Maintaining Essence (in memoriam Bill Dixon)


Sitting in his dining room in 2004, deep in conversation, Bill Dixon asked me if I had read DIXONIA. I answered “No.” (Given my long-standing appreciation of Bill’s work, which has been a great inspiration to me, this revelation might be considered surprising. But the truth was that, beyond the book’s hefty price tag, it was a bio-discography, and I was frankly much more interested in a full-out autobiography.) I believe he next offered to give me a copy, and I expressed my not being comfortable with receiving it as an outright gift. He looked away for a moment, and then looked back at me and said he’d give me a copy if I were to write an essay based on the book, and, as it evolved, reference the multi-CD/artwork set ODYSSEY as well. (Commenting on the latter was ironic, because, as I learned that day, Bill had wanted me to write the central essay/liner note for ODYSSEY. To that end, he asked compiler Ben Young to contact me. But thanks to Young’s lackadaisical attempt at doing so, the assignment predictably went to someone in Young’s “hipster” circle.) I told him I had essentially given up my ancillary writing activities, but, thinking to myself, “How can I say ‘no’ to Bill Dixon?”, I agreed; on the condition that, out of respect for his lifework, he be given final approval of the piece.

However, let me back up for a moment and set the stage for my first and only meeting with Bill. My connection to him over the decades had to do with reviews of his work I had written. (My love of his music had, of course, predated any published assessments. As a young man, his work immediately seized me. There was something in his sound/approach, and indeed, in the manner in which he seemed to carry himself that resonated with me.) Thus, in 1985, I was taken aback when I was received a copy of the 2 LP box set COLLECTION with a note from the producer stating that Bill had asked that the set be forwarded to me for review. I had no idea Bill had read (to say nothing of appreciated) anything I had written! (I had a similar experience in 1974 when a box of LPs arrived from Martin Davidson, who had just founded Emanem. It seems Steve Lacy had made the same request!) Over the years, I turned any number of people onto Bill’s work. One of them, Chad Popple, met Bill in Europe and gave him a copy of my triple CD, SURGES/SUSPENSIONS, COMME TOUJOURS.  As I understand it, Bill genuinely appreciated the music, favoring a particular section which he returned to many times. Another, Andrew Raffo Dewar, ended up writing his masters’ thesis on Bill’s music and visual art. And, as a result of Andrew’s facilitating a trip out east for me, bassist Andrew Lafkas and I made the sojourn to Bill and Sharon’s home in 2004. Upon meeting me, Bill shook my hand and said something to the effect of “You actually exist! I thought you were a nom be plume!” It was a long day which, as long as I have my faculties, I’ll treasure.

In the ensuing year or so, the process of writing the essay — also informed by a copy of L’OPERA that Bill loaned and eventually gave me — was involved and periodically trying. E-mail exchanges often went far beyond the matters at hand, and wonderfully so. I am pleased by the final result, but, more importantly, Bill was as well.

However, it never found a home. So, at this point, I have elected to “publish” it here, as a tribute to Bill. I have re-worked a bit of the first section, made a few grammatical/word-choice corrections, and have left in a short section originally excised at Bill’s request. Admittedly living down to Bill’s mistrust of people, my reasoning (then, as now) was that, as a direct quote from DIXONIA, the opinion/sentiment had already been “immortalized”.


