photograph by Mephisto

Black Saint


I cannot think of a more original thinker than Bill Dixon. I know, Cecil Taylor, but where do you think Taylor gets that originality, from working with original voices like Dixon. Dixon is an artist in the highest sense of the word. With that in mind, I was quite timid about doing any interview, after all, I am merely mortal. But Dixon has an ease about him and upon our initial conversation, I felt at home. The following is a candid one on one with one of the finest improvisers in creative music. His level of artistry is unparalleled and that is perfectly evident on his landmark Vade Mecum volumes for the Italian Soul Note label, but prepare yourself, Dixon is releasing two volumes of Papyrus this year. Glad to have made it through the old Y2K thing now. As always, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

BILL DIXON: Like most musicians, I wanted to do it. I was familiar with the music unlike young people today, we listened, those of us who became committed to the music, very, very early. We had commercial music just like you have today, but we managed to weed it out and I wanted to do music, but my first studies were in painting. I wasn't able to come to music until after I had done my military service. I am a veteran of World War II. When I came out, then I enrolled in a school and studied music then. I came out of the army in 1946. I studied in a school in New York and came committed to the music that way.

FJ: Were you drafted?

BILL DIXON: No, I enlisted. I enlisted to avoid being drafted. The draft was coming up and when you enlisted, you were able to get the service that you wanted in the end. I didn't want to be in the navy so I enlisted. I think that was '43 or '44.

FJ: What was the duration of your tour of duty?

BILL DIXON: I spent a year in the States and a year in Europe. I was in Germany when the war ended. When the war ended there, I was on a ship going to the South Pacific for that situation. When the war ended I was on one ship when they dropped the bomb and they turned the ship around and we came back.

FJ: Music must have been the furthest thing from your mind.

BILL DIXON: No, you do what you have to do, in terms of your duties and things like that. I listened very attentively to music. All of the large bands made these armed service broadcasts of this music just for the soldiers and so we had a lot of music that we heard. We heard a lot of music. As much as kids are fanatical about pop music, rock music, that is the way we were about the bands. Mind you, Fred, there were many, many of them. It was there. It was part of the air that you breathe.

FJ: When you returned to the States, what was the catalyst that prompted you to enroll in music school?

BILL DIXON: It was several things too detailed to go into, but I took a look around on day and decided that it was something that I always wanted and that is what I did. I started very late because I was twenty, going on twenty-one when I started my studies. I had never done any studying of music until then. I was fortunate enough to be in New York and New York at that time was the center of all the creative activity. If you take that period, back there in the mid-'40s, that is when painting was there, Bird and Dizzy were there, it was just a hotbed of creative activity. In New York, at the time, you could see all of the people that you were reading about and that was significant. It was an incredible time.

FJ: What do you attribute that kind of creativity to and will we see that high level of creative prosperity again?

BILL DIXON: I think it is cyclic. Every now and then, things reach a point and New York at time, although I doubt very much, things are now money oriented. I just finished retiring from teaching. I taught almost thirty years of college. I saw ten years ago that students do not want to take the time to learn any instrument. They don't want to make that kind of investment. If you watch television and things like that, things are immediate. There is instant gratification, instant success, lots of money, and the gestation period for anything has gotten smaller and shorter. A person comes to New York now and it is a thousand dollars a week to rent an apartment now. How many people have that kind of money? So you may be living in an apartment with five or six people. It wasn't like that when I came out of the service. You could get a cold water flat down in Greenwich Village for thirty dollars a month. The myth of New York is fantastic and always has been. Very few of the people, who were in New York, remained in New York. New York was an immigrant town. People came from all over the world to be there. They came with enthusiasm, with dreams and the time was right for the expression of these things. You had to choose. You could do or you could do without. You couldn't have everything. Work was important. There seemed to be this incredible willingness on the part of people to do their work, hold day jobs. People held all kinds of jobs and did all kinds of things. I can't explain it other than, when I was teaching, I would tell people that every now and then everything comes to a head and at that particular time, things had come to a head. The interesting thing was and I think that this was very important, I could see all of the people who were significant in the area that I wanted to go. I could see them. I could go hear them. I could be in music stores and stand up next to them and ease drop on their conversations about music. It was just an exciting time.

FJ: Let's touch on your collaboration with Cecil Taylor.

