Sunday, April 15, 2012

Being a part of the whole (when I play it, I mean it): Bill Dixon [pt. 2]

Words: Gian Paolo Galasi

Intents and Purposes was issued in 1967 on Rca Victor, headed to 'The Bill Dixon Orchestra' and  featuring Dixon on trumpet and fuegelhorn, Jimmy Cheatham on bass trombone, Robin Kenyatta on alto and Byard Lancaster on alto and bass clarinet, George Marge on English horn, Catherine Norris on cello, Jimmy Garrison and Reggie Workman on bass, Robert Frank Pozar on drums, Marc Levin on percussions and George Marge on flute. A true masterpiece of the era, it was critically acclaimed but soon out of print, with the exception of a couple of new appearances in Japan in 1972, and in France in 1976. Described by its creator as ‘my first crack at a fuller artistic expression’, while explaining that ‘the four compositions are philosophically and intrinsically linked’, I can only imagine a listener of that time grasping around in search for some references, if dealing only with the music closely related to the jazz environment. 

Taken as the 'missing link' between the New York and the Chicago avant garde, this record can be also considered as a precursor of the developments of the European free improvisation. Marc Levin percussions arent' that much different here from Tony Oxley's - in more recent times heavily involved in the music of Bill Dixon and Cecil Talyor, but between 1963 and 1966 part of the seminal English Joseph Holbrooke Trio with bassist and composer Gavin Bryars and Derek Bailey on guitar, in which influences from contemporary composers and innovations coming out of the jazz continuum were taken a step further. 

Robin Kenyatta
For last year CD reissue on Dynagroove, Francis Davis wrote on the Village Voice (July 12, 2011): “The mercurial, essentially romantic temperament revealed throughout Intents and Purposes begs comparison with Charles Mingus: Robin Kenyatta's deliriously sour dance-band-alto lead earlier on "Metamorphosis" calls to mind Mingus instructing Charlie Mariano to "play tears" on The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, […] But unlike Mingus's romantic sensibility, '67 Dixon's expressed itself in abstraction; the emotional payoff is as great, but it requires a greater investment, because even as the dynamics swell and the tempo quickens, the underlying passions never quite bubble to the surface. 

[…] Dixon's approach to orchestration and thematic development bears closer resemblance to those of 20th century European avant-gardists like Webern and Gian Carlos Menotti, the composer of Amahl and the Night Visitors, forgotten now but a pervasive influence then). […] A more answerable question raised by Intents and Purposes regards Dixon's place not just in the jazz continuum but in the overall evolution of contemporary music.” 
The richness of the brass sound newly explored by ‘third stream’ colleagues in a period in which Cecil Taylor was splitting up an lp with composer Gil Evans, compositional tools borrowed by music for films as US Informations Agency Wealth of a Nation! and Gene Friedman’s Index 1966, composed by Dixon himself on request, almost complete the palette, while the music is the result of the team up with Judith Dunn, regular Merce Cunningham dancer at the Bennington College, that later on worked intensively also with avant garde singer Meredith Monk, at the time responsible for a class she and Dixon taught jointly at the Bennington College, after their artistic partnership at the Judson Dance Theatre in 1965.

Robert Morris and Judith Dunn, 1967
Since the previous decade, New York was nurturing bebop, free jazz and free improvisation, indeterminacy, the contemporary New York School, the Beat poets of the Greenwich Village, Expressionists as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Larry Rivers – the latter introducing saxophone improvisation as part of his work. Nonetheless in this period recollections, as in performance historian Sally Banes’ Greenwich Village 1963: Avant Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body (Duke University Press, 1993), jazz musicians in New York never appear as directly involved in aesthetic or political discussions.

