Thursday, June 17, 2010

An artist's work and a writer's journey - Bill Dixon (1925-2010)

Yesterday I got the news that I had not been prepared for, and probably never would be prepared for – that trumpeter/composer Bill Dixon had died. Bill was 84 and I last saw him at his home in Vermont in December 2009. He had been ill but we all thought – at least those of us outside his very immediate circle – that he would pull through and indeed, those were the indications months ago. He just conducted the Tapestries Orchestra in Victoriaville, Quebec, as a matter of fact. He was a fighter and always a present force, but more than that, he was a generous, warm, and beautiful individual who gave everything to an art that some of us are lucky enough to experience. In fact, few people have been as generous as he was to so many students, colleagues and friends with his time, ideas, and criticism.

I first became acquainted with Bill’s music in about 1998 or ’99. He was one of the first musicians I heard (albeit not making complete sense of) when getting into creative music, mostly through his presence on Cecil Taylor’s Conquistador (Blue Note, 1966) and appearances co-leading groups with Archie Shepp in the early 1960s. His 7-tette on Savoy (1964) was strikingly different, plastic and gooey yet swinging beautifully, and with a bottom you could feel in your stomach. That record in particular was important as a first serious exposure to an undercurrent of something palpably different about this music, and more than just sheer expressive velocity. There is a dusky, gauzy introspection that nevertheless carries with it a special kind of heat, the likes of which little other music has quite captured. The 1966 recordings he led on RCA-Victor, Intents and Purposes, took YEARS for me to really appreciate, but in terms of composition in improvised music are still some of the most advanced and beautiful in modern jazz. His work progressed well beyond that almost immediately, but what he did then in terms of writing for and directing an ensemble into a painting of sound and rhythm still has no peer in contemporary music.

More than a musician, composer and improviser, Bill Dixon was a tenured professor of Black Music (Bennington College, 1968-1996), visual artist, writer, producer, and organizer of the Jazz Composers’ Guild in New York (1964). Dixon also choreographed dance (indeed, the dance world hasn't begun to assess his collaborations with Judith Dunn), and worked as organizer of the United Nations Jazz Society (one of the first cultural organizations underneath the UN) from 1956-1962. There aren’t too many figures in this music whose work has dealt with such a wide swath of cultural and political reality, and whose work has been parallel to aesthetics as much as it’s been wholly and directly committed to an aesthetic core.

I’d not been writing about jazz for long when I spoke to Dixon on the phone in 2003, for an article in All about Jazz New York. He freaked me out. He called me to task for writing a bunch of “bullshit” and not including him in articles where he was a specifically important factor in the development of what I was writing about. About 1/3 of the interview I spent backpedaling, as he steamed forward with ideas, criticisms and reinforcements. Eventually we got on some sort of track that seemed satisfactory to him and that was enlightening for me. When I wrote the piece and submitted it for a once over he didn’t like it much, noting (probably rightly) that it was too indirect and not concerned enough with what he had done. Some corrections later, all seemed in order. And then he called me at work a couple of weeks later – just to chat. We had a few conversations after that, all of which were interesting and yet remain foggy in my memory. He sent along a copy of the Odyssey boxed set of solo trumpet in thanks – a set that never really got much press when it was briefly available and is absolutely shocking and indispensable.


It wasn’t necessarily a conscious thing, but after that interview I began to think more and more about him and his music, as well as what I valued in it – and also what I valued in music in general. Not just what “I” like, but what is important? What, going forward, does this music mean, and what is its purpose? Why do the musicians make this music, and how, if one doesn’t make music, can one convey its reality and its necessity? It might be hubris to say that while still coming into one’s own as a writer, but being able to define what’s important is a crucial step towards having something to say (and do). The words that come forth without provocation from his work – clarity. Plasticity. Physicality. Envelopment. Personality. Tone. Breath. Control. Weight. Orchestration. Chiaroscuro. Architecture. Color. Ineffability. Rigor. Honesty. Integrity. Contrast. Motion. Stasis. Trained as an art historian, I have perceived his work alongside the painters whom I admire most, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman, and the three-dimensional art of Donald Judd. Bill was a painter, photographer and lithographer in addition to being a composer and instrumentalist/improviser. We were able to communicate on both fronts, and his philosophy (both implicit and explicit) stood as tall as any other great American artistic figure.

Up until that time, to me history seemed more important than what contemporary artists were up to -- the foundation was all-encompassing, even though it had been laid many years before my birth. Dixon’s music is foundational, too, but in a different way - it is both of the now and of the past, standing in relief to everything yet defining the surrounding milieu by its sheer presence. If you sit down and listen to it that much will be abundantly clear. By this same token, discounting history is impossible – as he said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “wherever you start is now. You’ll get to the rest in time.” Ellington and Bird and Trane are surely important, but one will deal with that as it becomes necessary – you have to begin from your own, current and direct experience, and move forward and backward from there. At the same time, history is inescapable, as he'd say, and from that you have to deal with the present, think, and make work. You act from experience.

