Dixon : The OFN Interview
When one reflects on the innovators who were fundamental in propelling
the second wave of the new music movement in the 1960s, Bill Dixon's name
always appears near the top of the list. His accomplishments as a musician
and educator are vast, a small sampling of which includes his work as
architect of the Jazz Composers' Guild in 1964; the formation of the Black
Music Division at Bennington College, Visiting Professor in the School
of Music at the University of Wisconsin, and Distinguished Visitor in
the Arts at Middlebury College; his election as a Fellow to the Vermont
Academy of Arts and Sciences; and his ongoing and challenging performance
schedule that most recently saw him reunited with pianist Cecil Taylor
and drummer Tony Oxley. Bill Dixon has released about 20 recordings over
the years featuring his work as a composer, solo performer, small group
leader, and orchestral director. He has a trumpet/flugelhorn/cornet sound
that is immediately identifiable by the cognoscenti as uniquely his. Bill
Dixon continues to influence younger musicians and to produce exhilarating
music in this, his 54th year as a professional musician.
One Final Note met recently with Bill Dixon at his home in North
Bennington, Vermont, where the artistically uncompromising trumpeter openly
discussed some extremely vital musical and social topics. For ease of
reference, I have divided the material by these broad subject categories:
I was in the audience in 2000 when your large orchestral piece
"Index" was performed at the Vision Festival. You mentioned
in the car on the way over that you have in mind a major project you
would like to undertake dealing with a new and more complete performance
of this piece, and that you anticipate it could cost as much as $100,000
to do as it should have been done.
This focuses on how ideas concerning the presentation of this music have,
historically been undervalued. It seems that, always, lurking there somewhere
in the shadows, is this nickel and dime attitude to the extent that musicians
do not believe that a project such as the one I am talking about either
warrants that kind of financial outlay, or that the project is even possible
to erect. If you think about it, $100,000 in terms of a recording is not
a lot of money. For musicians who are cranking out a lot of this uninteresting
commercial music, it is not unusual for that amount of money to be allocated
for the lunch commemorating the signing of one of their recording contracts.
Okay, I'm joking, I take it back. It is a lot of money, but for a serious
project to be done properly, like anything else that also requires money
'they', a long time ago managed to obtain the necessary positions
of power that would enable them to be able to set the tone
and also to dictate.
Would you produce it yourself?
One of the reasons I deplore the term self-produced is because, in so
many instances, it has to do with the generally accepted idea that musicians
who take the initiative to manufacture and produce projects, in addition
to creating the music, will not be able to do a first class job. In the
text, the spellings are going to be wrong, the overall quality of whatever
it is, naturally less than perfectit just can't be believed that a
musician who is able to do good music should also be equally interested
in presenting that music on a commensurate level. Therefore, while it
may appear extravagant to think that that kind of outlay for this piece
of music "Index" might be considerable, that is not the way
I feel about it. As a consequence, if I produce it, I will stage it as
a performance. A small audience will be invited; rehearsals of the sections
will be done in the mornings, and those sections will be recorded in the
afternoons. Since the musicians would all be in New York, I can allot
a full week for it, and the entire event would be either filmed or videoed
for later lease to the public television station and to some of the European
networks. So, the financial outlay would take into consideration the rental
of the space, salaries to musicians, fee for the filmmaker, and recording
fees. It may very well be that I've underestimated what would be required
financially. This will be how it will be done.
What made you unsatisfied with the Vision performance?
For quite a few years the Vision Festival had expressed interest in
my doing a large work for the orchestra, and in 2000 they managed
to get a grant that allowed the commissioning of "Index".
I worked very hard on the piece. I was paid my fee for the composition,
but they were unable to provide the number of rehearsals I needed
to give a first class performance of the entire composition. So, while
I wanted at least six rehearsals, I ended up getting three. I also
wanted to have an open rehearsal for the public, a rehearsal on the
afternoon of the performance. That also proved to be something that
could not happen. On the afternoon of my sound check, the schedule
got changed and I was put back to permit someone else to do his. If
you will recall the time factor was such that as I was completing
my sound check, the audience was entering the room. I wasn't even
able to go back to the hotel to change my clothes for the performance.
I was also unaware that the performance space was going to be as crowded
as it was. I had no idea that a platform was going to be built. I
thought the orchestra would be on the floor at the same level as the
audience, a situation that would have permitted the musicians not
to be so packed in together. If you will further recall there wasn't
even enough room on the stage for me to have a music stand to place
the score. I had to hold all of that paper in my hand for the duration
of the performance while I conducted the orchestra. I had also wanted
the performance of "Index" to be the sole event of that
evening. The piece, as composed, is an evening-length work. The musicians
worked very hard and performed on a very high level, and I think that,
with all things considered, the performance went quite well.
Your requests do not seem unreasonable.
Since I don't get that many opportunities to do work here, and because
that was a special piece of music, I wanted to take full advantage
of it. I had also thought that since a studio recording was an eventuality
for "Index", why not also get a good performance recording
so that a limited edition recording of the performance and the studio
recording could be released at a later date. That was my reason for
wanting additional money and rehearsal time for the musicians. So,
relating to "Index", I did object to several things. I wanted
about six or eight rehearsals, that's what I wanted; I wanted musicians
to be paid union scale, in the event I recorded something I could
release commercially. I also wanted that pieceand this is not
by way of complaint, to be performed under the conditions that I've
outlined, and there was nothing extravagant about that. I am just
telling you what I originally wanted and what I got after much fooling
around. I wanted the entire evening devoted to that work. I did not
want anything else performed that night.
You were part of a four or five group lineup, as I recall.
Not only that, I had only 45 minutes. The late sound check was the
reason I was late finishing. So, I did what I could. The musicians
really worked hard for me, but we had so few rehearsals
a frighteningly difficult piece of music when one considers the overall
nature of its organization, the notated portions, the areas for the
soloists, how the solos were to be placed, the juxtaposition of the
chordal and strata situations that outlined and framed the solos,
etc. It came out as well as it did because those musicians were able
to give me their all, and I think that they enjoyed performing the
Did the work get the reception that you expected?
Yes, it did, but let me try to explain something. I was born in 1925,
Pierre Boulez was born in 1925, Karlheinz Stockhausen was born in 1925
or 1926, Hans Werner Henze was born in 1925 or 1926, Luigi Nonoall
of those people are automatically accorded a certain kind of respect relating
to the presentation of their music. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not attempting
to equate myself or what I've attempted to do with the worldwide achievements
of those people. What I am attempting to say is when it comes to this
music, it just seems to be a foregone conclusion that there is going to
be some kind of excuse for things not being able to be implemented that
are deemed necessary for the successful realization of the music. I know
that this is sounding clumsy and that it could easily be misinterpreted,
but one doesn't have to be a brain trust to make the observation that
I've just made. Why is this then?
Your accomplishments would certainly warrant comparable respect.
If it is about age, I am not 21; I was also born in 1925. What is it
then? Is it because their music, which I like and have studied a considerable
amount of, is superior, benefits the society more, makes a more broadly
based contribution to culture? What is it? Is it because their music is
not jazz music? Because if it is not jazz music, then it automatically
can command a certain kind of respect and can also expect a kind of reverence.
So, it must have something to do with the how and the why of music itself,
and who does the variations on the how and the why, and who gets the credit
and the support for what are considered the contributions that are made,
if they are considered contributions. It's an aesthetic point. Someonethe omnipresent 'they', a long time ago, managed to obtain the necessary
positions of power that would enable them to be able to set the tone and
also to dictate. And musicians, especially in this area of music, tacitly
and overtly accepted this, and as a consequence of this when you ask for
something that you feel is necessary but that is more than what is normally
relegated to this music, because it is the expectation that by now you
would have caught on to how the game is played, they think you are being
lofty for even suggesting that you should have more than what is normally
doled out. If, when making reference to a larger musical grouping, you
say orchestra, you can readily expect that they will seek to correct you
and let you know that it's really a big band. Continued insistence over
the years has only served to make those people think you are being pedantic.
Yet, I sensed an enormous amount of respect from the people in
That is true. I have always gotten that from the people.
It seemed like the return of a conquering hero.
Well I don't know too much about that, but I have gotten that kind
of attention in almost every place that I have been. But are you at
all aware that "Index" was not reviewed here. And the Vision
Festival events were, for this music, very well covered that year.
