FIRESIDE CHAT WITH BILL DIXON
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
FJ: Let's touch on a couple of those recordings, both volumes of Vade
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