As there was no exchange within white and black artists during the Bebop era, even if digging bebop was a sign of leftist radicalism, when Asian performers as Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik and Toshi Ichiyanagi lead a central role in the environment, works by European composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Sylvano Bussotti, Giuseppe Chiari were regularly performed along with American artists' as John Cage, La Monte Young, Morton Feldman, Max Neuhaus, and Robert Ashley, but African Americans kept on remaining at the border of the establishment, even if Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor were influencing artists all around the world.

At the beginning of the 1960s, this asymmetry between white and black artists and intellectuals led to a rift. Leroi Jones – one of the few African Americans accepted by the white intellighentsia – found himself relatively isolated after his trip to Cuba in 1959 to meet artists from the African Diaspora. Even if NY white avant garde of the 1960s never avoided completely any relationship with black issues, with artists involved in the civil right movements, its attitude was mostly individualistic, politically disinterested and even disempowered, while at the same time influenced by Theodor W. Adorno’s notion of the heroic function of new music as oppositional to mass culture, resulting as bipolar in its practice.

Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach in NY, circa 1965
As Sally Banes wrote, “white artists adopted, perhaps not always consciously, elements of African American art and performance. These included improvisation and the fusion of the arts usually considered separate in the Euro-American tradition”. And “the African American tradition of musical improvisation was translated into theater, dance, and other artistic practices of the white avant garde”.

On the African American side, what George E. Lewis explores in the second chapter of his A Power Stronger Than Itself: the AACM and American Experimental Music (Chicago University Press, 2008), there were the “wide-ranging challenges to the conventions of improvisation that appeared at the onset of the 1960s […] rather than a single notion of ‘freedom’, various freedoms were being asserted across a wide spectrum of musical possibilities”. Following the list of musicians quoted by Lewis to set out his notion of ‘various freedoms’, Charles Mingus and his regular Candid partners, Miles Davis and his second quintet, Coltrane’s disciples and Taylor and Ayler band members, and finally Archie Shepp and John Tchicai New York Art Quartet, giving life to a dialogue with LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka on his poem “Black Dada Nihilismus” are listed as part of the whole scene.

Bill Dixon personal notion of freedom involved painting, music and dance. Choreographer Elaine Shipman recollections are particularly interesting since one can at first sight notice a deep connection with the work of Dixon's fellow Cecil Taylor – a passionate follower of dance too. As she refers: “he [Bill Dixon] didn’t seem that unconnected, or that minimal. That was not his philosophy: with his music I always felt that the dance did have some interpretational relationship with the music. […] I definitely expected all of his musical realities; they had the shape of the dance. He collaborated in a rhythmic way with the movement; that is, the music is toned to what the human body can do”. (in Ben Young Dixonia: a bio-discography of Bill Dixon, Greenwood Press, 1998).

Jazz Composers Guild. 1964. NYC
back, from left to right: Bill Dixon, Paul Bley, Michael Mantler, Archie Shepp
center, from left to right: Jon Winter, Sun Ra, Carla Bley, Cecil Taylor
front, from left to right: Burton Greene, Roswell Rudd, John Tchicai
Dixon and Taylor response to their environmental situation was way beyond the mere ‘Black, Angry and Hard to Understand’ attitude depicted by Nat Hentoff on a 1966  New York Time feature. In 1964 the two musicians founded the Jazz Composers Guild, after the October Revolution in Jazz four day marathon at the Manhattan’s Cellar Café. Since the previous spring, Dixon was actively involving the Cellar as the headquarter for his own concerts and activities. 

Giuseppi Logan, a student of Bill Dixon rehearsing just few blocks away from the Café, was borrowing his alto lines to some of Dixon’s compositions and dance suites, but the musicians involved were Albert Ayler, trombonist Roswell Rudd, altoist Jimmy Lyons, pianists Carla and Paul Bley, bassist Gary Peacock, trumpeters Don Cherry and Mike Mantler, drummer Billy Higgins, and Sun Ra – at that time well established in the city - leading horns Pat Patrick and Marshall Allen.

