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Bill 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.

Someone—the 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.

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…

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 perfect—it 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 piece—and 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… that's 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 piece.

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 Nono—all 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. Someone—the 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 the audience.

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 was you.

The 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 formally—my 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 day.


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.

Are you making a distinction between the American respect for this music and the European?

Not only respect for this music but acknowledgement of its creation and its existence. In certain areas of this music, especially since the 1960s—and that is no coincidence—certain 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 exist.

And why do you think that has occurred with a man of your enormous talent?

Let me give you some background. When I got into the music—remember, 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 activity.

This was in the 1940s?

In the middle 1940s. You could see all of these people—Bird 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 music—Dizzy and Bird were electrifying—was 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 music—to 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 self—who 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 work—who '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 down—kick 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 to do?

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 Black—running 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 marketed—film, 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?


Imagine the Sound was supposed to be a video history of the 1960s, wasn't it?

While everyone has a right to his or her opinion, the people who are informed have more of a right.

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 involvement—as a musician, performer, or as a listener—and have them speak to the issue of what that experience was; what they did—good, bad, or indifferent—and 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.

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't—and won't—be 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 a troublemaker.

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 music—not 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 deliberately—by their choice or selection—and systematically, decide what you are going to be told relating to what has actually happened.

What was the controversy with the initial CD release of your solo work Collection?

I was reading the contract one way, and they were reading it another way.

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.

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 hold—I was teaching at the time—and 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.

Time heals.

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.


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?

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.

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.

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 recordings.

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.


You mentioned your Italian affinity with Soul Note. You seem to have had a solid relationship with Giovanni Bonandrini.

When I stepped off the plane at Malpenza airport, I realized I loved Italy.

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.

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.


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 years?

You do something 20 years ago, and someone replicates it now and gets the credit. That will naturally breed resentment.

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.

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 is—I think they find it incredibly difficult to deal with his music—but 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?


Do you favor the solo form?

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.

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.

What fascinates me most about your recordings is the love relationship you have with the bass—singly 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 Haden.

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 own.

There was no competition. No one got into anyone's way; the listening syndrome was remarkable and the rapport was just uncanny.


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?

I have found that people choose to typecast certain segments of my work, but that does not represent the totality of the work.

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.

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, Japan—all 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.

With whom?

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 with them.

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 performance—eye 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 living.

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 solos—one 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 to play.

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 Carter—Steve Lacy's then rhythm section—and 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 groups.

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, dictated that.

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?

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 back.

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.

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 sixties—financially and otherwise—when 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 Dolphy—nobody 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 situations—something 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 myself—it 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.