Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Dixon, Bill (William Robert)
In his work as a trumpeter and composer over the past sixty years, Bill Dixon has endeavored to create a singular body of work. He has worked to extend and add to both the performance language of the trumpet and the practice of composition. As a result he has musically broadened the definition of jazz, despite the fact that he eschews the word and would rather his work be simply called "music."
William Robert Dixon was born October 5th, 1925, on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts to William LeRoy Dixon and Louise Wade. He was the eldest of five children. Around 1933 his family moved from Nantucket, first to New Bedford, the home of his stepfather Edward James Williams, Jr., then briefly to Brooklyn, New York, finally settling in Harlem where he spent his formative years.
While his parents were not musically inclined, his mother was a prolific writer of fiction. Dixon remembers her as having a beautiful voice. Both parents were avid readers, and always maintained a library in the home.
Music, and the trumpet, became a focus of interest for Dixon when as a small child his stepfather took him to hear Louis Armstrong perform at Harlem's Lafayette Theatre. He remembers being immediately taken with the sound of the instrument.
Dixon's first artistic explorations were as a visual artist. He studied with Mrs. Kerwood-Evans, a painter, at Frederick Douglass Junior High School in Harlem, and at a Work Progress Administration arts school on 125th street in Harlem with the painter Ernest Crichlow. At the High School of Commerce in Manhattan in the early 1940s, he majored in commercial art, studying design, illustration, lettering, and architectural drafting.
He purchased his first trumpet in his last year of high school, when his family had moved back to New Bedford. Dixon began autodidactic studies on the instrument prior to enlisting in the Army in June of 1944. He served in the European Theatre of Operations and was honorably discharged in February 1946.
Dixon's formal studies in music began after a short stint as an apprentice illustrator in a New York advertising studio under the GI Bill. From 1946 to 1951 he attended the Hartnette Conservatory of Music in Manhattan, also under the GI Bill. Hartnette was a professional school catering largely to returning veterans wanting to either complete studies that had been interfered with by the war or, like Dixon, just beginning their studies. He surveyed the standard conservatory fare of harmony, theory, and counterpoint, studying composition with Carl Bowman, trumpet with Steven Gitto, and the Schillinger system with James Brokenshire.
After his studies at Hartnette, Dixon worked as a freelancer, composing arrangements, transcribing lead sheets from recordings, and performing music in a variety of settings, including working with singers and dancers.
In 1951, Dixon met the pianist/composer Cecil Taylor. In 1954, he relocated to Alaska for a year-long engagement with the Tommy Roberts Band, which included alto saxophonist Howard Johnson of Dizzy Gillespie's big band and percussionist Sid McKay.
Dixon's career path differs from many of his generation. Rather than spending a lengthy period in apprenticeship, he began putting together ensembles to rehearse his own music. His early compositional influences reflect the work of Duke Ellington, Walter Gil Fuller, George Russell, Raymond Scott, Claude Thornhill, Billy Strayhorn, and Chico O'Farrill, among others.
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, Jimmie 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.
In 1961, he assembled a collaborative quartet with saxophonist Archie Shepp. The Archie Shepp-Bill Dixon Quartet, as the group was known, was invited to perform at the Helsinki Youth Festival in July 1962. After the concerts in Helsinki and Turku, the group (without Shepp) traveled to Stockholm where Dixon met and performed with saxophonist Albert Ayler for the first time.
Upon his return from Scandinavia later that summer, Dixon left the UN to devote himself full-time to music and painting, becoming a key figure in organizing and performing concerts in New York City's coffee houses, theaters, and lofts.
The Dixon/Shepp quartet recorded for Savoy Records in October 1962, performing two Dixon originals, "Trio" and "Quartet," a Leonard Bernstein composition from West Side Story, "Somewhere," and the Ornette Coleman composition "Peace." The quartet continued to perform together through 1963.
In 1964 Dixon made his second record, The Bill Dixon 7-tette, also for Savoy, which included two of his compositions "The Twelfth December" and "Winter Song 1964".
Later that year he organized the four-day "October Revolution in Jazz" festival at the Cellar Cafe, owned by filmmaker Peter Sabino, which brought the avant-garde music that had been fomenting underground to the attention of the public and critical establishment. The festival included performances and panel discussions.
These concerts sought to solidify artistic bonds among the musicians, which later crystallized as the Jazz Composer's Guild, a union of experimental musicians organized by Dixon and dedicated to improving the lot and working conditions for musicians. The Guild produced a number of significant events, among them the 1964 "Four Days in December" series of concerts at Judson Hall. Dixon left the guild in 1965.