Ben Ratliff didn't mention my name in the New York Times. However,
the French magazine Improv Jazz did a cover story review of
"Index" and I also received a full-page review, with a photograph,
in the Paris daily paper, Le Monde. And it was a standing-room only
event, and quite a number of New York's serious music cadre sought
me out after the performance to let me know that they had been there
and appreciated that work.
So your intent with "Index" is to take all the inequities
you saw and make it right.
Now while "Index" is my latest, and for me a very significant
orchestral piece, it is not politically narrative in any sense of
that kind of feeling or sentiment. It is called "Index"
because it is a thesaurus or compendium of the musical materials that
I have concerned myself with over the years as that relates to large
group writing and the incorporation of the solo within that framework.
That is essentially what "Index", as a composition, is.
Certainly, the tempo, the voicing, everything I heard in the performance
solos, what kind of solos; their nature and character; when and how
the solos take place; the masses of sound that sometimes accompanies
or introduces them; this then as a series of events that culminates
in the performance realization, as an event irrevocably marked in
time (it was recorded) serves to reflect how I feel about large group
writing and performance. "Index" also exists as a formallymy
formality- notated score, so you could have 25 different groups of
guys perform it and come up with a different schematic each time.
I feel that it is a valuable piece. And if I have existed at all,
then this is something of what I have done.
That one piece, then, is the culmination.
That one piece attempts to sum up how I have used, for certain things,
musical materials, especially for the large group that would be peopled
with experienced soloists. I have over 40 or 50 large pieces like "Index"
that I have done over the years, which have seen no public life, other
than on college or university campuses, because opportunities to do more
than a quartet or quintet in public performance come few and far between.
That is a huge amount of material.
I have hundreds of hours of this music on tape performed by orchestras
at the college that, as I said, have never seen the light of any other
THE POLITICS OF JAZZ
Are you making a distinction between the American respect for this music
and the European?
I knew I was not going
to be controlled. I knew there was a price for this, but I
did not know there was as large a price as it turned out.
Not only respect for this music but acknowledgement of its creation and
its existence. In certain areas of this music, especially since the 1960sand that is no coincidencecertain people have been singled out for
attention and the others have been totally ignored to the extent that
the interested music public has been made to believe that they no longer
And why do you think that has occurred with a man of your enormous
Let me give you some background. When I got into the musicremember,
I did not make my first recording until I was 37. People talk about my
relatively small catalogue of recordings, but I did not make my first
recording until I was 37. I did not even start to study music until I
was 20, so my whole thing is completely different. I entered music at
a time when New York was this cauldron of incredible artistic and cultural
This was in the 1940s?
In the middle 1940s. You could see all of these peopleBird and Dizzy;
I heard everyone live. Painting, the theater; everything was happening.
It was an exciting time when New York was the place to be. So,
my orientation was a different orientation. You saw and were able to bask
and take in all of this cultural development. This musicDizzy and Bird
were electrifyingwas very significant, and you also saw how, unfortunately,
a lot of those creative people outside of their music were taken advantage
of and treated very badly as people.
This is after the so-called demise of swing when bebop was coming
to the fore?
Exactly. The battle between the moldy figs and the modernists had even
the founding father of the modern trumpet Louis Armstrong being very unkind
in his assessments of the music's merits. Musicians, out of love and respect
for him, to this day do not mention that part of his persona. But he was
horrible in his analysis of 'the harm' that this bebop was going to do
to musicto jazz music. He was right in one respect because jazz as
a way of life, as a way of thinking, as a way of designating the way musicians
were to act, was on its way out.
But the New Orleans music of Armstrong had evolved to a point where
musicians had just about said everything that could be said for that
style. It needed change. It seemed to me it was almost mandated.
You are right, but why was it resisted?
It is a natural reaction for people to resist change.
Well, you can look at it this way. I used to tell students when I was
teaching formally that, there are two essential ways you can attempt to
view things relating to the pros and cons of the acceptance of the development
of this music. If you are prone to the acceptance of this music as an
art form, it is one thing. If, on the other hand, to you, it is only entertainment,
that's another thing. For a large faction of the listening public that
supports certain areas of this music, the entertainment factor completely
overrides the art factor. People know what they like and they know how
they want what they like done, and where they want it done, and by whom
it's to be done, how it's to be done, and when and under what circumstances.
But don't you think the media forms the opinions of the people.
People are told what they will like, and the people respond to this
domination of their ability to make choices.
No question about it at all. But I also apportion some blame and responsibility
on the people who create the music, not just the people who accept
it. I think musicians have not been as demanding or responsible to
the music they claim that they want to create. Too many things manage
to get in the way. The idea of personality, egos, the idea of selfwho
is the most successful or the most 'in demand' or 'most sought after',
who is the most 'popular', who makes the 'most' recordings', who makes
the 'most' money, who 'works'no matter the level of that workwho
'places' in the polls, who do the critics anoint as, for the moment,
being 'in'all these things get in the way. There are a myriad
of things that have managed to successfully get in the way. It is
one thing to be talking about a they, or look what they are making
us do. Musicians readily deny they act in this manner but when the
crumbs are thrown out and the rush for the attainment of a portion
of these crumbs ensues, that initiates the ceremony of the backbiting
and the backstabbing.
Those crumbs often entail nightclub performances, which seems to
be loosing appeal as a jazz venue.
The idea of the nightclub as a supported and supportive venue for the
creation of music is as outdated and outmoded as an idea as even thinking
about it as a venue for the creation of the music. A nightclub is a place
where you are supposed to have fun and drink and carry on. And why not?
Why shouldn't people be able to have fun, let their hair downkick up
their heels without having to also have attached to it the intellectual
and other 'baggage' that some areas of creative music, because it is creative,
naturally brings with it? So rightly or wrongly, I assign blame to the
musicians, not the media. If musicians don't do any music, then there
isn't any music. Musicians are very tricky and can be quite elusive. If
you interview a musician for Down Beat magazine, or the Jazz Podium, or
Musica Jazz, or the Jazz Forum, and you ask the musicians the identical
questions, they give you different answers depending on what they expect
the reception is going to be.
They tailor it to their audience?
They do that, and so does everyone else, so you can never be sure when
you are speaking to this person whether he is telling you the truth, as
he knows it and has experienced it, or he is telling you what he thinks
you want to hear. The syndrome has to do with not rocking the boat and
certainly not biting the hand that feeds you.
So, when you came into the music, did you know what you wanted
Yes, I knew to a degree what I thought I wanted to do, but I never thought
I would be able to do it. My career has been different from most people,
but I knew what I was not going to do. I knew I was not going to be controlled.
I knew there was a price for this, but I did not know there was as large
a price as it turned out to be.
Do you think that this is why you, personally, have not received
the acclaim your talent demanded?
I know it's the reason.
But there are other musicians who have not compromised their principals.
Cecil is a good example. Others continue to adhere steadfastly to
their philosophies and appear to thrive.
But there is naturally a method to this madness and of course, and
like everyone else, I have also been a prisoner to my experiences.
Let me put it this way, and know that it is an oversimplification.
For everyone for whom it has worked, there are the others that have
managed to have it work yet another way. Thus, the way this 'system'
works is predicated on the principle of 'letting some people in'.
However, to maintain the status quo and yet, on the surface, continue
to affect a seemingly caring and humanistic position, they appear
to be extending opportunity and providing support. But those who control
and wield the power are ever cognizant of the necessity to inculcate
seeds for thought that will emerge as perceived original thoughts
and patterns from those under control. They rely on the principle
of 'letting some in' so that what is being done systematically and
on a mass level does not appear to be, or seem, as intellectually
or otherwise oppressive, as in fact, it really is. In so many ways,
it is like basketball. There is a tournament held in New York every
year called the Rucker tournament. I am a veteran of World War II,
and it is named for a man with whom I was in the service named Holcombe
Rucker. If memory serves me, as a player himself, stylistically, he
would have been like an Earl 'The Pearl' Monroe player. When we came
out of the service, there was no such thing as the Black professional
basketball player in White organized basketball. Rucker, like a lot
of us, went back to school; but he prepared himself to teach the young
kids in the playgrounds in Harlem. And he organized the players he
taught into teams so that they could play and develop. I come from
a generation where the dreams and aspirations of a whole lot of young
men were sacrificed at the altar of getting some kind of menial job.
