Saturday, April 14, 2012

Being a part of the whole (when I play it, I mean it): Bill Dixon [pt. 1]

Words: Gian Paolo Galasi

Bill Dixon in 1881. Photo: Stephen Haynes
That Bill Dixon is a remarkable musician, a peerless one, is something you can get to directly listening to Cecil Taylor’s Conquistador! (Blue Note, 1966). With (Exit), side B of the lp, is heavily marked by trumpet's brushes of notes from lower to upper registers, with Taylor answering to these increasingly long and raucous tides leaving his usual stumming for more varied figures. Dixon introduces here a kind of warm call, mostly half valves as typical of his style, that Miles Davis, using a more bright and muezzin-like tone, reran few years after in many of his electric records and live performances – I also think that a comparison between some of the two trumpeters musical statements would be interesting, also to put in perspective some of Davis’ allegations on the couple of ‘contenders’ via Leonard Feathers’ Blindfold Tests on Downbeat issues of the era.

“There is no music without order - if it comes from a man’s innards” said Cecil Taylor to Nat Hentoff, while in more recent times, for a beautiful overall gaze on Dixon’s works provided by Clifford Allen on, Dixon himself stated “I told people years ago, the funny thing about Cecil is that if you're playing with him and you bring something into the music that catches his attention, he'll pay attention.” As a passionate fan of Cecil Taylor music, I can confirm Allen statements: no one else had this kind of alchemic approach to the music of the now 83 years old maestro, maybe with the exception of violinist Mat Maneri, who recorded a date with the pianist for the Library of Congress in 2004.

Born on October 5, 1959 in Nantucket, Massachussets, and died on June 16, 2010, Bill Dixon was not only an accomplished trumpeter, pianist and composer, but even before that, an accomplished painter. Relocated in New York with his family when 7 years old, as a teenager he attempted to study visual arts, and became a musician only when discharged from the Navy. As Graham Lock underlines in an interview for Point of Departure, Dixon’s art can be seen ‘as a personal extension of the experiments with abstraction that were taking place in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s’, like Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, and De Kooning.

Bill Dixon, 'Changes', pen ink and acrylic on paper
To complete the cadre, George Grosz, Otto Dix, architecture and design coming out of Impressionism can be taken as part of his panel of direct references. Former student with Earnest Critchlow, an African American artist that had a role in the Harlem Renaissance, and later, in 1969, founder of the Cinque Gallery and teacher at the NY University and the Art Students League, Bill Dixon left representation in 1960, almost at the same time he abandoned reading novels and started composing his own music, arranging notes more than group personnel.

“I would say it’s about as far as abstraction can go. In fact, it goes beyond abstraction. There is nothing to guide the viewer as to why those lithographs have anything to do with any of those people. Absolutely nothing. I was thinking about them consciously the entire time and, metaphysically, trying to place that ‘thought’ in the painting, if that was possibile.” Almost the same is the process when dedicating a piece to someone, as with Sumi E, a beautiful composition featured on 1988 record Son of Sisyphus and dedicated to Bill’s mother.

Dixon himself provided Clifford Allen with an aptly description for the music and the similarities with visual arts, due to the influence of both the artistic personalities of the musician: "I don't think vertically, but horizontally. If I follow a line I'm playing, I would have to turn around and look at the horizon—and what about the depth of the thing? It depends—shooting out a line and using delay or reverb almost has a cloud effect. You can put forth a phrase, the ensemble can come in, and they hover around each other.

I think of this as a cube-like thing, that if it were possible I could walk into the sound and play in it like that. It goes someplace and is a collection of something—why wouldn't it have a width, height, while also having all the instruments on the same level? Let your ear select where it wants to go, toward points where there's something up top, something behind, and you hear trumpets like they're inside the other thing. It holds another kind of responsibility on the ear; we draw out the soloist when we hear something. You walk into a party and if you want to hear what someone is saying, you focus on them."

Dixon’s first recorded compositions, Trio and Quartet, are featured on a record headed to the Archie Shepp – Bill Dixon Quartet and released in 1962 by Savoy in the US and by BYG in Europe under the title Peace. At that time, Bill Dixon was having embouchure problems, but his compositions are an evidence of the period, while Trio was subsequently reworked on the New York Contemporary Five albums. Way before, Dixon was heavily involved in the NY Art scene - the one described by Daniel Belgrad as 'aesthetic of spontaneity' - see his The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America, University of Chicago Press 1998 - playing and composing, after attending the Hartnett Conservatory of Music in Manhattan. In 1951 he met Cecil Taylor for the first time, while working for the UN and founding in 1953 the UN’s Jazz Society.

Between his first compositions, there is a suite for jazz horns influenced by JJ Johnson’s Poem For Brass (featured in Gunther Schuller’s The Birth of The Third Stream, Columbia 1956) and Teo Macero, showing how far Dixon was departing from the classic post-bop combos, while at the same time refining his attitude towards the music business, liking better Greenwich Village’s coffeehouses than usual clubs as The Five Spots. Other declared influences on Dixon compositional palette were movie and radio soundtracks, as well as his experience of composing and playing for dance performances.

