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Bill Dixon: Veiled Odyssey

Bill Dixon (photo: Detlev Schilke)
Bill Dixon (photo: Detlev Schilke)

Trumpeter Bill Dixon seems less than impressed by any kind of public approval.

“I’m suspicious of anyone the society grabs and makes a fuss over,” he says. “If too many people dig what you do, you’d better re-examine it. It may not be what you think it is.”

At this point, I can’t help smiling. Having too many people dig what you do is not a problem Dixon has often had to face-at least, not in the context of official media approbation. Evolving a freely improvised, highly original and abstract music was never likely to win him any popularity contests. And the fact that he’s been an outspoken critic of the musical establishment for over 40 years (“Everyone knows I’m not a resident storefront dummy”) has ensured he’s never been a critics’ favorite either.

Luckily, Dixon sees the funny side, too.

“This is what happens when you go under-recognized for too long,” he laughs. “But, really, if too many people are lauding what you do, slow down and look at it again. You’re making them too happy.”

For those of us who do dig his music, Dixon is in imminent danger of making us very happy indeed. Previously, his recordings have been exasperatingly infrequent. But the last 18 months have seen the release of three new Dixon CDs (Papyrus I and Papyrus II on Soul Note, Berlin Abbozzi on FMP) plus the reissue of a rare 1976 session with Franz Koglmann (Opium on Between the Lines). In addition, Dixon is currently compiling a six-CD set, Odyssey, that will trace the development of his solo trumpet music from 1970 to 1992. And he’s planning to record Index, the four-hour orchestra piece that he premiered at New York’s Vision Festival last May.

Still, he needn’t worry unduly about over-exposure just yet. His 75th birthday last October passed mostly unmarked by the music press. And the recent Oxford Companion to Jazz doesn’t even list him in the index. Obviously, he’s still doing something right.

“You’ve got to believe you’re worth something,” he insists. “You’ve got to believe that.” You also need to have what he calls “respect for the thing”-a belief that this music is a serious art form, that it represents more than simply entertainment. “The idea that this is who I am, this is how I feel about myself. That music is important, painting is important, literature is important. The thing about it is, when we leave, the legacy is what we’ve done. How do people want to be remembered?”

He tells a story about a solo concert he gave in Washington, D.C., some years ago. “It was an incredible concert. I was playing all these double harmonics and stuff-I really worked at that for four or five years, I don’t know if I could do it now. At the end of the concert, someone in the audience said, ‘Can you play “Hello Dolly”?’ I said, yes, I could. ‘Would you?’ No!” He gives a brief guffaw.

“When I play, whether you like it or not, I mean it.”

Louis Armstrong was the reason Bill Dixon took up the trumpet. He’d wanted one since the night his stepfather took him to see Armstrong front a big band at Harlem’s Lafayette Theater. That was in the early 1930s; he had to wait until 1946 for a chance to really study the instrument. Then, taking advantage of the G.I.Bill, Dixon enrolled in Manhattan’s Hartnett School of Music, where he remained until 1951.

That same year Dixon met Cecil Taylor, with whom he began to play occasionally and hold long discussions on “the plight of the black artist in America” and the future direction of jazz. At the time he was not consciously trying to create a new music.

“No, that wasn’t it at all. It’s very simple. I no longer felt the need to be playing the standard literature within the vernacular. I felt that you can’t improve on that, so there must be something else. Because how many times can you play ”Round Midnight’ or any of those beautiful tunes? All the pieces that we liked were already heavily identified with someone else’s rendition anyway. What are you going to do? Change a key every eight bars? We tried all of that. We did a lot of crazy things in those days, trying to formulate a way of thinking for yourself. We listened, we analyzed. It didn’t just happen with people standing up and blowing their brains out. This is what a lot of people don’t understand.”

Following a decade of freelancing as a player and arranger (supplemented by day jobs), Dixon made his recording debut in 1962 with a quartet he co-led with Archie Shepp. The LP was one of the first to reflect the influence of Ornette Coleman (whose “Peace” they covered). But Dixon began to experience embouchure problems and his major contribution to the new music over the next few years was in the role of organizer. In 1964 he put on a series of concerts at New York’s Cellar Café on West 91st St. His policy was to feature musicians who couldn’t find regular work elsewhere in the city, including Paul Bley, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Jimmy Giuffre, David Izenzon, Rashied Ali and the Albert Ayler trio, who recorded their Prophecy LP at the Cellar.