So, while it ultimately became possible for some to 'get in', a whole
lot have been, and will continue to be, left out.
This was when the Globetrotters were making a name?
Yes, but while they were a remarkable group of players and could do almost
anything with a basketball, they were, for want of a better word, a more
comedic team. They brought a lot of comedy and entertainment to viewers
of the game. There was Black basketball, Black baseball, but the world
at large was a different place not then ready to accept the premise of
ten men -sometimes nine or ten of those men being Blackrunning up and
down this court playing a fantastic game of basketball with innovations
now a part of that game that can be linked to what this music has also
done in terms of additions to and alterations of the language of music.
It has now come to be about money, and people want winning teams. In the
music, even though we have parceled it out differently, there are similarities.
If you read any of the magazines that attempt to focus on this music,
you will see it has completely changed.
In what way?
So many technically but in reality ordinary players now are being touted
in ways and for 'achievements' that extend far beyond their artistic,
innovative or creative achievements. Journeymen players generally know
they are journeymen, yet they are respected by everyone for what they
bring to the music performance. But there is an overindulgence in the
propagation of pseudo musical catholicism emanating from their insistent
claiming of not wanting to be pigeonholed. They want to play, for example,
with the New York Philharmonic one night, to play hip-hop on another night,
with the Boston Pops on another night, ad nauseam. Haven't they pigeonholed
themselves by the very act of what they do? You hear this silly kind of
talk, yet they can't be taken seriously relating to art or creative music.
They are journeymen. They provide entertainment. And there is nothing
wrong with that. But they do not create the thing out of which other things
can happen. I don't recall this 'I've got to do everything' attitude being
in existence among musicians to this degree when I started to study. So,
you have now the parent society telling you what and how you should play
it, by the way music is bought, sold and marketedfilm, television,
advertising, etc.to the extent that the idea of creative music now
exists, for some musicians, on the same level as networking for work does,
and all that that entails. Musicians today do not even stay together in
a group. I don't know how it is possible, aesthetically, to play with
ten groups at one time. How is it possible? What and where is your identity?
Who are you and what do you do?
JAZZ ON VIDEO
Imagine the Sound was supposed to be a video history of
the 1960s, wasn't it?
When it came time to do Imagine the Sound, I initially resisted,
and finally I said I would do it. At one point I was asked what I would
do if I were going to do a history of the music of the 1960s, and I said
it is very simple. I would set up a room and get the names of all of the
people I was aware of who had had any kind of experience or involvementas
a musician, performer, or as a listenerand have them speak to the
issue of what that experience was; what they didgood, bad, or indifferentand
then I would have a group of people in the beginning and end give us some
historical references. I would then just shoot footage of these conversations
interspersed with examples of the various approaches that had been undertaken
by the musicians. They decided to do Imagine the Sound as a film
that concerned itself with Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley, and
me. As you noticed, none of us appears in any footage together in that
film, because for various reasons none of us had the kinds of relationships
that would lend itself for that kind of situation at that time. The film
apportions a certain amount of time for each of us to do some music and,
through conversation, address issues of significance and importance. A
lot of work went into that film. It was filmed in Toronto, a city that
I enjoyed immensely. The film was screened in various places, including,
over the years, at several festivals in New York. From what I understand
the film was well received, and although it would be a stretch to even
suggest that it was representative of the totality of the music and situation
that was the sixties, it did, I felt, give some indication of what the
four of us were concerned with and involved in relating to our own music
and the vicissitudes of our own individual lives. It did, at least, focus
on that period.
While everyone has a right
to his or her opinion, the people who are informed have more
of a right.
Most people who have viewed that film came away with the idea that
you were an angry young man. You and I spoke earlier, and you said
you had conversations for two days, and there were only bits and pieces
of your conversation sewn together in the film.
If you will consider that I was filmed for about two days, logic strongly
dictates that I must have spoken seriously about more things than what
I am represented in the film as having done.
Yet, you are labeled with the persona that came out of that film.
I have been labeled with that kind of persona for a long time, and
in certain ways and about certain things, they are absolutely right.
But if one, without prejudice, were to pay attention to what was being
discussed and include the period and the time frame that was under
review, why should I have been compelled to reflect, by countenance
or speech, the persona of a happy person? What was there to be 'happy'
about? There were serious issues, at least I considered them serious,
under discussion. We were talking about this music, its creation,
existence and survival. We were discussing its history and the reception,
critical and otherwise, by and in the society. And, at the same time,
trying to create venues where work could be generated for the musicians.
But was I the only one who was unhappy about what was happening? Due
to the fact that one doesn't appear in films on a yearly basis, I
would have liked my small part in the film to have included more of
the other things that I discussed that also presented or would have
shown me as a more 'rounded' person temperamentally. In that instance,
I can say that I was bothered about the way that I was portrayed.
We spoke about some things that I viewed as being very important politically
and culturally. I had, and naturally continue to maintain, a personal
point of view, but that was not the way it was felt that I should
be presented, and I wasn't. The Europeans are more aware of my work
and the approaches to that work than my fellow Americans because of
opportunities extended to me to do some work there buttressed with
information about the genesis of that work through interviews and
articles. There wasn't anything that I said in Imagine The Sound,
whether I was angry or whether I was as calm as John Tchicai was supposed
to have been years ago when he was portrayed as a 'Calm Member Of
The Avant-Garde', that one could take issue with. This used to be
brought to my attention ad nauseam, but I also thought that interested
people might have wanted to know what he said rather than dwelling
on the point that Bill Dixon was angry. And what were the areas that
you might have disagreed with him about?
You spoke the truth.
As is the case with others, I spoke the truth as I saw and knew it and
from my experience. I don'tand won'tbe critical about the film because
there should be room for a film like Imagine the Sound and we should
have lots of other films on the subject to add to the documentation of
the history and to present different perspectives. You can't probe only
when you want to probe. The problem for me with Burns' film was that he
dismissed an entire period of this music in about 20 minutes. Why was
he allowed to do that? Well, we know what his impetus was, and we know
where his information came from, but where are the other films to give
the other side of the story? There are other films, but they are the el
cheapo type that do not get exposure and are dismissed because they are
not able to be viewed.
The Toronto experience, I take it, was not a pleasant one.
While there were some problems of a technical nature relating to how
I wanted my work recorded, the experience of making Imagine the Sound,
all things considered, was not a bad one. There were some people associated
with the film that easily thought and interpreted my insistence on being
recorded the way that I wanted to be recorded as being obstinate and a
troublemaker. Nothing unusual when one considers that it is not unusual
for almost everyone to attempt to tell musicians what is best for them.
And when a musician continues to insist, that musician is naturally considered
You mentioned the Ken Burns series. It has been extensively critiqued
in the press.
I have taped the series myself and while I have not seen it in its entirety,
I have watched it in pieces. I think he did as everyone else does. It
is highly selective. The real problem is, while everyone has a right to
his or her opinion, the people who are informed have more of a right.
Now what they did was to present jazz music as jazz musicnot as music
but as a genre of music. Some of us think we do music and actually believe
that. What he did, coupled with the excerpts from the old film shorts
that he showed, was manipulate history. All the people who were left out
and the others who were hyped up was how it was done. The defense for
that is that you get more people interested in the subject. There is this
mixed-up idea that if you distort or 'lighten up' the representation of
history, then there is going to be a rush by the public to know more.
I do not know if I want to buy that. Why can't you do it the way it happened?
Who should determine who is doing major work and who is doing lesser work?
I, myself, have never met anyone who considered himself or herself a minor
person. Ellington could not have done what he did without all the people
he had; yet, you hear some people say the best Ellington band was the
band of 1941 or 1942. I don't think Ellington thought that way; otherwise
he might have had the tendency to stop right there. So, you have this
stuff thrown out and everyone speaks that way without even thinking. I
used to give this example. When you are teaching history, either a thing
happened or it did not happen. You can watch a political debate, and when
it is over, you have these reporters telling you what you have just heard,
and in so many instances, it is not what you just heard at all. If they
are doing this in our own time, how can we trust them to be accurate in
their assessments of events that transpired when none of us was there?