This way, Bill Dixon started to be accustomed to such places as Le Figaro since 1961, gravitating toward figures as tenorist Archie Shepp and altoist John Tchicai, that since 1963, coming in NY from Denmark, started collaborating with native musicians leading to the Ney York Contemporary Five. Bill Dixon became their arranger while the choice of the trumpet player fell on Ornette Coleman scholar Don Cherry. While Dixon influence on the band compositions decreased through their tour in Europe in 1964, since 1962 Dixon was teaching music to Marzette Watts, moving on the same building on 27 Cooper Square, above the Five Spot, in which the older altoist was living with Shepp and LeRoi Jones at the beginning of 1963.

East Village, the Five Spot
The Savoy sessions collected on the lp Peace, featuring Don Moore on bass and Paul Cohen on drums – but with Reggie Workman and Howard McRae on the Coleman cover Piece, were recorded just few months after the two musicians split up for the first time. Shepp started travelling the Soviet Union, while Dixon moved in Stockholm with Perry Robinson, introduced by the latter to Albert Ayler. Failed to arrange an album of standards for the tenorist since he was panicking, the two played on some dates, sharing also a night with some members of the Count Basie Orchestra. The record finally went out, but without Dixon’s arrangements.

While in Europe, Dixon started writing the pieces later collected when he and Shepp found themselves again together in New York. Responsible also for the cover of the album, from this moment on Dixon started playing only his own compositions, while reluctant before that experience. Meeting John Tchichai and writing for the wide intervals typical of his style meant also for the composer following his inspiration in writing for large ensembles, leading him to Metamorphosis, the piece ended in 1966 and opener for his first masterpiece Intents and Purposes (Rca Victor, 1966).

Through different stages, Dixon started in this period to develop his own idea of music, preferring a wider use of space, more than the classic NY jammin’ free jazz polyphonic practice of the period. While moving with Shepp on a Lower East Side Manhattan loft together with Billy Higgins, Henry Grimes and Don Cherry, they were playing for leftists and local church related organizations as such players as J.R. Monterose, Jackie McLean, Steve Lacy, Don Ellis, Randy Weston, and Booker Ervin.

LeRoi Jones and Diane Di Prima
Black conscience were turmoiling over the surface at the beginning of the new decade, and Shepp and Le Roi Jones were actively involved with the political Organization of the Young Men, leading then to 1965 philosophical oppositions between the Jazz Composers Guild and Jones’ Black Arts repertory theatre. It was time for Dixon, that in 1963 wrote only arrangements, without directly performing with this or any other band, for the New York Contemporary Five debut album Consequences (Fontana, 1963), as their previous Rufus, with the band still a quartet featuring only JC Moses on bass and Don Moore on drums, and hosted musicians for interviews on a local radio, to further evolve, while his old fellow/rival was publishing his fundamental Blues People the same year and presenting his play The Dutchman in 1964.

The New York Contemporary Five were hosting again Dixon arrangements in the Sonet live recordings captured in Copenhagen, and in the Bill Dixon 7-tette/New York Contemporary 5 Savoy 1964 release. Issued to honour a contractual obligation with the label, the lp featured for the first time a group of musicians that will evolve further two years after on Dixon’s milestone of the Sixties. The Sep-tette is finally a direct emanation of Dixon’s ideas and practice on composition. His attempt to evolve from the New York free jazz logic, borrowing wider colors from the ‘third stream’, soundtrack music, and postmodern contemporary dance, with an eye on Espressionistic painting, will lead him to become a forerunner of improvised music in Europe. But we’ll get back to this, later on.

Featuring Ken McIntyre on alto and oboe, George Barrow on tenor saxophone, Howard Johnson on tuba and baritone sax, David Izenzon and Hal Dodson on bass and Howard McRae on drums, the record featured only Dixon’s original compositions: Winter Song, divided into five sections, its small – only 31 seconds -  Coda, and The 12th December, that is a completely notated piece. Largely out of print, the record in its entirety is considered one of the seminal records of the experimental music of the era, and it is also Dixon’s first real play after his embouchure problems, though some difficulties here and there were affecting the resulting performances:

“We’d rehearsed a lot, but going into the studio I could not do any second take. There were false starts, but not complete ones. We had a couple of problems getting started and I could feel my strength going. Ultimately I had to call upon everything I knew to get through that. If you’ll notice, my sound wasn’t quite as secure as it might have been”, said Dixon himself to Ben Young for his Dixonia: A Bio-discography of Bill Dixon (Greenwood Press, 1998).

Go to second part 

Related discography as a leader:
Archie Shepp - Bill Dixon Quartet (Savoy, 1962)
Bill Dixon 7-ette/Archie Shepp and The New York Contemporary Five (Savoy, 1964)
Intents and Purposes (Rca Victor, 1967)

Related discography as sideman:
Cecil Taylor, Conquistador! (Blue Note, 1966)

Related discography as arranger/composer: 
The New York Contemporary Five, Consequences (Fontana, 1963)
The New York Contemporary Five, Rufus (Fontana, 1963)
The New York Contemporary Five, Vol. 1 (Sonet, 1963)
The New York Contemporary Five, Vol. 2 (Sonet, 1963)
Bill Dixon 7-ette/Archie Shepp and The New York Contemporary Five (Savoy, 1964)

Related Bibliography: 
Ben Young, Dixonia. A bio-discography of Bill Dixon, Greenwood Press, 1998

1 comment:

  1. Bongiorno,
    Just a small correction. Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach were photographed at Newport Jazz Festival. During a rehearsal as the chairs in the back are still empty. This must have been the year when the Freedom Now Suite was performed there.