Though the concerts went well, the new music was facing an increasingly hysterical hate campaign from sections of the jazz press. “I’ve never understood why they had to be so hateful,” Dixon recalls. “What were they afraid of? We weren’t going to take over the world.” His response at the time was to organize a festival, “The October Revolution in Jazz,” which ran for four nights, presented more than 20 groups and comprehensively gave the lie to claims that the New Music had no audience.

The success of “The October Revolution” led Dixon to form the Jazz Composers’ Guild, a musicians’ organization that aimed to take back control of the music from nightclub owners and record companies. (Initial members included Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Sun Ra, Mike Mantler, Roswell Rudd, John Tchicai and Burton Greene.) Though the Guild folded within six months when some members broke ranks, Dixon has continued to uphold many of its precepts and still refuses to play in nightclubs. In the 1990s he told writer Ben Young: “I have utter confidence that had the Guild stayed together and carried out its principles, the entire art end of the music business would be different today.”

By this time, Dixon had resumed playing, and in 1966/67 he appeared on two classic recordings of the new music: Cecil Taylor’s Conquistador (Blue Note) and his own Intents and Purposes (RCA). The latter, though consisting of notated pieces, shares the same aesthetic concerns as Dixon’s later, improvised music-a focus on the solo line, ensemble textures, the liquid dialogues of light and dark sonorities. It’s a beautiful, highly disciplined work, and refutes the common misconception that the new music was all about screaming. It remains Dixon’s only recording for a major American label. BMG has never issued it on CD and refused to sell Dixon the master when he wanted to issue it himself.

Musing on the new music’s significance, and the continuing attempts to deny it any, Dixon remarks, “It’s a funny thing about the music of the ’60s. While the larger tenets never seemed to take hold, every musician who’s playing today uses some of that language. It’s not acknowledged at all, but no matter what anyone says to you, they’ve listened. So the movement succeeded-if it was a movement-because those people did do something. That music did exist.”

In 1966 Dixon had started to work with the dancer and choreographer Judith Dunn. This collaboration became his chief artistic endeavour for the next six years, resulting in projects such as Summerdance, Groundspeed, Dew Horse and Pomegranate I and II. In 1968, both he and Dunn began teaching at Bennington College in Vermont, where Dixon remained until he retired from academia five years ago. In 1973 he set up an independent Black Music Division at Bennington, of which he was chair until 1985. It was, he says, a constant struggle because many of the music faculty had no respect for creative music, and no understanding of it as an art form with its own specific aesthetic.

Though Dixon taped his own numerous performances at Bennington (for details, see Ben Young’s admirably comprehensive bio-discography, Dixonia), he did not release any commercial recordings in the 1970s. But in 1980 he struck a deal with the Italian Soul Note label, which allowed him to record what he wanted to record, and to retain control over the accompanying artwork. (Dixon is also an accomplished painter, who has exhibited in both Europe and the USA.) The result has been a series of exquisite small group and duo sessions, of which the two volumes of Bill Dixon in Italy, November 1981, Son of Sisyphus, Vade Mecum, Vade Mecum II and Papyrus I and II are currently available on CD.

The recollections of bassist Barry Guy, who played on the Vade Mecum discs, offer a vivid thumbnail sketch of Dixon’s small-group soundworld, with its fluid, abstract chiaroscuro: “The music had a beautiful way of breathing. It seemed to have space even though we were playing busy stuff at times. Bill kind of floated on top. He makes it sound easy, but his phrases are very complex and beautifully constructed. The music, I think, has an amazingly wide palette, from the deepest bass notes to the highest trumpet notes, and that intriguing open space in the middle. Because of natural tessitura, the trumpet often had this pristine space above us and to hear the superb, melodic side of Bill-he has the same facility with which Miles could negotiate a trumpet phrase, the same invention-it was great to hear that.”

Dixon’s melodic side is also to the fore on his Papyrus duos with drummer Tony Oxley, where his playing at times breathes a distillation of pure lyrical fire. Elsewhere, notably on Son of Sisyphus, it’s his broad timbral range that impresses, an array of wonderfully expressive gargles and growls, each revealing a phenomenal technique honed over years of assiduous practice. All the facets of his trumpet playing will be on display when the largely solo, six-CD Odyssey is released. Surprisingly, Dixon says he never set out to develop a solo language for the trumpet. He simply wanted the ability to play whatever the moment demands.

