Top 40 Over 40.10: Bill Dixon

In this series of posts on artists who inspired me to start recording again by doing first-rate work on or after their 4oth birthday, Bill Dixon is an anomaly.  Most of the folks I’ve written about were known for an early body of work done in their 20’s, and managed a “return to form” after a drop off from their early zenith.  (With some exceptions, such as Sun Ra, who never had a noticeably drop off in quality at any point in his career, in my opinion.)  Others, like Jandek, departed from their early way of relating to an audience in a pronounced way, (in his case, by starting to play live after releasing albums without performing for many years.)

With Dixon, there is no compare and contrast with the early days, because he released his first album when he was 37.  Bill studied to be a painter earlier in his life, and his training from that field noticeably influences his music.  When underground or indie rockers started to get into free jazz or creative music, as some would rather call it, there seemed to be a logical connection: a big racket.  You could blast Ascension by John Coltrane or Machine Gun by Peter Brötzmann side by side with post punk platters and get a similar charge of what Sun Ra called “a joyful noise.”  Early proto punkers like the Stooges were very conscious of this connection and thought directly about free jazz as a point of reference.

Dixon was a seminal member of the jazz avant-garde of the 1960’s that inspired these underground rockers.  He founded the Jazz Composers Guild in 1964 to help advocate for the interests of these marginalized musicians, who never made the kind of commercial break through that (post) bop musicians like Miles Davis did.

But unlike his peers and contemporaries, he didn’t rely on volume to leave the strictures of post-bop jazz behind.  He sounded more like an avant-garde version of fellow trumpeter Miles, who used the space in between sounds as much as the sounds themselves.  Keith Richards once said that silence is the canvas that musicians paint on.  Dixon’s work highlights that materiality, the play between sound and its absence, in a way that makes me think of how painters of his generation called attention to the materiality of paint on a canvas in the wake of abstract expressionism.

I first learned about his work from a post on the Panopticon Review website by Kofi Natambu, written after Dixon’s passing in June of 2010.  The piece contains many excellent links and clips.  You can view it at:

Recently, I learned more about Bill by listening to an interview with him that was posted on the website of The Wire magazine, (  It was great to listen to a recording of the full 75 minute interview.  It allowed me to pick out my own quotations and passages, some of which I will share below.

One of things he shared was his observations that it wasn’t his goal to record when he started.  He started playing professionally in 1948, and started playing what he called “new music” in 1952.  His first record was not released until 1962.  Part of this gap has to do with the fact that it was hard to get work or critical attention for this kind of music at that time.  But it also has to do with the value he places on process over finished product in music.  One of the things he talks about is how he always wanted people in the room at his rehearsals.  When he started the Jazz Composer’s Guild, he insisted that members of the Guild do the same, because he thought the audience would appreciate the music more if they saw how it was assembled.  Dixon said he would go to everybody else’s rehearsals because it was his favorite part of music.  He wanted to examine how people put things together, rather than focus on a finished product where the seams have been rendered invisible.  Jean-Luc Godard did a similar trick with films like Tout Va Bien, which comments on the process by which the film is put together, rather than let the viewer get swept up in an imaginary universe without considering in whose interests it was manufactured.

I’ve heard plenty of musicians say that they prefer live music to records.  But I’ve never heard anyone besides Dixon say they prefer rehearsals most of all!  Bill also criticizes the way jazz critics treat records as the be-all and the end-all measuring stick of jazz history.  He talks about going to see artists of the pre-bop big band era, such as Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, and says that their concerts were quite different from their recordings.  In the days before the invention of the LP, the technology limited the length of recorded pieces of music.  He says these bands played longer pieces in concert that could not be recorded at that time, and that these were the most important expressions of the music, not the records that current critics have “enshrined” from that era.  When it does come to records, Dixon stands out from most underground or avant-garde rock musicians by saying that he welcomed the invention of the CD, because it allowed for even longer recordings.  Anyone who has had to interrupt Free Jazz by Ornette Coleman to flip the LP from one side to another can understand what he’s talking about.

