composer and contributor to the improvised music community rests not only on the empirical value of his own work, but his tremendous influence as well. It is only fitting that Dixon is opening this year's Festival Of the New Trumpet (curated by Dave Douglas and Roy Campbell Jr.) on August 2, as his approach to the instrument - utilizing growls, slurs, bent notes and, through uncommon breathing practices - has expanded the tonal palette of brass much as his student Alan Silva has done with high-harmonic string glissandi. Joe McPhee, in the liner notes to Everything Happens for a Reason (Roaratorio, 2005), discusses Dixon in the album-opener "Mythos, what the trumpeter/reedman calls "an attempt to evoke a sonic portrait of the master, a brittle and alternately weighty and playful mélange of microtonal brass daubs. Bassist John Voigt, who worked in tandem with Mario Pavone for several years in the early 1980s as a member of Dixon's quartet, remarked in conversation about "the unbending force of Dixon's music and its "purity, and that despite the fact that the compositions themselves often appeared sketchy at first, there was a remarkable amount of control along with all the freedom that one was allowed. Voigt found Dixon to be "the most articulate in dealing with his own music of all the people [Voigt has] worked with, something that anyone who speaks with the man at length will find to be very true. Yet in expanding the structural language of an instrument and the educational foundations on which an art form is built, Dixon's influence can nevertheless be felt as much as it can be pinpointed. It is a body of work affirming a central tenet of improvisation - an art that is both taught and lived.

Recommended Listening:

· Bill Dixon - Intents and Purposes: The Jazz Artistry of Bill Dixon (RCA-Victor, 1966-'67)

· Bill Dixon - Solo Works: Odyssey (Archive Edition, 1970-'90)

· Bill Dixon - In Italy, Vol.1&2 (Soul Note, 1980)

· Bill Dixon - Vade Mecum I & II (Soul Note, 1993)

· Bill Dixon - Papyrus Vol.1&2 (Soul Note, 1998)

· Bill Dixon - Berlin Abbozzi (with Matthias Bauer, Klaus Koch and Tony Oxley) (FMP, 1999)

Photo Credit
Performing by Frank Rubolino
Portrait by Mephisto

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