After the October concerts, the pianist and the trumpet player gave life to the Jazz Composers Guild. A multiracial coalition featuring the most committed musicians of the New York area, whose purposes, in Dixon’s own words, were “to establish the music to its rightful place in the society; to awake the musical conscience of the masses of people to that music which is essential to their lives; to protect the musicians and composers from the existing forces of exploitation; to provide an opportunity for the audience to hear the music; to provide facilities for the proper creation, rehearsals, performance, and dissemination of the music” (Robert Levin, The Jazz Composers Guild: An Assertion of Dignity, Down Beat, May 6, 1965).

Alan Silva, Muhammad Ali, Frank Wright,
Bobby Few. Photo:Jacques Bisceglia
Previous attempts were Charles Mingus and Max Roach Jazz Artists Guild and their mini Newport Rebel festival in 1960, and Los Angeles Underground Musicians’ Association – UMGA, later ‘Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension’ - as outgrowth of pianist Horace Tapscott’s Pan African People’s Arkestra, formed in 1964 right after the Watts rebellions. While even John Coltrane tried to organize his own independent performance space and booking agency with Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji and reedist Yousef Lateef in 1967 in Harlem, a second event was planned by the Jazz Composers Guild in 1964 at the New York Judson Hall in December.

In Alan Silva’s recollections to Dan Warburton: "I got to play with different bands, and I was impressed to see how many jazz musicians were out there playing this new music. I saw the contrast between the Afro-American tradition and a new tradition that I considered Bill to be part of, and I saw improvisation as the key. We wanted to purify music in America. That's always been my goal, and I saw this as a great opportunity. [...] For better or worse, when he set up the Guild, Bill Dixon integrated. [...] I had a major problem with the name though: I didn't like the word "jazz" - I always felt it was a bad word, like "ghetto" - and I didn't like the word "composers" either. [...] Anyway, they ended up accepting the name "Jazz Composers Guild", and I became very actively involved. 

It was a tight group, with tight byelaws created by Bill himself, simply because he believed that way we could act together. We had decided to deal as a group. All your gigs had to come through the Guild. Some people wanted it to be a non-profit organisation, but I wanted to run it as a regular company. We went down to City Hall to register as a business, with a bank account and the right to run it commercially and make records. Bill wanted to sell the entire Guild to a record label for a certain amount of money, but my idea was different: I was into making our own records. My perspective was the same as Sun Ra's with Saturn. We should make our own: why should we go to Riverside, or Prestige?"

The Sun Ra Arkestra
While holding weeky concerts in a loft on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, two floors above the Village Vanguard, the Guild lasted little more than one year, suffering the clash of the personalities involved within such a competitive atmosphere as New York’s, and the racial climate in the United States, finally dissolving when Archie Shepp signed for Impulse!, the label that was issuing John Coltrane records. As Cecil Taylor, quoted in Ekkehard Jost’s Sozialgeschichte des Jazz in den USA (Fischer, 1989): 

“the Guild did not survive because people who were dealing with it did not raise enough social consciousness; they neglected everything that has to do with what a person who lives in New York today, who not only wants to earn his living but also to honestly express himself, experiences in everyday life”. But, as John Coltrane himself said to Frank Kofsky (Black Nationalism and Revolution in Music, Pathfinder Press, 1970), “It was just something that couldn’t be born at that time, but I still think it’s a good idea”

Go to third part.

Related discography:
The Bill Dixon Orchestra, Intents and Purposes, Rca Victor 1967

Related bibliography:
Frank Kofsky, Black Nationalism and Revolution in Music, Pathfinder Press, 1970
Ekkehard Jost’s Sozialgeschichte des Jazz in den USA, Fischer, 1989
Sally Banes, Greenwich Village 1963: Avant Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body, Duke University Press, 1993
Ben Young, Dixonia. A bio-discography of Bill Dixon, Greenwood Press, 1998
George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: the AACM and American Experimental Music, Chicago University Press, 2008

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