BILL DIXON: People have romanticized. Cecil and I, I met Cecil at a place in New York in 1951. I met him at a place in Harlem, which was a place that was a virtual center for a lot of unknown musicians who were doing this music. We were beneath the underdog artistically in terms of what we wanted to do. I met Cecil Taylor there and met many, many other musicians. We met as contemporaries who wanted to do music and we did a lot of playing. Cecil was young and I was just about the same age, although I am a few years older than him. The thing was, it was the sharing of musical ideas. You have got to understand, Fred, I don't know how musicians do it today. I think they network. They network looking for places of work. We were networking looking for people to play with and advance our musical ideas, the techniques that you were going to need, and to advance your understanding of how to do these things with a myriad of people that you were going to be involved with. Being with him was no more than being with someone else, except that he was incredibly bright and very well read. The first time I met him, he was carrying a book. He read a lot. I read a lot. I painted. He went to the theater. I went to the theater. We discussed events of the day. We knew the shape of politics. It wasn't the typical kind of expression that people would describe as a so-called jazz musician. He was very interesting to be with. His playing, right from the very beginning was completely different. You knew from what he did that there was something very intense about it and that he meant it. This was the thing. He meant what he did, which in so many instances is the only thing that one has to go on. The intensity is still there. Although we played hundreds of hours together in various circumstances, I did one recording with Cecil, which everyone makes incredible mention. That is Conquistador, which was done in 1966. I did that recording at his request. He wanted me to do that recording for whatever reason. Cecil came to see me to ask me to do this recording. He came to see me one night at about two or three in the morning and asked me to do this. I will tell you frankly, Fred, that I did not want to do it because I was working on something of my own. I was never like a lot of musicians. I could not play everything with everyone because one can't commit oneself to everything. But I loved his music and I knew all of the people in the band. I went to the rehearsal and the minute I got into it, I became very intent on wanting to do it and I did it. The postscript to that is, I did Conquistador and later I recorded my large work on RCA Victor and no one has seen the analogy. They talk about Conquistador, of which I played two pieces, as a contributing sideman and the RCA Victor is all of my own music and Intents and Purposes is a classic and both came out at the same time. If people wanted to know my work, they should know how difficult it was to function within the two vernaculars within one week apart. All of these years, no one has made that analogy. No one.

FJ: Of all of the writers that have written about you.

BILL DIXON: Of all of the writers, none has made that analogy. That is what art is, Fred. Whatever it is, you give yourself up a hundred percent. Otherwise, it is artifact.

FJ: How did the October Revolution in Jazz come to pass?

BILL DIXON: Well, at that particular time, that was at the height of the civil rights movement and you had all of this ferment that was going on. The students were protesting. In New York, again, it was a cauldron of all kinds of activity. Unlike in 1951, we were all mature musicians. Everyone knew what they wanted to do and were trying to find a way to do it. The people were just beginning to respond and to understand the work of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. As with art, by the time the public gets aware of an idea, it has already been in existence ten or fifteen years. That was the case here. We were again the underdogs and there was no work to be had. There was an occasional crumb being tossed here or something like that. I was with a man who had a coffee house. I used to put on these weekly concerts and we packed in that club a group of people who were interested in this area of music. We were talking one day and we decided that we were going to make a special situation of it. This is all very spontaneous. We decided on having a week-long series of musical events. The law at that time was that you had to stop playing around eleven, so from eleven to five or six in the morning, we would have all these panel discussions. Don't forget panel discussion were very big. You could have a panel discussion on anything. It was exciting. I called every musician I knew who was unwelcome within the regular venue of performance music. We got all of these people who were doing what we called the new music. We opened and the thing was an instant success. All of the New York critics came to hear the music. All of the nightclub owner who hadn't thought we were worthy came to listen to that music. That was what the October Revolution was. The title has always gotten people confused. The title was not my title. The owner of the coffee house, who was a filmmaker, we were on our way down to the Village Voice, which was the leading paper for underground activity at the time. He thought that it was October and it was a revolution of sorts and the title came. It was very timely, but there was a revolution in the thinking about jazz music, Black music, American music, and all of those things were fusing around.

FJ: Why have you not recorded more?

BILL DIXON: I haven't recorded as much as a lot of musicians. Recording is very difficult for me. I can't do like a lot of musicians that jump into the room and do things like that because recordings are forever. They should be special, but each one of my recordings, I have tried desperately, as much as I could to present a point of view that was different than previous things. That's what I have tried to do. To a large degree I have been successful.

FJ: Let's touch on a couple of those recordings, both volumes of Vade Mecum.

BILL DIXON: Vade Mecum was done in 1993. That was a quartet. That was a situation that I had been involved with. I finally finished with the usage of that instrumentation. I don't play that much anyway. And it is very difficult to keep musicians together long enough to understand their roles in that situation. Tony Oxley and I have been working together for a few years now. Everything should be approached from a standpoint that they don't merely listen to the instruments, but to the ideas that you are trying to project. Tony is a superb percussionist, a reamrkable percussionist. That was a very good recording. Everyone knows how much I like using two basses. I have been playing the trumpet now since 1946. While my earlier work was certainly in the range of the vernacular, Vade Mecum show you how I feel about music and what I attempt to do.

FJ: What are you attempting to do?

BILL DIXON: I would say one doesn't think consciously about it. I am working on an orchestra piece right now, which will be performed in May in New York. I may go to Boston and do that. What I try to do is examine the history of the music. One can try to think, "What am I interested in? And do I dare to try and do it?" When you are playing, that is not what you are thinking. There is no time to think when you are playing. There are no stories in what I try to do. I play the trumpet. I play the trumpet in a certain kind of way. There are dozens of very good trumpet players and people can buy all of these things. If you want to do something, buy all of them and play them all and see what people do. I have certain things that I try to do and I work very conscientiously on this.

Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and the man that shuts off the fridge light. Comments? Email him.