Every so often, the zeitgeist seems poised for a genuine paradigm shift; the sense of humanity being able to live up to its deeply buried potential, the air being ripe with the utterly palpable presentiment that anything is possible. Oft times, these slightly ajar doors, rifts in the status quo, slits in the fabric of culture can most unequivocally be seen, or rather felt in the arts as the result of some sort of an aesthetic breakthrough, which upon more careful analysis, is actually nothing more or less than the inevitable extension of tradition. (The fact that breakthroughs are perceived as revolution rather than evolution [a more or less natural progression of events] has to do with the intertwined dynamic between an unconscious need and desire for meaningful change [fueled by the self-aggrandizement at the core of all human endeavor], and the inertia/artificial security inherent in the concept of a status quo.) And, as every political(/social) ‘revolution’ becomes the antithesis of its intent, i.e.; dictatorship begets dictatorship, or, more specifically, one ruling class displaces (or is absorbed by) another, so every artistic ‘revolution’ is appropriated by the status quo, which, after all, has an insatiable appetite, and is able to utilize everything for its own ends; leading to the maintenance of mediocrity at best, and, at worst, something akin to evil.
But despite this inevitable process of assimilation/dilution, there are nonetheless individuals committed to the essence of that shift; those who personify the struggle to become, in the most resonant sense of the word, human. Therefore, it becomes clear that the activity or genre is of far less import than the concerted efforts of the devoted practitioner.
Furthermore, it is only on that plane, in the individual, that something like revolution is possible. The true revolutionary recognizes that one is one’s own worst enemy; that the real revolution is internal, against oneself. From there emanates the potential for true change; it is the only fertile ground from which the seeds of meaningful change can possibly bear fruit. As an integral obbligato, it is worth noting that this ground often contains traits too often dismissed as encumbrances–neuroses, compulsiveness, paranoia, depression, persecution complex, anxiety–in all, a heightened sensitivity to and for so-called internal and external reality (i.e., the human condition). Even if problematic (which they often are), these traits can nonetheless be catalytic agents, which, when utilized in concert with intuition and conscious choices derived from thoughtful observation, are valuable tools in charting a course of action removed from the mainstream. Such a course, the antithesis of what has come to be termed “careerism”, is anything but linear, but nonetheless illuminates a decisive path.

compiled by Ben Young
Greenwood Press (hardcover, 418 pages)

“The way to get me away from something is have everybody dig it–then I’m off and running. I don’t trust people, and if too many people are digging it, then what you’re doing is not what you think it is. That’s been my experience. I may be super-sensitive about it; I’ve rarely been wrong.” — Bill Dixon

And thus begins this specific gathering of evidence at hand, wherein the progression of events — rehearsals, club dates, concerts, recording sessions — are underscored and illuminated by the commentary surrounding them. To a degree, it’s a study in and of conflicts, but to a much greater extent, it’s the story of how one man with a clear, evolving vision attempts to find his way in the world without losing what is most precious: his soul; and not the archaic, romantic, moral concept thereof, but rather a soul of ethics, purpose and resonance, at conflict with the world, with itself.

“I know of no major writer who knew about certain places where all of this activity {free jazz, avant garde jazz, or as Dixon prefers, Black Music, wherein the concepts of melody, harmony and rhythm were expanded exponentially in a sonic, though not necessarily political/social mirroring of 20th century classical music} was beginning to take shape in the Fifties. That wasn’t where they were focusing. They acted as though one didn’t exist if one didn’t work any of the places where they went to review groups. Common sense should have informed them that every musician who wasn’t originally ‘acceptable’ to be employed in those places hadn’t killed himself. They were doing something, somewhere. That ‘somewhere’ was where a lot of the music was being played.”

