Trumpeter Bill Dixon was a crucial figure in the history of the 1960s musical avant-garde, but his disinclination to participate in the commercial marketplace ultimately limited his music’s reach. Though he was born in 1925, he didn’t record as a leader until 1962, when he made a quartet album with Archie Shepp and two different rhythm sections: bassist Don Moore and drummer Paul Cohen on three tracks, and Reggie Workman and Howard McRae on another. Two years later, Dixon and Shepp were each leading their own ensembles, but they split an LP between them, with the trumpeter’s septet on Side A and the New York Contemporary Five on Side B.
In a 2014 interview, Shepp told me “Bill was like an older brother to me. He was at least ten years older than I am, and maybe more than that, and at the time we were broke, looking for a gig, and didn’t have anyplace to work. Personally, I always liked Bill and respected him; as a younger man, he always gave me good advice. So first we were good friends, and then musically, everything else just fell into place. At the time, I had just been fired by Cecil Taylor, and I needed a place to work, as he did. Bill was doing some copying, copying music for George Russell at the time, and his ideas coincided with mine. It was a period in which, because of my having worked with Cecil, I had a much more experimental perspective on the music, and we coalesced and got together very easily. We had a very good relationship.”
In 1964, Dixon organized a four-day festival of music and discussion at New York’s Cellar Café, which also included Taylor and Sun Ra. This in turn led to the formation of the Jazz Composers Guild, an artists’ cooperative which attempted to earn its members’ greater bargaining power within the city’s club scene, and increase visibility for their music. It didn’t hold together for long, though; people were offered individual opportunities, and took them. In 1966, Dixon played on Taylor’s Conquistador!, and in 1967 he released his own full-length debut as a leader, Intents and Purposes, which featured a ten-member ensemble on one track, and a quintet on another, and was rounded out by two trumpet-flute duets. In 1968 and 1969, he produced several albums for other artists, but recorded no further music of his own.
In 1968, Dixon joined the faculty of Bennington College in Vermont, where he created the Black Music Division. He stayed there until 1995, and didn’t record much at all until the early ’80s, when he began releasing albums on the Soul Note label. The only exceptions were Considerations 1 and 2, a pair of LPs issued on the Italian Fore label in 1981 and never reissued.
In 2001, though, Dixon revealed what he’d been working on in the 1970s, and did so in epic fashion. Odyssey was a self-released box containing six CDs — five of music, and one of an interview — and two 32-page booklets. The first included interviews with Dixon, and essays on his work by Ben Young, Graham Lock, and others. The second reproduced some of his paintings (Dixon had been painting his own album covers for decades). The package also included a few reproductions of photos, and another small pamphlet. A thousand copies of the set were made, all signed; mine is #612. Twenty years after its release, and 11 years after his death on June 16, 2010, Odyssey remains a landmark in Bill Dixon‘s artistic journey, and in the history of what he referred to as “this music,” meaning post-bebop Black creative music. (He says in the interview portion of the box that he refuses to use the term “jazz,” so for the purposes of this essay, I won’t use it either.)
The music on Odyssey may seem at first glance to be extremely limited in appeal. Almost five hours of one guy playing the trumpet, with no accompaniment and no traditional melodies or song structures? This is guaranteed to interest no one but Bill Dixon diehards, right? Wrong. In fact, this is extraordinarily beautiful music, capable of captivating anyone who listens with even the most casual curiosity.
In the 1970s, in isolation, Dixon began working extensively with electronics, specifically reverb and echo pedals. His work was, it must be said, entirely different than what Miles Davis was doing with the wah-wah pedal during this same era. Dixon’s playing style was extremely aggressive, more so than almost any trumpet player of that era. He worked in the trumpet’s lower registers often, creating loose, heavy-breathing streams of rumbling, groaning notes. But he also erupted in extraordinarily fast, upper-register outbursts that shrieked and gabbled like entire flocks of birds, the echo and reverb giving the sound a cloudy, disorienting feel, even/especially when, as on “The Long Walk,” the stereo field was split so he was able to move from the left to the right speaker, and create ringing feedback in between.
Some of the tracks, particularly on the first disc, are very short (“Mosaic,” “Shrike” and “Albert Ayler” are less than a minute long each), but others are more conventional in length, between three and nine minutes, and the third disc opens with “Jerusalem,” which differs from everything else in the box in three ways. It’s a live recording, not a studio effort; it was recorded in the titular city, not in Vermont like all but two of the other pieces; and it runs nearly 27 minutes. It’s an absolute storm of sound, performed with two microphones, one of which is “clean” and the other of which is hooked up to reverb and delay effects. The result is a kind of dialogue between Dixon and a warped, phantom version of himself, playing his lines back in distorted form.
The three-part “I See Your Fancy Footwork” is a different kind of dialogue: one between Dixon and his young son. In the first section, the boy interrupts the father’s music, entering the room in search of blue colored pencils. In the second, the boy begins singing in response to what his father is playing, and Dixon blows long droning notes to accompany his scatting and shouting. Toward the end of the piece, the son asks if he can get his own trumpet and play the things he knows. Dixon says no, but affectionately; “You’ve played too much today. You have to save your chops, you know.” The third section is the shortest, but also the noisiest and most violent, and while Dixon’s son is heard briefly singing along, eventually he’s drowned out by the massive squalling eruptions of horn and echo pedal.
The fifth disc begins with “RELAY,” a suite divided into eight parts labeled “Dance #1,” “Dance #2,” etc., but not run sequentially; it goes 1, 3-8, 2. On all eight pieces, Dixon is overdubbing along with himself; in the beginning, two trumpets are heard, one in the left speaker and one in the right. Later, he switches to piano in the left speaker and remains on trumpet in the right. Even at its most high-energy and squealing, late in the first movement, it’s music of extraordinary tenderness, and perhaps even more importantly, it showcases Dixon’s absolute mastery of the horn on his own terms. His voice on the trumpet was unmistakable, and stunningly powerful.
Dixon continued to advance his music for the rest of his life. When he re-emerged into the public eye with his Soul Note albums, and everything that followed — collaborations with Cecil Taylor and Tony Oxley and with Rob Mazurek‘s Exploding Star Orchestra, the live 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur, and the final masterpieces Tapestries for Small Orchestra and Envoi — he was still evolving as a composer and a player. No matter the size of the ensemble, his work always reflected his own unique musical concept. Still, the stark solo performances heard on Odyssey have a purity and clarity unmatched in the rest of his catalog. It’s not the easiest thing to find — you won’t be able to stream it on Spotify or Tidal or Apple Music, or even download it from Bandcamp — but there are still some copies floating around, and it’s absolutely worth the search.
— Phil Freeman