In that instance, the margin of error is great. Napoleon did something,
but you don't like Napoleon, so you downgrade it, or you ignore it or
worse still you ascribe, as an achievement, what Napoleon has done, to
someone else. So, you come to have a body of people who deliberatelyby their choice or selectionand systematically, decide what you are
going to be told relating to what has actually happened.
THE COLLECTION CONTROVERSY
What was the controversy with the initial CD release of your solo
What a controversy! Controversy is too nice a word since, as far as I
know, the CD version of Collection is now being sold openly. It
was a very unpleasant experience, and it served to interfere with my work
in addition to being, for me with my resources, rather costly. I know
you know the Cadence people and for that reason coupled with the fact
that I don't want to revisit the negativeness of that situation, I'll
answer your question but not in depth. First, did you ever see the original
2 LP box set? I'll show it to you, and you should get some sense of what
the controversy was.
I was reading the contract
one way, and they were reading it another way.
Was it in the packaging as opposed to the music itself?
First of all, the CD version as issued by that company is completely
unauthorized. The original Collection was issued in a signed and
numbered, limited edition of 500 LPs. I selected the tapes from my archive,
mastered them in a studio in Lebanon, NY, assembled the booklet of writings
and drawings, designed the front and back cover of the box, and gave it
to Cadence Jazz Records for production. I did this because at the time,
I had a pressing financial situation, and I wanted to settle it completely.
Cadence had previously indicated an interest in my work and since I wanted
to settle the aforementioned matter, I made the offer to them. So I put
everything else on holdI was teaching at the timeand did the work,
did all the design, the packaging, the beautiful booklet, a booklet of
my drawings and writings, signed each copy. The first disagreement I had
with Cadence was when I told them I had to have proofs. They told me flat
out that I couldn't have proofs. I became quite annoyed about this and
from that point on had Sharon Vogel take over as liaison person because
I could not deal with it. I can only take so much. When Collection
was completed and published, I wrote Bob Rusch a very long letter detailing
the nature of my incredible disappointment with him. I had trusted him,
and relating to art, aesthetics and philosophy, in my opinion, he had
failed to toe the mark. He never replied to my letter and I never heard
another word from him. Thirteen years later, I am starting to work on
the box set Odyssey, and I get a call from Rusch telling me he
has sold the 500 LP copies of Collection, and is now ready to go
to CD production.
This is the same two CDs that begin the box set Odyssey?
That's right. Well, I wrote back and advised him that I would like an
accounting of the sale of the 500 copies that took 13 years to be disposed
of. You do not have to be a member of the Mensa Society to understand
why I wanted this. Since Collection was issued in a limited edition,
I would like to know who owns my stuff. He would not produce an accounting
and found all kinds of reasons to insist that it wasn't necessary. My
name has been trademarked. It cost me a considerable amount of money to
trademark my name. I am also a corporation. So, I talked with my trademark
attorney, who contacted Rusch, but Cadence continued not to comply. I
wanted an injunction to stop the CD release, but I was not big enough
to get this. I was reading the contract one way, and they were reading
it another way. I ended up with three different attorneys and spent a
bit of money before I had to call a halt. It would have cost me, as I
was told, an inordinate amount of money to get an injunction, and even
after the expenditure of money I was not sure a judge would grant it.
And there was the time factor. Things necessary for my work had been put
on hold, etc., so when I completed the performance of "Index"
in New York, I decided that that was that.
You went ahead with Odyssey right after that?
I went on with the assembling, design and manufacture of Odyssey.
The remastering of the tapes had been done over the two-year period. I
put a memorandum on my web page informing those collectors of my work
of the situation that pertained to the Collection fiasco and advised
them not to buy, review, play on the air, or in any way support the unauthorized,
pirated edition issue that was the Cadence release. Some record stores
complied and wrote me that they awaited the release of my box set Odyssey
and would bypass the purchase of the unauthorized Collection. A
radio station, in the process of doing an interview over the telephone,
advised me of the Cadence release and sent me their copy for my records.
Rusch wanted to produce Odyssey, but I believed I could not trust
them. Even when it's in writing, I didn't believe that I could trust them.
They made an inquiry relating to the possibilities of North Country distributing
Odyssey, but after that experience I didn't feel that request even
warranted an answer. I bumped into him recently at Victoriaville, and
we spoke, but I am not even angry with him now. I did not know what I
would do if I ever saw him, but when it happened, it was a non-event.
My blood pressure did not even rise.
Well, I realized I could not win. One of the decisions one must eventually
make, especially at my age and with my temperament has to do with which
battles should continue to be fought and which should just be dropped.
THE VICTIORIAVILLE TRIO
Both you and Cecil have found a kindred spirit in drummer Tony
Oxley as a duet partner. How did the trio at Victoriaville come about?
Cecil originally turned me on to Tony and the nature of his work and
approach to percussion. When FMP celebrated the 10th anniversary of the
Berlin Wall coming down, I was invited to participate and flew over to
Berlin to do a special concert. I used Tony and the two bassists Mattias
Bauer (Conny's brother) and Klaus Koch, who died shortly after the concert.
We performed three long pieces of music in concert and the recording released
was entitled Berlin Abbozzi. Cecil was there and was quite enthusiastic
about the group's performance. So recently, he asked if I would like to
do something with Tony and him at Victoriaville. I had to think about
it, because the Canadians, by the paucity of invitations that have been
extended to me to do things there, have obviously never been that enamored
with my work.
Interested listeners have
only to hear the recording to find out if those guys, who
go to such pains to undervalue my work, are right. All people
have to do is listen to realize it is a beautiful record.
That is strange, given the Canadian way of embracing the art form.
I was invited, when Alan Silva and I were engaged in doing duets, to
perform in Canada in the middle sixties, but a record of mine received
a rather desultory review and the concert was cancelled. That record,
which has recently been reissued, has been revisited critically, and relating
to its artistic merits is now considered a significant recording. The
only other time was when we did Imagine the Sound in Toronto. We
did a beautiful concert in a club called The Edge with Freddie Waits and
Art Davis, which was filmed in its entirely.
No one has seen that, have they?
No one has seen it. That is the only time I have performed in Canada.
What changed your mind about doing Victoriaville?
I thought about Cecil's offer and decided to do it. I met Tony at Cecil's
virtual insistence when he and I were doing the duets in Verona in 1992.
I owed a record to Soul Note and decided to ask Tony if he was interested.
He was. I wanted William Parker as one bassist and asked him to call Barry
Guy, whom I did not know, to be the other bassist. That became Vade
Mecum I & II. In Lyon, I did an incredible concert with them,
which is on video, and then Tony and I did the orchestra piece The
Enchanted Messenger, did remarkable duets in Rome, and then went into
Soul Note's studio in Milan and did Papyrus I & II. So, when
it came time to do Victoriaville, it came together naturally. I had worked
with both Cecil and Tony in duet, so I was interested to see how it would
work as a trio. The recording went remarkably well, so I do not know what
these people are talking about who were uncomfortable with what we did
and with me especially. They were quite uncharitable in their assessment
of the event.
Yes, I have read four or five reviews that are somewhat critical of
the concert. Some of the negative comments center around the length
of the performance.
Well, the length of the concert and the tardiness of its initiation,
all 'extra-musical' concerns, seemed to ruffle some feathers, and some
'critics' seem to continue to think that after all these years, I do not
know what I am doing with the trumpet. Reality is on my side. The concert
was recorded and their 'informed' and erudite assessments, observations
and attempts at 'analysis' can be challenged since interested listeners
have only to hear the recording to find out if those guys, who go to such
pains to undervalue my work, are right. All people have to do is listen
to realize it is a beautiful record.
It was probably one of the most heralded and anticipated concerts
of the year.
Cecil played well, we all played well. I had a similar experience years
ago with someone's reception to my work on November 1981. There
was this hack writer who wrote some rather nasty things about the concert,
not dissimilar in tone from what some wrote about the concert in Victoriaville.
He did not know it was being recorded, and the record came out. What could
he say then? Over the years, that recording has been one of my best-received
As we listen to the CD version of the Victoriaville performance
you put on, I am intrigued by the interplay and the meshing of instruments.
Was there any pre-concert direction set?
No, we simply walked on to the stage and proceeded to play. It was an
exercise in pure communication. It is a language thing, where we communicate,
much as you and I are doing, and don't bump into each other. A less experienced
player would, more than likely, mess with the silences too much. Egos
did not get in the way.