Bill Dixon performed on Cecil Taylor's Blue Note album Conquistador in 1966. One week after that he recorded his first magnum opus, Intents and Purposes, for RCA Victor, which featured his remarkable large ensemble compositions and arrangements.
Between 1966 and 1968, a large part of Dixon's activities consisted of work with dancer-choreographer Judith Dunn, duet collaborations with bassist Alan Silva, collaborative work with the painter Aldo Tambellini, works with large ensembles performing his music, and some works for theatre with director Lawrence Sacharow that included a production of Bertolt Brecht's The Exception and The Rule. In 1966 Dixon was invited to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival in a group that included dancer Judith Dunn.
In 1967, Dixon was commissioned to compose music for a USIA film entitled The Wealth of a Nation, produced and directed by William Greaves. The film won numerous awards and was screened in US embassies throughout the world.
By the end of 1967 and through most of 1968, Dixon helped to create the Free Conservatory of the University of the Streets, a music education program for New York City’s urban youth sponsored by the Puerto Rican activist group the Real Great Society. Dixon taught courses in the program and rehearsed his music with mixed groups of students and professional musicians, an approach he continues to find useful.
In 1968 Dixon accepted a position to teach collaboratively with Judith Dunn at Bennington College in Vermont. He took a year's leave from Bennington in 1971-72 and accepted a visiting professorship in the school of music at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. When he returned to Bennington he developed and formed the Black Music Division in 1973. He was the department's chairman for ten years. Holding tenured appointments both in music and the dance division, Dixon continued to teach at Bennington until his retirement in 1996.
During his time at Bennington in the 1970s, Dixon developed his solo trumpet language to a new level of abstraction and sound exploration, a period that is best documented on the Odyssey box set. He also continued to compose and perform works for large ensembles of both students and professionals, creating a nexus of musical activity in Vermont.
In the 1980s, Dixon formed a fruitful relationship with the Italian Soul Note label, resulting in eight well regarded recordings over a ten-year period.
Throughout his life, Dixon has continued to produce and exhibit his paintings. Twenty five of his lithographs (produced in 1994 at URDLA in Villeurbanne) now reside in the National Library of France. In 1986 Dixon published a book of writings entitled "L'Opera".
Now in his eighth decade, Bill Dixon continues to perform, compose, paint and write, creating vital new works as a soloist and for ensembles, always pushing his work into fresh territory.
Anonymous. 1964. "Winter Song, 1964," in Downbeat 31(12):37-40.
_____. 1965. "26 Jazzmen Nouveaux a La Question. Bill Dixon." Jazz Magazine. 125:46-49.
_____. 1969, June 30. "‘Identity Crisis’." Newsweek. 47:62.
_____. 1975. "Black Music: An Interview with Bill Dixon." Quadrille. 10(1):6-11. Bennington, VT : Bennington College.
_____. 1976. "Bill Dixon: De Bennington Au Festival D'automne." Jazz Magazine. 247:36-37.
Bakriges, Chris. 1995. “The October Revolution in Jazz: Critical Reception of
the New Thing.” MA thesis, Wesleyan University.
Bethune, Christian. 1980. "Jazz En Direct. Bill Dixon," in Jazz Magazine 289:15.
Corneau, Daniel and Berger, Alain. 1966. “Free '66: Introducing Bill Dixon.” Jazz Hot. 32(222):22-24.
Dewar, Andrew Raffo. 2004. "'This is an American Music': Aesthetics, Music and Visual Art of Bill Dixon." M.A. Thesis, Wesleyan University.
Dixon, Bill. 1967a. "Bill Dixon: Contemporary Jazz. An Assessment," in Jazz
and Pop. 6(11):31-32.
_____. 1967b. "To Whom It May Concern," in Coda 8(4):2-10.
_____. 1972. “Thoughts”. The Daily Cardinal. March 20: 4-7.
_____. 1986a. L’Opera: A Collection of Letters, Writings, Musical Scores, Drawings and Photographs (1967-1986), Vol. 1. North Bennington, VT: Metamorphosis Music.
_____. 1986b. “To Whom It May Concern Nineteen Years Later,” in Coda 211:24.
_____. 1987, Fall. “Some Explanations of the Materials thus far Used in Contemporary Improvisation.” Silo. Bennington, VT: Bennington College. 36-39.