“No, I never thought of doing a thing for solo trumpet. I was learning what I could do with the trumpet. I wanted control of the instrument. I like to keep it fresh. I trust that when it’s time for me to play, I’ll be able to do whatever it is that appears. That’s what I want. So I tell people, I’m playing for the moment, as the moment occurs. To do that, you need the ability to move on the instrument as is dictated by what is being played. So I worked to acquire a knowledge of the instrument.”

Applying and extending that knowledge has long been one of Dixon’s primary aesthetic goals. For him, Odyssey represents not only a documentation of his work away from the mainstream, but also a vindication of the path he has taken. The path of artistic continuity, from which he looks askance at all forms of commercialism, from fashionable eclecticisms to attempts at replicating “the tradition.”

“I can just imagine the reception Odyssey will get,” he laughs. “People will consider it the most egotistical thing they’ve ever heard. It doesn’t bother me because I’m very happy with it. I think it’s bloody good. It’ll certainly make people look at the things that were happening during that period. It speaks well to the issue of isolation. My work is different.”

Listening Pleasures

“Some pieces of music-CDs and LPs-that I keep handy: The Duke Ellington “Black, Brown & Beige”/1944-46 band recordings. I heard the band live and I love these pieces; Miles Davis The Complete Prestige Recordings, 1951-56; Perceptions, music composed and arranged by J.J. Johnson, with Dizzy Gillespie as trumpet soloist; Dizzy Gillespie and Machito Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods, conducted and arranged by Chico O’Farrell; George Handy’s composition “The Bloos” off The Jazz Scene on Verve; Duke Ellington Live at the Hurricane, 1944; Elliott Carter’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” his “Violin Concerto” and “Three Occasions,” conducted by Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta, with Ole Bohn, violin; The Kronos Quartet performing the complete string quartets of Alfred Schnittke; For Olim by Cecil Taylor; the Canadian trumpeter Freddie Stone playing duets (piano and trumpet) with himself on the CD In Season; trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger playing Harrison Birtwistle’s “Endless Parada”; and Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Trumpet Concerto”; the Finnish trumpeter Jouko Harajanne playing “Trumpet Concerto No. 2” by Jukka Linkola; “Concerto for Piccolo Trumpet and Strings” by Leonid Bashmakov.


“I have played the Conn Constellation 38-B B-flat trumpet since about 1960. Before that it was the Martin Deluxe Committee Model. On my 50th birthday, students, fellow teachers, friends, etc. presented me with a blank check and an airline ticket to Chicago so that I could get a Shilke horn. I designed the one that I have, which is made of beryllium, has valves slanted to fit the contour of how my fingers move and has the detachable bell. I also have a Jerome Callet horn that I got around 1991.

Although I now use the Shilke rather consistently, in recent months I’ve restarted using the Conn. For me, no horn-with the exception of the original French Besson-gets that quiet, dark and liquid sound. I also have a Conn that had the lacquer scraped off and has silver applied instead.

I use a Benge flugelhorn. I used to have an English Besson flugelhorn that I favored. I recorded Intents & Purposes on that instrument. It was later stolen and I never got it back.

I have initiated peripheral discussions with someone in Germany about a quartertone trumpet. A young trumpet player from Vienna that I like, Franz Hautzinger, uses one and is doing some remarkable work. I am also shopping around for a piccolo trumpet. I want to see if, relating to what I continue to be interested in exploring on the instrument, would be rendered easier on that instrument.

I’ve used Frank Zottola’s mouthpieces since 1960. Before that I used a Bach 10.5C. A then student of mine, trombonist Jim Lee, told me about Frank Zottola and took me to see him. Since then I’ve used his 64A, 64B and 64C mouthpieces. I rarely use the A and C since the B seems to afford me what I need. A few years ago I started to use his 66B.

When I was in Rome in 1996 doing a duo concert with Tony Oxley, I bought a Stomvi set of mouthpieces that are interchangeable. They also permit other possibilities for performance that seem at odds with what other mouthpieces offer thus far. About three years ago, I bought a Monette B1-5 mouthpiece. For me it wasn’t initially as flexible or responsive to what I wanted to do.

Originally Published