At one point, your sound almost is in the tuba range.
Yes, I can reach into those deep tuba levels where not many players are
able to go and then whisper. Not many players can do that. My sound and
Tony's sound and Cecil's sound mesh to perfection on this date.
Was there any mixing done on this recording?
No, there was none. What they did was tone down my sound when it was
going to go into the red, but there was no mixing. They should have left
it because distortion becomes part of the performance.
I am baffled by the criticism. This is you I am hearing. Anyone
who has followed your work over the years can realize this is you.
I don't think they wanted to be questioned about anything, and this is
their payback. There were a considerable number of the writers and journalists
who were upset with some of the issues that I had presented at the press
conference earlier in the day. These writers don't want to be questioned
about any of the things they write, especially by musicians. If it were
only a review, readers would not be able to contest or question the critical
'assessments' of these writers. But since the concert was recorded, with
the music and performance to be released as a CD, people will be able
to hear and ascertain the merits of the performance for themselves.
THE ITALIAN CONNECTION
You mentioned your Italian affinity with Soul Note. You seem to
have had a solid relationship with Giovanni Bonandrini.
I had a great relationship with him. Whenever I had something to record,
I would contact him and he would do it. You see, I am not like a lot of
musicians. I could not record every year even if the opportunity were
there. I don't feel about it that way. I have to approach it and not peak
myself. We are all prisoners to our clichés, anyway. I never recorded
with any other record company when I was recording exclusively for Soul
Note with the exception of the Collection recording with Cadence
and then the FMP record. Giovanni's son is now running the company, and
I haven't heard anything from them in some time.
When I stepped off the
plane at Malpenza airport, I realized I loved Italy.
Soul Note does not have a distributorship in the states now, so
your music is not readily available.
I saw something where Allegro is supposed to be their distributor, but
I do not know. Even Amazon is having trouble getting the records. I do
not know what the story is. This limits the availability of my records
to the interested public and is somewhat of a dilemma.
Were you an expatriate in Italy?
I have been going to Italy since 1980, but I always went to do work.
I did not live overseas, because I do not like running around with everything
I own in a paper bag. I had been going to Paris regularly, but I had never
been to Italy. When I stepped off the plane at Malpenza airport in 1980,
I realized I loved Italy. I love Milan also. When there I stayed for many
years at the Hotel Capital. I had a special room, and I loved it there.
Italy and I have a love affair going on, and they have always treated
me with the utmost respect.
How is it that you made two volumes of several Soul Note's, starting
with In Italy?
The year 1980 was an important year for me. I was playing a concert in
Verona in 1980, and Giovanni came down from Milan to see it. He never
went to see any artists, but he drove to Verona to see me. Originally,
I had a contract to do one recording, and after hearing the concert, he
said he really wanted two recordings. I told him I had not come prepared
to do two recordings, but he showed up at the hotel with an advance that
made me find a way to do two recordings. That's the genesis of Bill
Dixon in Italy, Volumes l and 2, and we continued the practice with
Vade Mecum and Papyrus.
BODY OF WORK
You touched on a subject that I am particularly interested in.
Several musicians, most notably Anthony Braxton, have meticulously
documented their careers on record, yet your recorded history is sparse
in comparison. Why have you not been more visible on record over the
Anthony, who is a very intelligent person, has also been able to elicit
the attention of some of the people, in and out of music who have been
able to get things done. In addition, his persona and the what and how
of how he does things, even extra-musically, for whatever reason, has
managed to be attractive to the people that counted. I myself am not really
interested in the kinds of things writers generally want to ascribe to
Black musicians and the idea of Black music. I do not consider myself
an exotic, I don't speak about things unless I have had empirical experiences
with them, I am not a theorist to the degree that I am interested in talking
about things that are only theoretical and that have no immediate way
of effecting implementation. Graham Lock, a talented and committed writer-historian
on this music, whom I like, did the first book on Anthony called Forces
in Motion. It is a very good book and gives you some indication of
what a musician does. Graham asked me to contribute something to another
book on Anthony, but I had to decline. Writers, unlike musicians, know
the power and impact of the printed page. Whether the words and ideas
expressed are incomprehensible or not, their intention is clear, to draw
attention both to the works and the creator of those works. And that has
helped Anthony immeasurably.
You do something 20 years
ago, and someone replicates it now and gets the credit. That
will naturally breed resentment.
Ornette appears to have been well documented.
Yes, Ornette has been well documented, although, with the possible exceptions
of George Russell and Gunther Schuller, I don't know anyone who has been
able to document with clarity what Ornette does, from a theoretical basis.
I don't know anyone, aside from the two aforementioned musicians-composers,
who really understands the practical musicological applications possible
and the underlying philosophy of Harmolodics, but it has proved to be
an attractive thing for the writers.
Writers also seem to have favored Sun Ra and certainly Cecil.
Sun Ra, his music and his approach to the realization of that music,
was also attractive to the writers that way. Cecil, his work and his
approach to that work, is and has been of interest to these writers
not because they have taken the time to come to terms with him as
the musical phenomenon that he isI think they find it incredibly
difficult to deal with his musicbut because they have found
it easier and more expedient to deal with him as a personality. They
deal with the finality he brings into the room and the personality,
coupled with how it makes them feel. The music and what and how it
does what it does, totally eludes them. The same thing, on a different
level was the case with Miles Davis. I had to tell someone recently,
who sent me one of the plethora of new books that have been published
on Davis' work, that if Miles had realized he was as important as
he is now posthumously, it is theoretically possible to assume he
might have felt compelled to entirely re-think some of the later musical
situations he was involved with and initiated. But I realize that
that is also conjecture and borders on the posing of what might be
considered the 'tough question'.
You obviously have done that.
Yes, on occasions when I have found it necessary, I have. I am not interested
in petty gossip; I am not interested in who sells the most records and
the politicizing of economics that makes that possible. I am not interested
in a body politic of the largely uninformed who attempt to politically
designate certain people as deserving of wider recognition. You become
problematical to them. They can write easily and voluminously about certain
periods, those periods where they have been musically and socially comfortable.
But they can only attempt to extract from certain other periods, those
periods where they have been not as secure socially, and certainly not
that comfortable musically. You can see where the holes are in what they
wrote. With regards to my own work, everyone knows what I have attempted
and a lot of what I did was under-acknowledged because it was not liked.
But what has liking to do with it. Whether you are liked or your work
is liked are two factors that you have absolutely no control over and
that do not get rid of the fact of that work's creation. It's a natural
human expectation to want credit for what we think we have done. You do
something 20 years ago, and someone replicates it now and gets the credit.
That will naturally breed resentment. Also, the way things are inequitably
parceled out that could conceivably aid you in the realization of your
work, also breeds resentment. A Utopian idea would have us, one day in
the future, coming to a point where even the idea of certain works being
excluded from people, would not only be wrong, but illegal. You never
hear of musicians and composers from this area of music being invited
to Congress to speak about any of the things, pro or con that make up
or affect society.
You hear rock musicians doing it.
Rock musicians, and a vast array of popular-music musicians, due to their
wealth, acquired through the mass of their notoriety, are able to be listened
to and heard and thus are able to effect change on an international level.
They are easily able to address such issues as globalization, the environment,
world hunger, and other issues of extreme social importance. And they
are heard when they speak. But the membership of this music
But those demands are what you say are causing people to say you
do not fit the mold.
That was one of the problems with the Jazz Composers' Guild. It was too
much even for the people involved in it. This is what we demand, and we
will take nothing less. It is a social thing, and it is a musicological
thing. There is a man today, and he is a good player, who is given all
of the credit. I am very uncomfortable with that. I am also uncomfortable
with statements made by White musicians that are not viewed the way the
same statements made by Black musician are.
In what way?
In the way it is received. I have seen John Zorn speak to the issue of
what he has designated as his roots and his culture, and they let him
do it. If events prompt a Black musician to adopt the identical tactic,
it is easily dismissed and labeled as playing the race card. I do not
understand why we keep talking about making the audience for this music
larger. It can't be any larger than it is. And why should it? Everyone
isn't flocking to hear what you do. If I say something, they don't want
to hear it. If other musicians say it, it was worthy of being listened
to. How can we make this thing more equitable? Size of audience or size
of body of recorded work for something to be deemed merit-worthy should
have nothing to do with it. I have the complete set of the works of Anton
Webern, and they fit on three LPs. Why do we only use numbers when it
is convenient? Who are we today to say what will be extrapolated from
what is being done in today's music as important 200 years from now? Who
today knows what that classicism is going to be?