Dixon also departs from the current thinking of the underground when it comes to assessing the recent developments in recording technology.  “You can have superior equipment to what Parker and Gillespie had in your house today.  The technology is absolutely awesome in terms of what you can do today…it’s beyond what certain creative musicians to comprehend.”  I agree, especially given the recent advances software developers like Universal Audio have made in bringing the qualities of vintage analog recording equipment in to the digital realm.  But I digress.

By the time Dixon started recording back in 1962, he was ready to hit the ground running, having so much performing experience under his belt.  He had form strong relationships with great colleagues like Archie Shepp, with whom he made his first record.  But he didn’t always appreciate what they were trying to do.  He jokingly says in this interview that he told the great drummer Sonny Murray “I don’t want any of that (free form) nonsense, play straight time for me” before they cut the 1962 sessions for one of his first recordings.  And so you do hear relatively conventional metric time for pieces such as the following:

I love these albums, but Dixon seems to regard them as precursors to his mature style.  He says that “time had definitively been done” by the time he made these records, and that therefore it was no longer possible to do innovative work with the hi-hat marking the 2 and 4 while the ride marks time like rain throughout.  He attributes his adherence to that “straight time” in 1962-4 to a lack of confidence.

“Older musicians aren’t standing there with a welcome mat when you’re trying to figure out who you are in this world…Gaining the confidence was my most heroic battle, where I could say listen, this is what I’m doing, and if you don’t like it, don’t listen…Once I found that was what I absolutely wanted to do and it was just a matter of finding out how to put it together, there was no problem.”

Once he got to that place, he decided that metric time was too limiting, and he jettisoned it by the time he made his 1967 masterpiece Intents and Purposes, which is generally considered his best record of the 1960’s.  In addition to time, it departed from the conventional chord structures of the blues, which he refers to as “the umbilical cord of the music…everyone talks about the blues and stuff like that, and everyone talks about 1-4-5-1 as if it is (breaks out laughing) the end all for music.  Music in our world functions from the law of acoustics, there’s a science attached to it, and we then humanize this science by making it speak to issues for which we attach emotions, and there are certain things that are building blocks for this.  But it doesn’t mean to say it’s the end of the world…when you don’t need to jump on that trolley, don’t jump on it.”

Unfortunately, Dixon didn’t get to make another record as a leader for quite some time after the release of this album.  He began to teach at Bennington College in 1968, founded the school’s Black Music Division, and continued there until his retirement from teaching in 1995.  He says he loved teaching for the same reason that he loved attending rehearsals – it focused on process and how the music was put together.  Dixon paved the way for other jazz musicians to get teaching jobs in academia, where many, such as Anthony Braxton and Archie Shepp, work today.  But at the time, teaching was looked down on in his circle of musicians, who held to the maxim “those who can’t do, teach.”

But it’s not like he sanitized jazz for his students.  When one of them asked him “how are we going to make a living when we graduate?” he told them that they should “stop doing this right now” if such questions were on their mind.  He told his students “there was no medical school, law school, graduate school available to the musicians we are privileged to be listening to.  They were working day jobs, waiting their time, their responsibility was only to themselves….don’t go to Lincoln Center.  Your Lincoln Center is where your feet are standing.”

The particular college he taught at was conducive to this mentality.  My mom went to Bennington, and her late best friend lived there for much of her life.  I spent a lot of time in Bennington as a kid when we would go visit her there.  She was very involved with the school, and I have very fond memories of rambling around the Bennington campus in early childhood years.  I remember a lot grass growing in between stones of meandering walkways, and a large rectangular modern wooden building where the musical and artistic studios were housed.  Those spaces were incredibly inspiring.  Who knows, maybe I even wandered past Bill or his studio circa age 7.  I loved seeing musical instruments laying around out on the stage of the auditorium.  They looked so much like things to be handled, or manhandled even.  They didn’t seem far from the paint and clay and wood shavings that covered the dusty floors of the painting and sculpture studios nearby.