And Bill’s music is rare in the sense that it continued to move forward while objectively, it would have made perfect sense (to anyone but Bill and the musicians around him) to rest on the laurels of what had been done. He once said in an interview that he was trying to capture a sound and feeling that had been with him since his early orchestral explorations in music, a floor-shaking bottom end and a chord voicing that would bring down walls. He was always trying to “go to the center” of the music, a nebulous and moving target that, in hindsight, he and his art already personified. Certainly his circle of musician-collaborators will continue that forward, uncharted movement in their own ways, a Dixonian school of improvised composition that is shaping itself and has been for the last couple of decades.

It's not that Dixon’s work is in constant literal dialogue with what other musicians are doing or did do. Any name – Taylor, Braxton, Gil Evans, Miles Davis, Ellington, Albert Ayler – could easily be placed in relation to what makes Bill’s work what it is, but again, that history and presence surrounds us and surrounds the art. It doesn’t necessarily inform the art directly. By the sheer fact of forming relationships with sound, energy and space as physical things, Dixon’s work changed the dynamics of the field of making music, and especially with the trumpet. Extraordinarily wide interval leaps, fluffs, subtonal growls, piercing and almost electro-acoustic shrieks, the use of delay, reverb and environmental space to expand that sound were all part of the palette he brought to the instrument. Those things were long possible in the music, but not directly actualized. Likewise, impressing upon a group of active individual players an interdependent concern with space, layering, and physical-tonal relationships takes a special kind of guidance. Dixon not only propelled, but drew out aspects of sound and music that while present, weren’t often accessible.

If this sounds heady, realize that this music is so emotionally powerful as to physically lift you out of your seat and carry you around the room as much as anything. Of course, being invested in Bill’s work graduated me to a greater appreciation of the trumpet, and of the ability of specific instrumental timbre to actually affect things like temperature, color, space, and movement of the whole. From hearing recordings of Bill and former collaborator Arthur Brooks (trumpet) with the dual percussion team of J.R. Mitchell and Gary Sojkowski, cranked to full volume in Bill's studio, it felt like I was having an aesthetic heart attack. I felt hot, and in fact the whole room did – my muscles and gut were reacting to a shift in the literal dynamics of space. The closest things I could think of, in terms of an art experience, were of walking through a Richard Serra sculpture or spending time in a roomful of Clyfford Still paintings. The body can learn to react to these kinds of experiences, but only rarely. Recently, and through a coupling of understanding and experience, I’ve had direct, queasy and confusing reactions to certain solos of Miles Davis, Frode Gjerstad, and David S. Ware. It is hugely important to have, in life, such a direct and physical experience with art and the individuals who devote themselves to art.


In 2007 I received a recording of Dixon’s, the first in a few years to be released, with the Exploding Star Orchestra (directed by trumpeter Rob Mazurek) – Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra (Thrill Jockey). That recording, and the words which resulted from it, led to a ten-day experience in Vermot at Dixon’s home interviewing him again and spending time in his orbit, with his circle of confidants. It was at that time I really began to realize how huge Dixon’s work and aesthetic had become to me personally, and how much more important it would get. Spending time in his studio and archives, the breadth of his life and work were open and available, as was the dialogue and back-and-forth between Bill, Mazurek, and trumpeter/composer Stephen Haynes (one of his closest allies). It was an ad hoc conference about this music’s growth and development as an art form through the lens of one man’s participation in defining the environment through steadfastly making his own work, teaching, and playing. This resulted in semi-frequent phone conversations, emails, and letters from 2008 through the winter/early spring of this year. As much as this remembrance is about his work and my coming to terms with it (and myself through it), Bill became a friend as well as a mentor. We could talk about other things than music, though music – and the work – was the most important.

I don’t play music and I’ve only been writing about it for a little over a decade. My dues haven’t been paid. But knowing Bill and dealing with his art gave me the courage to present music and the people who make it on their own terms, as well as mine. To think about the work and express it exactly as it appears, structurally and philosophically is a tall order, and looking back, a logical one. It’s about as far from easy as one can get, whether one is making music or engaging it on another level (the “friendly experiencer” as Braxton would put it). This work has so much impact that I carry it with me everywhere I go, and sharing in its values can be actualized in many different ways. Of course, for a time that was aided by the fact that Ben Young’s Dixonia: A Bio-Discography of Bill Dixon (Greenwood Press, 1998) was regular reading - even if I wasn't always listening, the stories were on hand to inform and guide.

One isn’t supposed to have an aesthetic as a critic, especially now, and especially in music. The music is supposed to exist apart from those who make it and those who write about it - at least, that is what the prevailing attitude seems to be. To have an aesthetic that has as its point of definition a relationship to a specific artist’s work and ideas might seem to step over the line into fawning. But when that artist’s legacy and the ideas he or she has bestowed are those of clarity, rigor and weight, that sensibility is an important point of reference. And the fact of the matter is they're entirely connected to a person, a lovable, irascible, giving and forthright human being. It puts that entire legacy of thought and work in relation to the life-breathing, individual, humanistic presence. In talking with Bill, two ideals stand out: "Someone is always trying to get you away from the thing that you do” and “I recognize and acknowledge that whenever I did something, that's all I could do at the time, and all I was capable of.” All – meaning all. Going forward, on one's own terms – that’s something more challenging than anything the ear can put together.

Thank you, Bill, for it all.

Top image courtesy Nick Reuchel.


  1. Lovely, Clifford, lovely.
    Bill dug you.
    Know that!

  2. His music was a portrait created from his soul. It's sad but we know he is looking out for us still.

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