This willful shortsightedness and laziness of the critical establishment, card carrying members of the 4th estate, is endemic to historians and journalists everywhere. Shaping reality to fit their agendas, and often purposefully obfuscated in a wall of pedantry, their distortions and inaccuracies have as much to do with a career path (for music critics, a move from smaller to larger publications, from writer to liner note annotator to editor to author to producer), as with an innate and/or conscious knowledge as to the master they serve, that is to say the status quo. Consequently, they most often eschew complexities, opting instead for the superficial. And, naturally, this strategy often entails playing favorites, or, in any case, promoting eager “careerists” at the expense of those closer to what could be termed the source of the creative impetus. Few journalists, or art bureaucrats, or promoters, or producers — in all, power brokers — are willing to deal with someone who sees right through them, and, upon occasion, in one way or another, calls them on their bullshit. This goes a long way in explaining why Dixon, while often rightfully acknowledged as the force behind 1964’s October Revolution In Jazz, the first festival spotlighting the “new jazz,” has not received the fiscal support accorded to lesser practitioners; nor credit for his many other personal, artistic, and sociological contributions to the field of Black Music. (Granted, members of the current batch of 4th estate sycophants are taking a more concerted interest in Dixon’s work. But, given the nature and tone of their writing overall, this would seem to be much more a case of a well-intended, but nonetheless disingenuous interest in an established, controversial icon, rather than an insightful championing of a unique creative voice. Indeed, had these critics been active some 10 or 15 years ago, they would have most likely toed the party line: ignoring him altogether, treating his work with derision, or throwing him scraps of token praise. To wit, digging Dixon now has a certain cachet.) Even a cursory glance at Dixon’s accomplishments leaves a marked impression. One can start with such vital footnotes as his having given Ornette Coleman some advice concerning the trumpet on the cusp of the alto saxophonist’s arsenal expansion, the support, guidance, and encouragement he lent to unorthodox, ground breaking players such as drummer Sunny Murray and bassist Alan Silva, his being the primary writer/arranger for the New York Contemporary Five, and his having produced an interesting series of recordings featuring other artists for Savoy Records. On a larger scale, Dixon was the architect and founder of the short-lived Jazz Composers Guild, the first, and arguably most vital free jazz cooperative. And, concerning aesthetics, as early as 1965 aspects of his collaborative work with choreographer/dancer Judith Dunn reflected the John Cage (composer)/Merce Cunningham (choreographer) concept of indeterminacy. (Surfacing in the Fifties, indeterminacy — the juxtaposition of separately conceived and/or seemingly unrelated material — was linked to, if not derived from the Italian futurist concept of simultaneity, which, in the context of works for theater, was formally introduced in 1915. That Italian futurism had ties to the burgeoning fascist movement is as unfortunate as it is ironic.) This is noteworthy because, previous to 1965 or so, the jazz avant garde hadn’t yet embraced indeterminacy as a strategical tool, and, indeed, up to the present day, it has essentially been ignored by the vast majority of improvising musicians and/or dancers. Additionally, Dixon began using hand signals as a compositional tool in late 1966/early 1967. (Often subtle, these signals were nonetheless a clear precursor to “conduction” [conducted improvisation] which, while periodically an extremely effective improvisational strategy, is more often than not, a specious, heavily promoted, and, for one post-Dixon brass player in particular, lucrative gimmick.) But, despite the striking qualities inherent in his compositional frameworks, mirrored visually in his paintings and prints, and his expansive teaching methodologies, what has been more egregiously overlooked are Bill Dixon’s myriad, nuanced contributions to the evolving lexicon of the forced air tube known as the trumpet.

“By the time [making a record] began to surface as a possibility and a necessity if I was going to make the next logical step, I had no background and no support system. No one had ever even told me that anyone would be interested in my work. Black people never found enough things in my music or in my painting for me to be legitimately black for them; white people knew I wasn’t white. Where was the confidence going to come from to convince a record company to invest money in what I did? That was never in the vanguard of my thoughts. When I became ready to record, I had a singular purpose: I was going to do what I wanted to, and no one was going to make me do what I didn’t want to do. I never had the problem — in the few offers I had from record companies — of someone having the audacity to tell me who I was going to use, what pieces to play, or how long they were going to be…It never occurred to any of those people I dealt with, because I didn’t carry myself that way.” {Emphasis by the essay author}
“Being a Black man in America can put incredible blinders on your vision. If I’m turned down for something, I don’t know whether it’s because of the quality of my work, or because I’m Black. That’s been the history.”
“‘…and I was looking for a magazine to publish a folio of my paintings, I went to Freedomways, and they were interested in my work (until they saw it) but they asked me to do some writing.’ In 1967, Freedomways published Dixon’s reviews of the Encyclopedia of Jazz and Four Lives In The Be Bop Business. They refused his review of Leroi Jones’ (aka Amiri Baraka) Blues People. ‘They said it was too critical of Jones. No one was saying what I said about the book, and they didn’t want to get on Roi’s bad side…Jones and I never did get along anyway. First of all, I found them artificially political. Jones’ Black Arts Repertory Theater was all built on poverty funds: how revolutionary were you if you were taking money from the parent society and then mumbling and grumbling.'”