It certainly didn’t look like a very high-pressured or commercial environment.  This wasn’t Harvard.  Bennington fell on hard times financially when I was young, and I remember my mom’s friend complaining that they had fired and/or alienated a lot of their best creative faculty members when a short-sighted new President took over.  I’m glad Bill stayed on through all that.  Connie said that everyone loved and respected him there, that he was a wonderful guy – although Dixon says in the Wire magazine interview that many in the classical music department looked down their noses at him and jazz music when it first arrived.  They viewed it as a concession to what they young kids wanted.

Bill played “in total isolation” from the music market for most of the 1970’s, though some recordings he made at Bennington in that era have since been released, and more may even follow in the future.  He began releasing records and re-emerging outside of the academic world in the 1980’s, with fine results.  But my two favorite albums of his – Vade Mecum (latin for a book for ready reference, or something regularly carried about by a person) and Papyrus came out in 1994 and 1999, respectively.  There were two separate volumes for each title, and I prefer volume one for each.  He was 69 and 75 years old when he made these two albums.  Amazing.  And he we wasn’t done there.  The Wire interviewer discusses the “burst of activity” Dixon had recently had at the time of the interview in his 80’s.  The artist seems taken aback by the idea this should be surprising – “you already have me in my grave!” he protests.

I especially love Papyrus because it is so sparse, the quality I love the most about Dixon’s style.  It is a duo recording with the drummer Tony Oxley, whose work I revere.  His drumming style is about as far from the “straight time” Dixon started out with as you can get.  He skitters back and forth across a range of percussive accoutrements and actual drums.  I first heard his playing on a duo recording he did with Cecil Taylor called Leaf Palm Hand.  It was recorded as part of a month long series of concerts Cecil did with various combinations of European improvisatory musicians in 1988.  I can’t find anything from that amazing album on Youtube, so here’s a clip of Oxley playing with Taylor 20 years later, in 2008.

I first learned to play drums in high school because the jazz band at my school needed a drummer.  My mom’s friend Connie – the same one who lived in Bennington – told me I should take lessons with a drummer she was friends with who played in a similar style to Oxley, who taught at the Longy School of Music.  Unfortunately, the leader of the school jazz band was adamantly opposed when I told him the name of the musician.  “I’ve never seen that guy behind a trap kit,” he said.  “You need to learn the basics.”  This didn’t surprise me.  He had stood over me at rehearsals snapping the hi-hat shut on 2 and 4 until I could hold that marker of time down.  In a way, I’m glad he did, cuz it helped me to use the hi hat that way on Folk Implosion songs like Cabride or Take a Look Inside.  But in a way I wish I had taken lesson with Connie’s friend instead.  I would have loved to learn to play drums in a style closer to the way Oxley plays on Papyrus.

Unfortunately, I can’t find anything from that album to post as a video file.  You’ll just have to buy it.  One highlight is the tune called “The Statesman.”  Dixon makes ultra-low tone guttural flatulent notes that highlight the texture of the spittle and breath that makes them as much as any melody.  It also features what sounds like desperate sighs and moans and burps.  It calls to mind a whale’s call, or a chanting Tibetan monk at times.  But most of all it’s a hilarious parody of the ponderous pomposity of political oration.  It sounds like an old man clinging to power while espousing high ideals that land on the ears like belly flops.  I wish I had spent the recent campaign season listening to it full blast while watching the Presidential debates with the volume off.   The trumpet comments on the bid for power in such a way as to make it seem like a flailing act of desperation in the face of imminent death.  I wish regimes of power like the one embodied by Wall Street and the Pentagon today could fade as quickly as the transitory individuals that fill their offices.

2 responses to “Top 40 Over 40.10: Bill Dixon”

  1. Thanks for these introductions to things (and the rest), it’s all really inspiring, I like, and trust you insight. Can’t wait for your new recordings to hit my ears. Big admiring of your work. Thanks! (+1 on the loobie forum) /

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