Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 5 October 1925, Nantucket Island MA; d 15 June 2010, Bennington VT) Trumpet, flugelhorn, composer, originally inspired by Louis Armstrong. He grew up in Harlem, studied painting and music, was a freelance trumpeter and arranger in NYC and met Cecil Taylor at the Sportsmen's Club in 1951: the important relationship lasted many years, including Dixon's playing on Taylor's Conquistador! '65: 'His specified lyricism ... is unique: Cecil Taylor seldom again had the advantage of an ensemble member who resisted him this well' (J. Litweiler). In the late 1950s Dixon began to lead his own groups, concentrating on playing his own music from '61-2, and became a godfather of the avant-garde. Writing, painting, teaching art history and music as well as composing, he helped many younger men (e.g. bassist Alan Silva, b 29 January 1939, Bermuda).

From a biographical essay co-written by Dixon and Andrew Raffo Dewar:

Dixon worked as an international civil servant at United Nations headquarters in NY from 1956 to 1961. In 1958 he organized the United Nations Jazz Society, a listening and discussion group organized for the enjoyment and understanding of the music by the multinational Secretariat staff, professionals and diplomats. During his tenure at the UN, he chaired a panel entitled "The Future of Jazz" that included Gunther Schuller, Cecil Taylor, George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Earl Griffiths, Martin Williams, and Dixon's former composition teacher Carl Bowman as panelists. Author A.B. Spellman made use of the transcript of that event in his book Four Lives in the Bebop Business.

Dixon co-led the Archie Shepp/Bill Dixon Quartet (album on Savoy; played at Helsinki Youth Festival '62), formed the New York Contemporary Five, initially writing all the music, with Shepp, John Tchicai, Don Cherry, J. C. Moses (drums; b 18 October 1936, Philadelphia; less active in music after '70 due to ill health), Donald Moore (bass; b 1937, Philadelphia); toured Europe with that group '63. He produced records for Savoy (e.g. two-disc set New Music: Second Wave '62-8); organized the October Revolution '64 with film-maker Peter Sabino, which led to the Jazz Composers' Guild '65 with Taylor's encouragement. He appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival with a quartet and dancer/ choreographer Judith Dunn '66. The University of the Streets was formed by young Puerto Ricans in NYC '67; while teaching art history elsewhere Dixon formed the Free Conservatory of the University of the Streets '68: he is modest about his role, but a visit by people from Washington DC to a drama class run by actor/teacher Arnold Johnson and an orchestra rehearsal led by Dixon clinched a Federal grant for one of the first such neighbourhood projects. (Milford Graves was another effective participant.)

Dixon joined the music faculty at Bennington College VT '68; was a visiting professor of music at the U. of Wisconsin/Madison '71-2; was offered a permanent appointment but returned to Bennington to be near his small son; he also taught at Ohio State, George Washington and Columbia Universities. Working in Bennington with student ensembles, he met opposition on the grounds that there is no such thing as 'black music', which missed the point: improvised music is now an international language, but blacks have taught it since Armstrong. He was invited by the French Ministry of Culture to an Autumn Festival in Paris '76 and specially wrote Autumn Sequences From A Paris Diary. Records have been few, partly because of disgust at the way art is controlled; the beautiful album Intents And Purposes '67 on RCA included 'Metamorphosis: 1962-66' and 'Voices' for ensemble with Jimmy Garrison, Byard Lancaster (b 6 August 1942; d 23 August 2012), Jimmy Cheatham on bass trombone (has taught at Bennington, as did Garrison and Graves), plus English horn, cello etc; also solo 'Nightfall Pieces' with alto flute and flugelhorn overdubbed. The enterprise of small labels resulted in more issues: two volumes of Considerations with Silva, Steve Horenstein, others were made '72-6 at Bennington, issued by Fore in Italy; also limited editions: For Franz on the Pipe label (Vienna '77); Bill Dixon 1970-73 on Ferrari Edizione (Verona '83); Bill Dixon Collection on Cadence (NY '85) is a two-disc set of solos from Bennington '70-76. Two volumes of In Italy, two-disc November 1981 and Thoughts '85 (septet with three basses released '87), Son Of Sisyphus recorded '88 are all on Soul Note. 'The man who played through the wildest days of the free revolution with an unashamed lyricism is a non-conformist' (Barry McRae in Jazz Journal '81).

The October Revolution '94 on Evidence was a tribute: quartet Rashied Ali, Joe McPhee, Wilbur Morris on bass and Borah Bergman on piano played For Bill Dixon I and II, separated by Myra Melford's trio (Lindsey Horner, bass; Tom Rainey, drums) playing Butch Morris's 'The Death Of Danny Love'. Vade Mecum and Vade Mecum II '93 were on Soul Note, with bassists Barry Guy and William Parker, drummer Tony Oxley. The Enchanted Messenger '94 on Soul Note had the Tony Oxley Celebration Orchestra live from the Berlin Jazz Festival featuring Dixon, the excellent British drummer's large group adventurously combining free improv and structure in 19 sections. 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur 2007 on Aum Fidelity with a 16-piece Sound Vision Orchestra was the first document of Dixon's orchestral work in 40 years; Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra on Thrill Jockey in 2008 also presented Dixon's writing for a large group, as well as much deserved exposure for the Chicago orchestra's leader, trumpeter, composer and mutli-media artist Rob Mazurek. 17 Musicians In Search Of A Sound: Darfur on Aum Fidelity is another big band set, recorded at the 2007 Vision Festival in New York, of which Jason Blivins wrote in Cadence (Jan/Feb/Mar 2009) that Dixon sticks mostly to conducting his music, but 'during the perfomance's centerpiece, 'Sinopia' ... we hear Dixon play that cosmic, expansive trumpet. I've always been captivated by that sound, with its quirky synthesis of slurs, coughs, stutters, and singing metal.'