Born in 1925, and spending the better part of developmental years in New York City, Bill Dixon lived through, and was heavily impacted by an especially volatile period in the history of jazz and civil rights. From the twenties onward, jazz, propelled by the velocity of the industrial revolution, and, in the late fifties/sixties, fueled by social unrest, splintered from a populist, dance-oriented art form to one encompassing all manner of sounds and approaches. And while the developments of early 20th century classical music certainly informed the free jazz of the sixties (classical music having taken several centuries to reach similar technical and strategical conclusions), the civil rights/Black nationalistic movement of the time had an equal if not greater impact. (Predictably, however, given the spirit of the time, musicians in Europe and Japan were also charting similar paths.) But while Dixon was, like all human organisms, a conduit for the social/political/artistic milieu swirling around him, his processing and utilization of that milieu, catalyzed in part by an innate, intuitive inability to mount a career in the traditionally understood sense of the word, ran contrary to the norm. Thus, rather than being rooted in the hollow opportunism endemic to superficial politics, Dixon’s transition from “jazz musician” to “musician,” and his subsequent establishment of a Black Music Division at Bennington College were the result of a natural evolution rooted in his appreciation for bonafide artistic expression irrespective of cultural orientation, and predicated upon continuing personal, historical and aesthetic reevaluations. To wit, Dixon played the cards that were dealt him in a decisively individual manner which most benefited his art.

“Dixon describes three tenets of music education central to the outlook of his Black Music program:
‘1. It’s not music unless it’s played. Therefore the curriculum was built around instrumental practice primarily, augmented by relevant amounts of music theory, history, writing, etc.
2. You can’t wait around to be invited to Carnegie Hall. This is your Carnegie Hall.
All episodes of music — whether advertised, with famous musicians, before an audience, senior concerts, or not — were approached with the same intensity and dedication, on the understanding that the importance of the music to the musicians (i.e., the students) and not to the audience determined how meaningful or ‘successful’ the concert was.
3. All teaching activities had to start from the beginning — not teaching down to students, but assuming that everyone knew nothing, taking nothing for granted.'”

While teaching was an integral part of Dixon’s survival strategy, it was also, and more vitally, a living laboratory where the composer/trumpeter could develop his ideas on a plethora of levels. The benefit for the students, or, more specifically, those who worked with him for something other than a course of study requirement, was the opportunity to immerse themselves in a living, creative process, and, ideally, in doing so, find something of themselves. The Black Music Division of Bennington was the culmination of many factors. As a child, Dixon was exposed to (and, more importantly, eager to absorb) all manner of intellectual stimulation. Dixon seemed to take advantage of every opportunity afforded him. Growing into adulthood, he immersed himself in a variety of music groups and music-related activities, and cultivated a comprehensive knowledge of music theory and technique, while still continuing his work in the visual arts. In a very real sense, his life was a workshop as he latched onto anything that could lead him to self-realization. As an adjunct to his day job at the United Nations in the late fifties, his establishment of the United Nations Jazz Society was a distant precursor to a Black Music program. Of a more immediate impact was the formation of the Bill Dixon-Judith Dunn (or vice versa, depending on whether the activity at hand was more oriented to sound or movement) Company, which existed from 1966-72. It was during which time both he and Dunn joined the faculty at Bennington. (Dunn initially approached Dixon with the idea of collaborating on some level, after having heard him play and being affected by his sound.) Collaborating with Dunn provided many teaching opportunities, most often in a workshop format, though, of course, their work in creating pieces together was essentially a teaching/learning experience as well. But, underlying all and sundry in making the Black Music Division a reality was Dixon’s vision, and, more to the point, his sheer will power and determination in realizing that vision. (From there, of course, was the inevitable struggle to maintain it, resulting in a decades long battle with institutional bureaucrats, and, in the end, with colleagues, which Dixon fought with the same passionate insight he brings to his music.)
Of particular import in Dixon’s teaching was his ability to work with people whose technical abilities and theoretical knowledge were widely variable. Unlike most college level instructors, who are victims of their own cultural prejudice, which, in music, means they adhere to what could be described as the European classical model (with most jazz professors adhering to their own version of same, and, in doing so, misrepresenting and misappropriating the aesthetics of Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, et. al.), Dixon’s background and, above all, his open-mindedness, which simultaneously embraced the ivory tower and the street, the rural and the urban, allowed him to hear and appreciate voices from all sides of the aesthetic tracks. For Dixon, creativity derived and sculpted from any sincere, meaningful source constitutes the potential for art, the essence of which is found in realization, or “the work.” In other words, and distilled to a point approaching something like truth, the fact of the matter is that art, in the most profound and human sense of the word, is nothing more nor less than each one of us, alone, putting forth our most resonant effort, from one eternal moment to the next, until we are no more. In this way does our energy most effectively translate into the world.

