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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.


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