THE ART OF THE BASS
Do you favor the solo form?
Not really. Most of my recorded material has been in small group configurations.
I have not released large orchestral works as recordings because it hasn't
been within the realm of possibility.
I think the two players
who have certainly been the most dynamic and the freest in
doing this have been William Parker and Barry Guy.
What fascinates me most about your recordings is the love relationship
you have with the basssingly with Alan Silva, and doubly with
various sets of bassists. What guidelines do you establish to get
that kind of rapport where the bass sound just wraps around your trumpet.
In the sixties Alan Silva did some studies with me and a whole lot of
duet playing. I don't know if I taught Alan anything. Alan was unteachable
in a positive sense of the word because he had certain gifts, ideas he
wanted to express and he had his own way of attempting to come to terms
with their realization. The way we approached these 'studies' centered
around the playing of duets. It has been my experience that if you extend
a musician's workable vocabulary and teach placement of that vocabulary,
much of what would be taught will automatically fall into place. You present
the musician with the tools to finally be able to just do it. You play
and then you correct yourself. Over and over and over again. I have also,
after a certain point in my career, been fortunate enough to play with
people who have had some kind of an understanding of what I wanted or
was in pursuit of. Before the 1960s, the piano as an instrument set the
harmonic tone. Unless you played like Cecil or Paul Bley, it did not,
in my opinion, work that effectively for the group after that. So the
piano, in my work, began being replaced by bass players. The bass provides
a sort of liquid foundational formation that does not gravitationally
tie you down. It is good at revealing and highlighting a certain harmonic
pinpoint when one is either being looked for or needed. I had been attracted
to the musical idea of two bass players for many years. I saw Ellington
and Charlie Barnett make use of the idea in the large band even though
they both had the bassists in tandem playing in pulsative time.
And of course later, Ornette did it with Scott LaFaro and Charlie
Yes, but the problem I have with that record is they are also dealing
with metric time. They held on almost ferociously to the pull and force
of metric time. One must eventually understand that time does not have
to be forcibly tied down. The bass is an incredible instrument. I tell
the musicians that I'll do certain things on the horn that will inform
them about what they can select for utilization, if they feel that they
need it. I suggest everything on the instrument. I no longer talk to people
about what I want, if I can avoid it and the players don't require it.
I knew after three minutes of Vade Mecum that everything was going
to be fine. Barry and William played as if they were Siamese twins. They
were incredible. The players have to be allowed to work; otherwise they
slow the process down.
I noticed in the Berlin Abbozzi set that Matthias Bauer and Klaus
Koch approached their work differently than, say, Barry and William
did with you. It appeared that you were driving the ship totally.
Is that a misconception on my part?
No, not at all. I would not say driving, though. There is a feeling tone
that has propulsion and the ambience of an enclosure that permits being
inside the enclosure or riding the crest of it. It is hard to explain.
One has to listen and try to get inside of the sound. When I did the two-bass
thing in 1964 with Hal Dodson and Dave Izenson, and if you listen to how
it works with Jimmy Garrison and Reggie Workman on Intents and Purposes,
and if you listen to the way its done with Alan Silva and Mario Pavone,
and if you listen to the way it is done with Barry Guy and William Parker,
you find there is a different reception to my playing. These men are not
monkey men. They don't try to do what everyone else is doing. They respond
to stimuli differently, and it is different with each of them.
Do you have a preference?
Whom do I prefer? Bauer had listened to my work and was most sensitive
to it, but I think the two players who have certainly been the most dynamic
and the freest in doing this have been William Parker and Barry Guy. But
then again, all stimuli has an effect on my work. That summer was beautiful.
I love Milan and it worked.
Those two players are capable of doing an entire concert on their
There was no competition. No one got into anyone's way; the listening
syndrome was remarkable and the rapport was just uncanny.
ANALYSIS OF THE MUSIC
Your music has regularly been described as moody, melancholy, even
morose, yet I hear a joyous tonality lurking within these darker passages.
Do you subscribe to this Dark Knight theory, or do you feel you have
been mislabeled with these generalizations?
If a person has never had steak, how do you tell them what it tastes
like? For the longest time, people have said that about my work. More
than one person. I don't know if they all hear it that way, or they just
keep re-saying what someone else has said. I like the deep tones of the
orchestra, and I like negotiating things there because you have a wider
spectrum, if you decide to come out of that orchestrally, than you would
if you weren't exploring down there. I think it has given me a wider pallet.
I remember a very established musician-composer who said that he found
my music depressing. One of the historically significant producers in
this music, a man who prided himself as having discovered some of the
most significant people in this music also, around the same time, told
me he found my music depressing. He did not know how I could stay in one
area so long. I understood what they were talking about. My answer was:
How can you put a label on what a person is doing simply because it affects
you in a certain way? So I have never found that to be true. I have found
that people choose to typecast certain segments of my work, but that does
not represent the totality of the work. Now, one thing that Odyssey
should do is dispel this notion.
I have found that people
choose to typecast certain segments of my work, but that does
not represent the totality of the work.
The six-CD box set covers what period of your career?
Odyssey traces my work from 1970 to 1992. Vade Mecum enters
at 1993. I am covered up to the present time. I tell people that if you
really want to know what I was doing, go to some of your same musicians
and see what they were doing at the same time. You can do that now. And
then measure. I have approached musical materials in a very, very personal
way. There is no linkage to 'isms' from other areas of this music. You
will find no clichés that belong to anyone else in my work. I do
no quoting of popular tunes or folk tunes. I do no borrowing of anything.
Pick four or five other trumpeters and play all from the same period and
see what you come up with. You will find that at any point in time you
choose, the materials I am attempting to do are not that broad-based,
yet little by little, musicians are beginning to see what is here that
they can now use. I recently heard a high school student on television
attempting things similar to what Don Cherry did and what I do. This kid
was listening externally, because the others in the band were doing straight
jazz. The language and the literature of this music is more broadly based
than people are willing to acknowledge. It isn't the materials or the
approach to the use of the materials that is the problem. The problem
is just that musicians haven't, at this point, found a dominant and enduring
way to make use of it yet.
Isn't that disturbing that it takes a person's entire lifetime
to achieve this?
It's very disturbing. But that is what happens when one's work and ideas
don't receive adequate exposure. Odyssey has been sold in Reykjavik,
Iceland, in Bosnia, Serbia, Japanall of these places.
What is your distribution?
I have no formal or institutionalized distribution. I have no distributor.
People who want to obtain Odyssey have to write here and get it.
And since that is what is happening, on a small scale of course, it is
indicative to me that there are these pockets of players and collectors
all over. You should see the correspondence I get from over the world
letting me know how significant they think I am. I know that wherever
I go, I am well received. I am going to Vienna in September to do a thing
for the 30th anniversary of the Wiener Musik Galerie.
Originally I was asked to do something with the very talented percussionist
Susie Ibarra, but I had to decline since I am not involved in the women's
movement in music.
She is an incredible drummer.
I very well understand that. I declined because I know the reason they
wanted me to play with her was more political than musical. If Susie Ibarra
called me on the phone and asked me to do something with her, I would
consider it differently. Anyway, due to the fact that I am unable to maintain
a staple and permanent working group for this event in Vienna I am fortunate
to be able to do a quartet piece of music with Evan Parker, Warren Smith
on vibes and tympani, and John Lindberg on bass. I'll do a quartet thing
That is an unusual combination of musicians. Do you expect the
dynamics of your music to be altered by this mix?
With the proper mixture, the dynamics of something changes because someone
has insisted the dynamics change. I know exactly what I am going to attempt
to do. If you understand why people do what they do, you can alter it
to suit your direction. The magic of playing has to do with how much everyone
wants it to succeed. If you have five players in a situation where the
music is being improvised and one is determined it is not going to succeed,
it won't succeed even if one of the musicians takes control. Freedom as
a philosophy is allowed as long as the respect for it and responsibility
to it are adhered to and understood. When it becomes an Olympics, someone
has to referee or take charge. The leader in any group is expected to
know more definitively what everyone in the group can do singularly or
collectively than they do. The idea of a meaningful communal music is
a fallacy. There is no democracy. There are all kinds of ways to suggest
the direction with the what, when and how of the material presented in
performanceeye contact, hand movement, the nature of what you are playing
and how it is being heard and ingested by the players, etc. When it doesn't
work, one does what has to be done to make it work.