_____. 1996, Summer. "Thus Spoke Bill Dixon." Arude. 44-45.
Fero, C. 1966. "Sounds Recalled. Archie Shepp/Bill Dixon Quartet." Sounds &
Heller, Michael C. 2005. "...So We Did It Ourselves: A Social and Musical
History of Musician-Organized Jazz Festivals from 1960 to 1973." MA
Thesis, State University of New Jersey, Rutgers.
Horenstein, Stephen. 1975a. "Les Lecons De Bill Dixon." Jazz Magazine.
_____. 1976. "Les Lecons De Bill Dixon." Jazz Magazine. 240:16-17.
_____. 1976. "Les Cinq Jours De Dixon." Jazz Magazine. 249:18-19, 32-34.
_____. 1979. "Jazz En Direct, Bill Dixon." Jazz Magazine. 280:8.
Levi, Paulo. 1972. "Paulo Levi Talks to Bill Dixon." Badger Herald Octopus. May 15, 1972:14-15.
Levin, Robert. 1965. "The Jazz Composers Guild. An Assertion of Dignity." Downbeat. 32(10):17-18.
Lock, Graham. 2001. “Man with a Trumpet,” in Odyssey. Bennington, VT: Archive Edition 510-1925 I.
_____. 2003. “Bill Dixon: Music and Painting.” (Accessed 5/2/04).
MacGregor, S.B. 1977. "Bill Dixon," in Coda. 153:33-34.
Riggins, Roger. 1980. "Professor Bill Dixon. Intents of an Inventor," in
Rubolino, Frank. 2002. “Bill Dixon: The OFN Interview”. One Final Note.
http://www.onefinalnote.com/features/2002/dixon/ (Accessed 15 March 2004).
Rusch, Bob. 1984. Jazz Talk: The Cadence Interviews. Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart.
Young, Ben. 1998. Dixonia: A Bio-Discography of Bill Dixon. Westport, CT:
Zwerin, Mike. 1967. "The Jazz Artistry of Bill Dixon," in Down Beat 34(24):28-29.
Discography As a Leader:
As a Leader:
Dixon, Bill. 1962. Archie Shepp/Bill Dixon Quartet. Savoy MG 12178.
____. 1964. Archie Shepp Quintet/Bill Dixon Septet. Savoy MG-12184.
____. 1967. Intents And Purposes. RCA Victor LSP3844.
____. 1980a. Bill Dixon in Italy Vol. 1. Soul Note 1008.
____. 1980b. Considerations 1. Fore Records Three.
____. 1980c. Considerations 2. Fore Records Five.
____. 1981. Bill Dixon in Italy Vol.2. Soul Note 1011.
____. 1982. Bill Dixon 1982. Edizioni Ferrari BD1.
____. 1982. November 1981. Soul Note 1037/38.
____. 1985. Collection. Cadence Jazz Records CJR-1024/1025.
____. 1987. Thoughts. Soul Note 1111.
____. 1990. Son of Sisyphus. Soul Note 121138.
____. 1994. Vade Mecum. Soul Note 121208-2.
____. 1996a. Vade Mecum Vol. 2. Soul Note 121211-2.
____. 1996b. Verona Jazz. Nettle NTL001.
____. 1999a. Papyrus Vol. 1. Soul Note 121308-2.
____. 1999b. Papyrus Vol. 2. Soul Note 121388-2.
____. 2000. Berlin Abozzi. Free Music Productions CD110.
____. 2000. Odyssey. Archive Editions 510-1925 1.
____. 2002. Cecil Taylor / Bill Dixon / Tony Oxley. Victo CD082.
____. 2008. 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound:Darfur. Aum Fidelity
As a Sideman:
Taylor, Cecil. 1966. Conquistador. Blue Note BST 84260.
Watts, Marzette. 1968. The Marzette Watts Ensemble. Savoy MG-12193.
Koglmann, Franz. 1976. Opium / For Franz. Pipe Records 152. Reissued in 2001 as "Opium." Between the Lines btl011.
Oxley, Tony. 1996. Tony Oxley Celebration Orchestra / Bill Dixon live from the Berlin Jazz Festival "The Enchanted Messenger." Soul Note 121284-2.
Mazurek, Rob. 2008. Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra. Thrill Jockey, Thrill-192.
Contact: www.bill-dixon.com Contributors: Andrew Raffo Dewar with Bill Dixon
Contributors: Andrew Raffo Dewar with Bill Dixon