“When I walked into the recording session with all of those people, no one said a word. I said I wanted to record in the round, and McCuen asked me ‘Are you interested in a musical record or a stereo record?’ So we made a musical record in the round.”
“Ultimately, Dixon even set the ensemble recording balance from the engineering booth. ‘My part — the very high line over all of the written parts — wasn’t supposed to be virtuoso-player-over-the-ensemble. Traditionally, they would have raised the level of that part. The engineers couldn’t understand why I would want to play all of that stuff and it not be heard. I wanted it to have a wispy quality, but where you could still hear it.'”
“You see, the difference between this music and formal concert music had to do with both what the so-called composer wanted and how it could be done. In the European concert tradition, musicians were trained to read a part under the conductor’s direction, and it wasn’t authentic if it didn’t follow these directions. Their basic symbol was that academic calligraphy: notes on the page, rhythmic subdivisions, key signatures, bar lines. In the entire history of this music that wasn’t the way it was principally done; in fact a lot of musicians began to think that reading the music took away from the creativity of it.”
“But {the LP} INTENTS AND PURPOSES was all written. The notation on that is really something; time signatures go by just like you would bat your eye. Up to that time {1966}, I was a very dictatorial writer. That’s the way I thought about music–I didn’t trust the players, I didn’t want them doing what they did. After the record, I never did music like that again. I found out that there was another way to get it done. I began to find a way to deal with communicating with the players: I could imply. I could use hand signals–not be theatrical. You don’t have to be jumping up and down and whipping the players this way. Time signatures don’t exist in your hearing, they exist on paper. So, if a person wants to sit down and transcribe something, he can go to musical glory heaven dealing with all of these time changes: it’s there if you want to hunt for it.”

To be sure, this epiphany in 1966 didn’t mean that Dixon was about to abdicate control of his music. Rather, his focus now shifted to where all manner of tools and strategies would serve his evolving aesthetic vision; an approach which would consistently, and in a multitude of ways, blur the line between what is commonly understood to be composition and improvisation. This not only paralleled the evolution of his teaching methodology, which sought to capitalize on the varied abilities and sensibilities of each student, but also informed his visual artwork, wherein the commingling of line, form, shape, color and texture conveyed a well-considered, if initially disconcerting sense of juxtaposition.

