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Walt Dickerson: Unified Vibes

From a shaded table in the backyard of his home in a suburb of Philadelphia, the great vibraphonist Walt Dickerson describes a performance during the 1960s with his longtime friend and collaborator, drummer Andrew Cyrille.

“There was a very strong rhythm-and-blues element at the club, and they were used to the backbeat and so forth. So, I started to play in that area just for the hell of it, and Andrew picked it up and began to apply the backbeat, and we got into a thing there. I never will forget it-we brought the house down with this blues excursion. After it was over, Andrew ran up to me and said, ‘Damn, Walt, I never knew you could play that shit!'”

The vibist is laughing hard at the memory.

Though some might associate Dickerson specifically with the jazz avant-garde, this anecdote and those that follow indicate that his mind is wide open; limitations of musical genre, nationality, academic discipline, etc. do not obstruct his worldview. Even his concept of chronology is unfettered by traditional demarcations; when asked his birth date, Dickerson replies, “I don’t really adhere to dates. To get caught up in the chronological aspect of things can have a detrimental effect on the mind and body; so I remain ageless.”

For the record, Dickerson was born in 1931 in Philadelphia He grew up in a musical family and was encouraged early on by his mother (a pianist), father (a singer) and his eldest brother (a concert violinist). Outside of the home, he discussed musical ideas with “The Two Johns,” Dennis and Coltrane. (Dickerson played with Coltrane in a big band led by Jimmy Heath that also included the likes of Benny Golson and the bassist Nelson Boyd.)

Dickerson speaks with supreme fondness about Dennis, a pianist who recorded one album for Debut, New Piano Expressions, in the company of Max Roach and Charles Mingus. (Dennis also appears on the Debut LP The Fabulous Thad Jones.)

“We were inseparable coming up,” Dickerson says of Dennis. “He was allowed to create when he came to our house; he could not create the music that he desired to create in his house because of the restrictions leveled by his ‘religious’ parents. John also had a photographic mind, very capable of doing three things simultaneously. As so often happens in America, his genius did not yield the fruits that it should have.”

After graduating from Morgan State University in Baltimore in 1953, serving in the armed forces-Dickerson played in the Seventh Army Symphony in Stuttgart-and spending time in California, Dickerson arrived in New York in 1960. A hometown friend, drummer Philly Joe Jones, helped him secure a recording contract with the Prestige label offshoot New Jazz. It was during this early period that he made his first landmark recording, 1962’s To My Queen, devised as a tribute to his wife, Elizabeth, and featuring such future stars as pianist Andrew Hill and Cyrille. “There is a way to talk about a person that you find ineffable through music,” Dickerson explains, “and my queen, being that ineffable person-music was the way that I could express those very beautiful, poignant, intellectual, brilliant, beautiful sides of her. So therefore it couldn’t fall in the realm of most songs or most compositions in the genre but had to escape those restrictions in order to exemplify her; and in doing so, it opened up a new vista of explorations. It was a very, very happy experience, and I return to that periodically, restating that which is ongoing in our relationship.” Indeed, Dickerson reprised the album’s title track-a midtempo ballad infused with grace and mystery-on a 1978 Steeplechase recording appropriately titled To My Queen Revisited

Spend even a few minutes with Dickerson and you will realize how much his family means to him. As he and I spoke, he constantly showered Elizabeth, who was working in the garden, and his son, Nate, who served up a delicious meal of breaded fish and spicy eggplant, with both verbal and physical expressions of love. In Dickerson’s mind, his relationship with his family is not incidental but rather essential to his music. “[A man] is not a separate entity from his [musical] projections,” he says. “They’re one and the same. Treat them as such, view them as such and then you get the complete picture. Isolate them, and you’ll get a distorted picture, subject to your assumptions, which are erroneous 90 percent of the time.”

This insistence upon unity is a constant theme in Dickerson’s life and work. Though he counts among his close friends many professors and scholars, he remains skeptical of academia in part due to its narrow definition of music education, which tends to separate a person’s life from his creations. “What one espouses verbally is what you’ll hear musically; they’re one and the same,” he insists, “but of course, that isn’t taught in academia; those two areas are separated. ‘Now let’s talk about the man. We’ve discussed his music; now let’s talk about the man’ is the way it goes. Well don’t you know, when you discuss his music, you discuss what he’s about; you’re discussing what the man stands for.”

In the ’60s, apart from his work for New Jazz, Dickerson recorded two unusual albums that featured jazz interpretations of the scores from the films Lawrence of Arabia and A Patch of Blue. For the former, he recruited bassist Henry Grimes, who has recently resurfaced after a three-decade absence from the scene. “Yeah, I was glad to hear that Henry was back-a very fine bassist,” Dickerson says proudly. “He’s from Philly. He came right in and did a fantastic job.” Among his other illustrious sidemen on these dates were Cyrille, drummer Roger Blank and none other than Sun Ra. “Philosophically we had nothing in common,” Dickerson laughs of himself and Ra. “Strangely enough, that’s why I enjoyed his company. I used Sun Ra on several of my recordings because I wanted that difference, that uniqueness that he brought to the table.”

During the late ’60s and early ’70s, Dickerson did not record but nevertheless led a full life. In a recent interview with Dimitri Zhukov, he made this simple statement regarding this period: “I performed in clubs, in colleges, universities, did seminars, enjoyed my life, my wife, my family.” In 1975, he returned with the remarkable Steeplechase recording Peace as well as a Japanese-only record, Tell Us Only the Beautiful Things (Whynot), which again featured Cyrille as well as bassist Wilbur Ware. These dates and the series of Steeplechase records that followed showcased a freer musical direction than Dickerson had pursued previously. The music featured on such fascinating subsequent LPs as Divine Gemini (a series of duets with bassist Richard Davis), Visions (another duet program, with Sun Ra on piano) and To My Son (a heady trio session) is often sparse and ethereal. It is characterized by Dickerson’s fleet, delicate lines, shimmering ambience created by his multilayered vibrato and his trademark “plush tone” (the vibraphonist’s preferred term), which he achieved in part by stripping his mallet tips down to their rubber core.