It's scheduled for when?
September 20th. I'll get there, we'll rehearse and do the performance.
The point I am trying to make is simply this: Whether I get adequate attention
or not, people here do know the work I have been doing systematically
and without compromise for over 40 years. I get tired of people making
excuses for guys who don't continue the art because they can't make a
How long have you been a professional musician?
I started studying in 1946, and by 1948, I was playing. This was late,
but I was a fanatic.
I hear two distinct approaches you take on solosone where
you use short, interrupted phrases and the other where you show a
definite penchant for fluidity. Do you consciously plan how you are
going to approach a given piece or concert, or does the inspiration
of the moment dictate the direction you take?
It has always been the moment. Whereas I used to do very long, linear
things, I think that stopped with the record Thoughts. I became more caught
up with intervals, with the attempt to superimpose a kind of fluidity
and linkage when the goal is to give intervallic ideas a linear construct.
I worked on this principal quite diligently. I practice about six hours
a day. When the moment to play arrives, I let the dictates of that experience
inform and guide me relating to the ideas under scrutiny. That presents
me with everything I am supposed to do. I make no plans. None whatsoever.
Truly spontaneous, then?
Spontaneous is too short a word for me. It is a moment-to-moment existence,
taking place in the world of sound. It has to do with one's ability to
add, extract, or extrapolate. One moment can be an entire universe of
sound, but you can't carry that moment into another moment unless the
music dictates that. I try to function as a piece of carbon paper upon
which things can be inscribed. You try not to let your fingers or intellect
completely take over, and you try not to be too emotional, because that
can rob you of the flexibility necessary for implementation. You can play
yourself out and have nothing. You've done one scream and that's it. Depending
on what the players are doing, I set my course. I went to Jerusalem and
did a 30-minute solo, which is on Odyssey. I was introduced by
an Oxford scholar who was giving a lecture-demonstration on the history
of brass instruments and their evolution and performance development.
The place was incredibly well attended, and during the performance of
the solo, you do not hear a single person cough.
How do you feel about the almost obligatory clapping in the United
States after a solo?
It interferes. It can break your line of thought so easily, because that
is when you are your most fragile. Most musicians have a tendency to go
where an opening for reception to what they are playing, has been indicated
by the applause .
When I talk with musicians, they say it is nice to know the audience
is with them, but for me, it mars the entrance of the next performer
and disrupts the vibes generated thus far.
Not only that, it can ruin a piece. We are talking about creative music,
but I don't find that happening too much in certain areas and circumstances
of the music.
Encores are also an unnecessary thing to my mind.
I do not, as a rule, do encores. When I have finished playing, I have
indeed finished playing. I have nothing left; there has been no reserve.
At Victoriaville, the applause was long and enthusiastic so we did do
encores, one with the three of us, Tony, Cecil and myself and the last
one for Cecil.
I find it unrealistic for an audience to expect more after an artist
has drained himself in a performance.
It's an old show business routine. When I stop I have nothing else left
On In Italy II, you are incisive on piano while Stephan
Haynes and Arthur Brooks hold down the trumpet chairs on this complex
session. Although the two trumpeters free you for the piano improvisations,
are you comfortable in relinquishing the brass role to others within
your band? Are you more critical of their role?
I took them because they were good players and both had been students
of mine, and I was giving them an opportunity to play. The initial criticism
voiced about that from some people was that Bill Dixon was only coming
with his students. There is no 'only' when it comes to my usage of people
who have had studies with me. When musicians are able to do things, I
use them in my work. It wasn't that I was more critical of them, it was
they had a chance to do this thing publicly. David Murray was in the audience
and heard what I was doing. With me he has always been a gentleman. He
introduced himself to me before the performance in Florence. When I finished
that, I went to Paris to do a thing with Oliver Johnson and Kent CarterSteve Lacy's then rhythm sectionand I let people such as Earl Cross
and Arthur Doyle sit in. My young son observed that I did not play as
I had in Verona and the rest of the tour. I told him Steve and Arthur
had been there, so there was no musicological reason for me to play in
a certain way. I did not have to compete with them. A musician has to
understand his role as that relates and changes within the formation of
By the way, I love the recording where your son interrupts you
and then emulates your sound with his voice.
Oh yes, that is "I See Your Fancy Footwork", the three-part
composition for which he gave me the title. Isn't that something?
That was a prime example of taking advantage of the moment, and exploiting
it compositionally. The moment, the content and contours of that moment,
On Berlin Abbozzi, your tonality has a more pronounced echo effect
than previously. What did you use to achieve that unusual sound?
I have been using delay and reverberation since the middle 1960s. I use
them to make what is almost inaudible to the ear, audible. I do not use
them to play loudly but to make the higher harmonics heard. They did it
very well there. Engineers have a lot of problems with that. They have
a tendency, when the needle goes into the red, to fool with it. It ruins
it, you see. I like to do multiple layers. If it is done right, I can
play three lines simultaneously. There is no trick to it. If I place the
delay properly and long enough, I can play something against that, and
something against that. That is my interest at this particular point.
Reverberation takes the dryness out of the tone. I use three mikes: one
for delay, one for reverberation, and a clear mike.
Then you are doing a real-time manipulation of your sound.
That's right. I use no sampling or anything like that. In the Berlin
Abbozzi piece, it all worked perfectly. I think people who sample
are cheating. It is like people who do collages. Use all of your own stuff.
In Dixonia, you list a wide array of music that has not
been released, and some of the lineups are tantalizing. Do you have
any plans for making these treasures available? Have attempts to release
any of it in the past been met with problems?
Had I the financial resources, and were there a significant number of
people interested, I would make a considerable amount of it available,
but the musicians would have to be paid. I would never do something if
the musicians weren't paid. Odyssey is done the way it is because
I did not have money to pay musicians. It wasn't intended to be a solo
thing, but I spent so much money legally with the Cadence affair, I just
could not do it. But it is my intention for Archive Editions, which is
my own record thing, to release works in 100-copy lots just for collectors.
By the way, Ben Young and I worked on Dixonia for four or five
years before it came out.
When Coltrane died, a
void appeared in this music that has not been filled yet.
He maintained a forward motion in his work and did not look
We talked earlier on things in the music world that were disturbing
to you. If you were given the opportunity, what would you change?
One of the most remarkable places I ever worked in was called URDLA in
Villeurbanne France, near Lyon. Those things on the wall downstairs are
lithographs. They invited me to do them there. I spent two months there
and learned how to do lithographs. The place was large enough to be a
performance space and a place for the visual arts. I would like to take
one of these old factory buildings here in this town, fix it up as they
did in URDLA, and arrange for musicians and painters to come and do work.
I'd make it a place where I could work and invite those musicians of whom
I had an interest to do work for a small public.
Here in Vermont?
I would do it right here, because it is pure here. I am not interested
in people turning the corner and saying "I'll drop in here for a
minute." This place is an oasis in the desert if someone is willing
to do that. I did a lot of work at the college like that. When I got to
Bennington College in 1968, there wasn't a Black pair of shoes on the
campus. The Black Music Division after its formation had all kinds of
people to do everything, lecturers to cover everything. I formed that
department so that I could get some work done and not have to answer to
anyone. I did what I thought was necessary to make this a true art. If
I had money, I would like to get an old building, have music performances,
do lithographs, have shows of paintings, and do those things that I'm
interested in doing.
It is never going to be a mass media art form.
Why do we keep making believe it even should be? Why can't it be what
it is and just be done well?
Yes, but that is why our music is labeled a music of elitists.
