Bill Dixon’s Dance Notation


Nineteen sixty-seven started off as the year that the New Jazz might finally break through. Ornette, Cecil, and Don Cherry were on Blue Note; Ayler and Pharoah joined Coltrane and Archie Shepp on Impulse; and John Hammond recorded Burton Greene and Sunny Murray for Columbia. But Coltrane’s death and several other twists, including rock’s increased relevance and respectability following Monterey Pop and Sgt. Pepper‘s, had dashed all hope by late autumn, when RCA sneaked into stores both an LP of Ornette’s chamber works and an album called Intents and Purposes—aptly subtitled “The Artistry of Bill Dixon.”

If ever a jazz LP literally qualified as “legendary,” Intents is it: Deleted practically in transit, it was briefly reissued only once (in France, in the 1970s). It’s at long last been reissued on CD in a fetish-worthy International Phonograph limited edition with original graphics, liner notes, and period Nipper logo, and I envy anyone first hearing it now, because it’s as bold and surprising as anything newly released this year. Despite the album’s well-deserved reputation as a missing link between ’60s New York and ’70s AACM, only Byard Lancaster’s Ayler-infected “energy” solo toward the climax of “Metamorphosis 1962–1966” hints at a particular vintage—and the ingenuity with which the trumpeter/composer flares his 10-piece ensemble’s other horns keeps even this passage from coming across as back-numbered.

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, and the precipitous climate both here and on “Voices,” the album’s other extended work (for quintet), recalls Mingus the Third Stream miserablist of “Half Mast Inhibition.” 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.

It might help to know that the four pieces here originated as independent dance accompaniments, à la John Cage and Merce Cunningham. “[Our] relationship has provided not only a performance situation of increased dimensions, but also for a laboratory for exchange, experimentation, teaching, and a means to extend into areas inaccessible to [us] as individual artists,” Judith Dunn asserted in her unsigned liner note to Intents. “This work situation has eliminated the gap between rehearsal and performance,” the dancer and choreographer continued, presumably speaking for Dixon as well. “The performance, while special, is no longer the climax of the total working existence. The quality, concentration, energy, and attention remain equal whether the moment is called rehearsal or performance.”

Dunn’s impact on Dixon’s compositional methods may have been considerable, although jazz parochialism means one must look for evidence of that relationship in recent books like Danielle Goldman’s I Want to Be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom and Melinda Buckwalter’s Composing While Dancing: An Improviser’s Companion, and not on the music shelf. From their earliest performances together under the aegis of the Judson Dance Theater in 1965 to the class they taught jointly at Bennington College in the early ’70s, Dixon’s artistic partnership with Dunn endured longer than any of his bands. Still, I’m guessing that bit about rehearsal being a defining experience independent of performance came straight from Dixon, because it smacks of a compensatory logic common among ’60s avant-gardists for whom an audience remained a long-range goal. As if to illustrate, it would be more than a decade after Intents and Purposes that Dixon entered a commercial recording studio again; only toward the end of his life last summer at the age of 84, by which point he’d acquired trumpet disciples and something of a cult following, did he get to perform and record regularly with large ensembles.

In 1964, Dixon was the mastermind behind the October Revolution in Jazz, the signal event in free jazz after Ornette Coleman’s New York debut five autumns earlier. The four nights of concerts—which gave such soon-to-be leading figures in the avant-garde’s second wave as Carla Bley, Pharoah Sanders, and John Tchicai their first meaningful New York exposure—drew overflow crowds to a tiny Upper West Side cellar café, creating hope that there might be an audience for this sort of music after all. Emboldened by the bootstrap festival’s success, Dixon convinced a handful of his fellow outcasts, including Bley, Cecil Taylor, and Sun Ra, to band together in the Jazz Composers Guild, calling on its members to “withdraw” their music from the marketplace until such time as they were in a position to name their own price. But collective improvisation proved easier to achieve than collective bargaining and the organization lasted just a few months, its solidarity torn apart by personal differences, racial and otherwise, as well as entreaties to its individual members by Bernard Stollman’s ESP-Disk label and Amiri Baraka’s separatist Black Arts Repertory Theater.

In dubious reward for his activism, Dixon was portrayed in the jazz press as Saul Alinsky with a nappy black beard and a trumpet—not unsympathetically, it should be said, but with the tacit understanding that his music was of small consequence. (It didn’t help that there was lingering bad blood between him and Baraka, the era’s ultimate arbiter of out.) Dixon’s major-label debut, following an album-and-a-half for Savoy (for whom he’d also occasionally produced albums by others) might have amended that judgment immediately, if not for bad timing—though given how different Intents and Purposes must have seemed from everything else then being hoisted under the flag of the New Black Music, maybe not.

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). Except for Dixon’s trumpet (maybe), “Voices” sounds pre-notated right down to Bob Pozar’s percussion figures, and even Kenyatta and Lancaster’s “Metamorphosis” solos, though almost certainly improvised, unfold as if choreographed in advance—which one could hear see as evidence of a reciprocal influence between Dixon and Dunn. In I Want to Be Ready, Goldman quotes Dixon asking Dunn why she bothered using a barre to practice if she wasn’t going to be performing with it. Before learning to risk creating in the moment in response to Dixon, the former Cunningham troupe member’s notion of improvising was tossing the I Ching. But did he gain just as much from their partnership? Did crossing disciplines to accommodate a collaborator used to working from a score (or at least the Book of Changes) feed a growing dissatisfaction with unmediated free blowing at a time when jazz seemed heedlessly racing in that direction?

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 tracks that most anticipate his ensuing music are two “Nightfall Pieces,” suspenseful, two-to-four-minute vignettes featuring his overdubbed trumpet and flugelhorn relieved only by George Marge’s alto flute. Although to credit him as the single innovator would be a leap and unfair to such near-contemporaries of his as Lester Bowie and Wadada Leo Smith, the cracked, anti-virtuosic, renunciatory brass style Dixon unveiled here—one that drew attention from chops to concept, from lips and fingers to saliva and the silence surrounding each isolated phrase—is now commonplace in modern classical music, a cross-pollination reminiscent of Louis Armstrong hipping symphonic cats to vibrato.

That technique has also found adherents in jazz, four of whom—Taylor Ho Bynum, Graham Haynes, Rob Mazurek, and Steven Haynes—serve as Dixon surrogates without sacrificing their own individuality on Envoi (Victo), recorded at a Canadian festival just three weeks before Dixon’s death. He was too frail to play and limited himself to conducting and contributing a brief, pre-recorded trumpet solo as a bridge between halves of the title work, which otherwise takes up the entire disc. Sporadically clamorous but more often flat-out lovely, and chamber-like rather than orchestral despite its five horns (including Michel Côté’s woody contrabass clarinet), Envoi is a fitting valedictory statement—reminiscent of Ives as well as Miles Davis and Gil Evans here and there, but best heard, I think, as a final expansion of those two “Nightfall Pieces.” Intents and Purposes calls for a re-evaluation, as a reissue ideally should. But the story didn’t end there, and neither should our reassessment.