When asked about his musical influences, Dickerson responds with a characteristically broad-minded manifesto: “You know, I had models early on,” he says. “Then your quest becomes all-consuming, and you’ve accessed the unlimited area of creativity. So, occasionally, I’ll listen to John and John in my relaxing moments-occasionally. Other than that, I’m listening to the sound waves, the music that’s carried by the ether that surrounds us. See, those sounds that are put into the air never leave. It doesn’t matter the confines; there are always sounds around us.”

Gesturing upward toward the trees, the source of a lively chattering of birds, he continues, “You hear the sounds now. That evokes other sounds; hence, there’s a sea of sound. We just don’t consciously listen and hear that sea of sound that we’re in. So much to draw on! And that’s 24 hours! It doesn’t matter where you are-so much to draw on. We’re so rich; our library is inexhaustible-sounds, infinite sounds.”

Much as Dickerson refuses to allow the passage of time to limit his creativity, so does he refute the limitations of musical classification. “I understand the categorization of music, but I really don’t adhere to categories at all,” he says. “See, I see things in their totality, not in their segmented manner that man has superimposed upon them. ‘Did you like the music?’ ‘Fine.’ That’s all that’s necessary.”

From the early 1980s to the present, Dickerson has released only one recording, 1982’s Life Rays on Soul Note, which features Cyrille and the one-name bassist Sirone. He has performed infrequently in the United States. The vibraphonist has hardly been inactive, however: he has toured Europe extensively, both as a solo act and with sidemen including drummer Jimmi Johnsun and bassist Andy McKee, both of whom appeared on To My Son and To My Queen Revisited, among other Dickerson dates.

Dickerson marvels at the gracious receptions he has received abroad: “In our travels, [my wife and I] found beautiful people everywhere, and we’ve been guests in the homes of many people. When our children were younger, this [backyard] used to look like a U.N., children from many nations in the summertime coming to visit and stay with us and our children; that’s how they grew up. This enriches one’s life outside of the cubicle of their ‘country’ or ‘community.’ I don’t see lines: ‘these people, those people.’ I know better than that. Again, that is a superimposition by man, creating differences where no differences in reality actually exist.”

Consistent with Dickerson’s inclusive view of humanity is the fact that he counts among his fans a wide range of people. He recalls being surprised to find one of his New York concerts attended by “over 50 leather-wearing bikers; after which, they asked for a meeting with me. I obliged; they procured a room outside of the auditorium for us to meet. It was one of the most interesting meetings I’ve ever had. I didn’t know I had fans that were bikers. You see, I didn’t see them any differently than anybody else; they were just people to me. So therefore, ‘Let’s talk; let’s communicate; let’s exchange views; let’s get into each others’ heads; let’s enjoy each others’ company.’ And that we did, the wife and myself; we had a ball. Unusual? Yes. Different? Yes. A ball? Yes,” Dickerson laughs.

Surprisingly, Dickerson’s absence from records over the past two decades has not been voluntary. Rather, he states, “You would have to ask the recording industry about that. I’m not one to go in search of [a record label] because I am; therefore, if you are knowledgeable, intelligent and about the process of the music and your position is that of a recording entity, then you should be ringing my phone, giving me a call or knocking at my door.

“Walt is here, ready to record. Give me a call; let’s sit down at the table and do what is best for mankind.”

Though the latter statement may seem arrogant, it merely indicates Dickerson’s confidence in the beneficial effects of his brand of art. “We must remember that the creative flow is a life-giving flow,” he asserts, “and those that are about creativity are projecting and injecting life into the recipients, which I think is most noble and wholesome.”

As one might expect, Dickerson reserves his highest praise for his fellow creators. When speaking of the musicians on the To My Queen date, for example, he appears deeply moved: “Andrew Hill-beautiful projections; [bassist] George Tucker-a rock, sensitive; and of course Andrew [Cyrille]-flourishes, nuances, bracketing the different motifs; he was awesome, and remains to this day, as does Andrew Hill. Two awesome, creative musicians.” Here, Dickerson clarifies his statement: “I don’t consider them musicians; I consider them artists in the highest sense. They’ve surpassed that category, musicians. Periodically those are the individuals I miss because now I do just about exclusively solo performances.”

Just as he still desires to record, Dickerson is enthusiastic about the idea of performing Stateside in the future. He has had many offers to perform in New York but has refused the majority of them due to his strict code of physical well-being. He stipulates, “No clubs, no smoke environment. Concert hall? Fine. I’ve seen too many suffer from various maladies due to those environments. It’s quite a workout performing; you do take in what is around you in great amounts, and it does have an effect. I care not to expose my body or mind to those things that are going to be detrimental to my body and mind-my being.”

Therefore, circa 2003, Walt Dickerson is simply waiting for the right opportunities through which to make his return to performing and recording. In the meantime, he occupies himself with daily “workouts” on the vibes in his basement studio and the enjoyment of life’s basic pleasures.

Raising a glass of ice water and sipping, he reflects: “This is a pleasure. Beautiful day; I just drink it in, just sit out here and drink it in.”

Dickerson is confident in the knowledge that when the opportunity to reemerge arises, he will be ready. “[My next recording] is completed already,” he reveals “I’m not playing every day for naught; I’m creating every day. That’s why I said, ‘The next outing is already done.’ When the call comes, that’ll complete it.”

Originally Published