Well, maybe it is an elitist music. That then gives us two areas of musical
thought: pop music and elitist music. Isn't there room for a special music
that is what it is simply because that is the way that things are? There
is always going to be different forms of music. I do not think we should
put down rap music and things like that. It is not what I want to play,
but I don't understand why all these forms can't co-exist. I had this
idea of putting money away, and hunting for musicians who have had to
scuffle and then reward them in some kind of way personally. I have not
given up on that. Thelonious Monk would not be eligible to enter the Thelonious
Monk competition today. Do you see the irony in these things? No one would
recognize a Charlie Parker if he surfaced now. We have gotten so slick;
we have taken every creative bone out of things formerly considered special
and parceled it into an acceptable, antiseptic form. Why? That is not
necessarily the way for an art to continue. The people who dole out grants
do not understand the mistake they are making, because the next Charlie
Parker is out there somewhere. He is not in one of these schools. He is
not getting any of these grants. This music desperately needs to be subsidized
so that the people who are trying to do something and have no access can
have access to something. I was on one of the National Endowment Panels
some years ago and it was an eye-opener to actually witness the selection
process in operation.
And you were not in a position to change it?
No individual can change anything. Change can only be instituted by the
dynamic of a group effort. We have powerful figures in this music that
have seen fit to move away to make some of the large money that is accessible
in popular music. In actuality, they have abandoned the more creative
areas of the music. For a variety of reasons, a considerable number of
which are quite legitimate, it is advanced that there is less money to
be made in this music. And as a consequence of that kind of thinking,
musicians have been suckered into believing that everybody except jazz
musicians should be supported in their work. If more musicians are performing
in Europe than here, it is because someone here doesn't feel the music
is significant. No one person can change this. I think much of the criticism
directed at Wynton Marsalis about there not being more White musicians
used in the orchestra is unfair, and it is obvious he does not need any
support or endorsement from me. I watched the birthday broadcast of Kurt
Masur the other night on public television and I didn't see a single Black
musician in that orchestra, the New York Philharmonic. There were women
there, but I did not see one Black musician. However, if I mention that,
I am playing the race card.
Musicians have challenged this practice in the past.
When it was challenged years ago by some black musicians, the immediate
results consisted of, at that time, the hiring of three women double bassists.
For whatever reason you just don't see Black players in those orchestras
in any numbers that make them visible. Jazz music though, serves as the
democratic institution in the arts, while formal concert music is not
at all questioned about its sometimes-perceived methods of exclusion.
And it must be by tacit agreement that it isn't even discussed. John Zorn
can discuss, relating to music and other things, what might be of interest
or troubling to him, and his views are given an airing without question.
But if Bill Dixon attempts to raise issues or be critical of things, in
music and other areas that are of interest to him, all of a sudden there
is a problem. Does that make any kind of sense?
You alluded to being systematically excluded by the media.
A few years ago a Downbeat writer, who has written favorably about
my work in the past, became infuriated with me when I questioned the philosophical
logic of something that he had written. He just about told me that references
to my work were now going to be non-existent. He adopted the attitude,
and he was not the first one, of how dare you, as a Black musician, question
anything that I have written. He had written something in a book called
Jazz Among the Discourses, and I read it and raised objections
from my point of view as a musician. These intellectuals seem to think
that everyone of them knows more about the music and the hows and whys
of its being done than the musicians who create it. He became very upset
with me simply because I disagreed with him. Some years ago, when an article
on my work was to be published in a magazine and when I asked if it was
going to be a cover story, I was told that it wasn't, because I do most
of my work in Europe. This writer also accused me of being ungrateful,
and they do not review my work any longer. Dixonia was not reviewed
by them, and neither was Berlin Abbozzi or Papyrus. Someone
determines in this music, who has done the music and who should be revealed
to the music public as having done any music. It is a selection process
that I feel is patently unfair. It does not present the history of the
music, and there is absolutely nothing we, as musicians who do music that
isn't popular, can do about it.
Surely, you can do something?
I decided many years ago when it became definitively clear that that
was how it was, that I would simply work. And that is what I've done systematically.
I am not a young man, and I do not have time or patience for this foolishness.
I was quite optimistic in the 1960s. I thought musicians would see the
futility of sitting around and waiting for someone to hire them. Musicians
I respected have permitted themselves to make some incredibly bad compromises.
The problem with the idea of compromise right from the very beginning
is, if you know you are right and everyone knows you are right, how can
you compromise? You can only compromise when you are not too sure that
you're completely right. But after you've compromised your principles
for a period of time, it can easily become a way of life.
You have problems with reporters and their approach, don't you?
I was asked once in an interview what I felt of a certain person's work.
I responded that I had never read where he asked that person what he thought
about my work. If that person's work was in the vanguard of my thoughts,
I would be doing that person's work, not my work. My work takes the priority.
The words were turned around, and the interviewer accused me of being
difficult. I am not difficult. If an artist is interviewed, do you interview
him because you really want to know what that person thinks as it relates
to his art? Do you trust him? Do you believe him?
Why do you continue, then, fighting uphill?
I don't know. But whatever I do, I attempt to do it fully. I try, and
don't always succeed, to be thorough. There are musicians who do not know
their worth, and if they knew it at one time, it has eluded them. I know
my worth. You try not to dwell in the past.
You suggested that the media has used some musicians.
Even though Miles Davis, as an artist and innovator of the first magnitude,
enjoyed considerable success in the early sixtiesfinancially
and otherwisewhen the new music was beginning to be heard and
discussed, he and his views were used by members of the critical establishment
to buttress their hostility and negativity regarding that music as
a logical development of what had preceded it. This was accomplished
by Leonard Feather, a senior critical writer and journalist, playing
recordings of Ornette, Cecil, or Eric Dolphy, for Davis to identify
and rate, relating to musical merit, for Feather's "Blindfold
Test". The predictable result, since it was an open secret that
Miles absolutely detested the music, was an attack and vicious condemnation
of the music, by Miles, thereby reinforcing Feather's own publicly
known negative assessment of it.
I have the June 18, 1964 issue of Downbeat, when their practice
was to print blank spaces in lieu of the profanity spoken by artists.
Miles is quoted as saying about Cecil Taylor's Live at the Café
Montmartre: "Take it off! That's some sad _____, man."
In the same article, he said of Eric Dolphy's Far Cry: "That's
got to be Eric Dolphynobody else could sound that bad!
I think he's ridiculous. He's a sad _____."
But that was a case of the musician being musically baited, and once
he unfortunately denounced the music, Feather's own feeling about that
area of the music became validated.
That made me resent Miles.
If you favored this music, that was what you were supposed to do. It
would naturally set you against him. This was a classic example of the
divide and conquer syndrome. Miles was always a beautiful player even
with those lesser groups that he had. One beautiful phrase from him and
the entire band could be forgiven its inadequacies. But for all his genius,
he was quite negatively vocal about the emerging new music of the sixties.
My first concert in Verona, Italy in 1980 was dedicated to him. I told
the audience that if people let him know that they had affection for him
and his music, he would come back and play. The kindest person I knew
in the music in the 1960s was John Coltrane, whom I only knew peripherally.
He listened to everything. He let musicians sit in. When Coltrane died,
a void opened in this music that I believe continues not to be filled.
He maintained a forward motion in his work and did not look back. We need
musicians who can move forward and not look back. An innovator is a very
restless person who is propelled forward. He keeps moving forward and
people have to catch up.
So how would you sum up your life?
If you are you, 24 hours a day, then you do not have to remember who
you are supposed to be in different situationssomething that I imagine
could be troublesome. Ornette once related to me years ago about his own
work that people didn't so much mind what he did, they minded that he
had done it. Confidence in my ability that I could do work of substance
had a long gestation period. Being able to believe and fully believe in
myself took a long time. Even the idea of confidence had to be built,
and it needed a foundation to be built upon. In the late 1930s, I looked
around and said, this is the only life I am going to have. I had to attempt
a sorting out of my strengths, to isolate them, and then get to work on
my weaknesses. What did I want to do? What did I want to be? What could
I do? What would I be permitted to do? I discovered music and I discovered
painting. I have a thing about myselfit is not arrogance, it is that
I am confident in my ability to continue to attempt work. And I am also
disturbed that people do things and expect you to roll over and play dead.
I don't talk of serious things to certain people anymore. The cure for
cancer may come from some poor kid in Harlem who at the present time is
unable to even finish high school. We take incredible chances on whom
we select to pay attention to. Every mind is important. Man is the only
animal who can deal systematically with abstract thought. I firmly believe
that if people will allow themselves to become feelingly educated, so
that things that are openly painful can be honestly discussed, then this
could be the way out of the morass.
I always thought that this music could bring peace to the world,
could cut through prejudices and calm the waters.
I agree. Every race and nationality on the face of the earth is represented
by some form of music.