“One night, shortly after we’d moved to Harlem {1933 or 1934}, my stepfather {Edward James Williams, Jr. of New Bedford, Massachusetts} took me to the Lafayette Theatre, and I saw Louis Armstrong fronting a very large band. Armstrong came out and started to play, and that immediately got my attention. Walking back home, midway from the theatre to my house holding my stepfather’s hand and unable to forget the sight or sound of that golden trumpet Armstrong had played, I distinctly remember looking up to him (he was a big man) and saying ‘I want one of those.'”
“As for role models, at that time whenever you saw a black man in the movies he had grease on his face, rolling his eyes, bucking and winging, and have to call white people ‘Mister Charlie.’ The role models for most of the people I knew were these musicians; they weren’t the writers, because they didn’t have that kind of visibility. They weren’t the doctors or lawyers, because to be a doctor or lawyer, you had to be middle class to afford those studies. But the musicians wore suits, they were sharp. they were written about, and they were the best at what they did. We always had Black painters and writers, but you can’t tell the difference between [the work of] Black painters and White painters. You know who invented this music, though. Everybody did. It was acknowledged. That was what made the pull towards this music so strong: everyone realized ‘I can learn to play a horn; I don’t have to worry about trying to get into the New York Philharmonic, because I can play at the Apollo.'”
“Once I made up my mind to do music, I poured everything into it. I started studying in 1946. I didn’t know if I had any musical talent — I don’t know that to this day. I’ve had to work a lot harder than a lot of other people, but that’s not the point.”

by Bill Dixon
Archive/Edition 510-1925-1
5 compact disks (music)
1 compact disk (spoken word)
28 page booklet (interview and commentary)
28 page booklet ([art] works on paper)

Clearly, however, the point is Bill Dixon’s sound; what he has wrought through his utter devotion to his work, his art, his soul, and the ongoing sacrifices made as the result of this devotion. The history of Black Music and the forced air tube itself is in his sound. And while he has never resorted to the jazzman’s often utilized, and too often glib gambit (or, as some would suggest, hoary old ploy) of referential quoting — specific tunes, stylistic mannerisms and the like — the sheer diversity of timbres, phrasings, and attacks he has employed define a finely sculpted, infinitely nuanced, and seemingly all-encompassing aesthetic. It is a sound further underscored by a creative restlessness. Dixon has never seen fit to rest on his laurels. He has instead consistently take then path less traveled in order to illuminate some aspect of Black Music and/or the trumpet heretofore regarded somehow as less desirable, and brought forth the beauty therein.
At the conclusion of Hermann Broch’s novel, THE DEATH OF VIRGIL, there is a painfully protracted, deeply convoluted description of the titular character’s inner thoughts and impressions as he lay on the brink of expiration. Encapsulating unattainability, this passage simultaneously celebrates the process, the struggle of existence in much the same way as Bill Dixon’s devoutly earnest, utterly poignant, heartbreaking, joyful sound…the human condition – heart, mind, soul -outstretched, with nothing to grasp; the reach itself being, finally, enough.

–milo fine
(copyright 2004 by milo fine)


Within a couple years after finishing the essay, I noticed Bill started to take on more work (and publicity) without his characteristic and well-founded suspicions and due diligence. Opportunities he once would have turned down without a second thought now became something of a new “standard”. Indeed, many of these choices were in direct opposition to attitudes he expressed during our day together; attitudes which clearly reflected the manner in which he had carried himself for the majority of his life. After having finished the essay, Bill and I lost contact, so I never asked him about these choices. Indeed, as a pasty-faced male, two-plus decades his junior, and, obviously, having never suffered the indignities that he did coming of age in this culture, I had no right to question him. Just as I had no right to feel hurt by seeing him put his consummate artistry (resolute voice intact) in, what to me, were contexts clearly one step removed from the consistently deep resonance of his published oeuvre up to that point. (The notable exception — and easily the strongest among Bill’s last small handful of documents — is the double LP WEIGHT/COUNTERWEIGHT.) I innately understood that he wanted to get the word out at any cost, to leave a larger legacy. Additionally, work of any kind was likely helping him cope with the health issues that eventually claimed his life. To be clear, if I had contacted him, there was, in all honesty and respect, no way I would have been able to avoid the subject. So, as our communications ended on good terms (as far as I was concerned, anyway), I thought it best to leave our relationship, such as it was, be.

Thank you to Charles Gillett for helping me prepare the essay for posting.

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