Beyond Abstraction: Bill Dixon on Music and Art
I was lucky enough to interview Bill Dixon twice, and on each occasion he was extremely generous with his time. In 1998, in New York City, we spoke for nearly five hours, chiefly about the 1960s, the origins of “free jazz,” and his work in the Jazz Composers Guild. This was for a research project that, I regret to say, I have yet to complete, although I was able to use excerpts from the interview for the liner notes I contributed to Odyssey, the six-disc set of solo music that Dixon himself issued in 2001. We next met in 2003, at his home in North Bennington, and spent an entire day talking about two of his greatest passions, music and art, discussing in particular the similarities and differences in the ways he approached these disciplines. It is a version of this conversation that appears below.
I’m sure PoD readers will already be aware of Dixon’s enormous importance in contemporary music, but his artwork is perhaps less well known. In fact, he initially trained as an artist and continued to paint and draw throughout his life, as well as branching out into other kinds of visual art, such as lithographs and photography. For a period in the ’60s and ’70s he boycotted American galleries because of the racism he felt was endemic to the art establishment, but in later years he exhibited in France, Germany, Italy and the USA. Although his work appears in a couple of books on modern art, it circulated more widely on the covers and inserts of his recordings: Odyssey, for example, includes a portfolio-booklet, “Works on Paper,” that comprises 13 paintings beautifully reproduced in full color. Perhaps like his music, Bill Dixon’s art can be seen as a personal extension of the experiments with abstraction that were taking place in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. He once named Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, and De Kooning as the modern painters who had most impressed him, while also citing a multitude of other influences, which ranged from George Grosz, Otto Dix and the Impressionists to architecture and design.
The 2003 interview was for a different research project of mine, about jazz’s influence across other art forms, and this one did reach fruition in two books, The Hearing Eye and Thriving on a Riff, which I co-edited with my colleague David Murray and which Oxford University Press published in 2009. The interview with Bill Dixon was scheduled to appear as a chapter in The Hearing Eye; unfortunately, a last-minute dispute between Dixon and the OUP legal department about the wording of a contract could not be resolved and, to our great disappointment, we were unable to include him in the book. This was our loss because Bill Dixon was an astute and insightful commentator, not only on his own music and art but also on many aspects of American culture.
What follows is a transcript of that interview (which took place on 8th June, 2003), as edited by me for The Hearing Eye and then slightly modified for this new context. One advantage of publishing online is the chance it affords to present several examples of Dixon’s artwork, and I am very grateful to his partner Sharon Vogel for permission to include these images here. Bill was an exceptional improviser, composer, painter, draughtsman, photographer, writer, and teacher: I hope the words and pictures below will help to shed a little more light on the work of a remarkable creative artist.
Graham Lock, July 2010
Graham Lock: When we last spoke, back in 1998, you said that you believed in the idea of a black aesthetic. Last night you read Richard Powell’s essay on the blues aesthetic, and you’ve just said that you don’t think this is a viable notion. Why is a black aesthetic viable, yet a blues aesthetic isn’t?
Bill Dixon: It should be obvious why a black aesthetic is viable. Black people are identified, visually, as black; and then everything that a person is confronted with is based on that person being black. Someone has set that into motion. I don’t think black people did it themselves, so someone else has done this. In that kind of situation, it stands to reason that there would be a way that black people then express themselves, in response to how they are perceived and what has happened to them.
When you’re talking about a blues aesthetic, if I understand it correctly, a lot of people would like to believe there is an underlying feeling, a kind of emotion, that runs through black expression. Because the blues is first of all a feeling: its musical significance is secondary. The blues is an Elizabethan song-form, I -IV-V; you’ll find some of those songs way back and, whatever made them attractive, there was no blues inflection when they were sung then. So black people supplied that, as a particular form of expression, and they must have supplied it because they weren’t totally happy. But not everything that happens to black people is evocative of a blues feeling, so my resistance to setting up the blues as the criterion is that it’s too narrow.
Let me be clear. There’s a black aesthetic because someone has said there’s a black aesthetic. If blacks were not made to feel that they were being treated in a certain way, there would be no black aesthetic, because how could one react to what didn’t exist? The black experience is a real experience, that’s all. And if people are tired of hearing about it, then they should eliminate whatever makes that experience continue, so that racism and the unpleasantness that people go through because of their color would cease immediately.
Artists—white, black, whatever—are treated with hostility in this society. All I’m saying is, if a white artist presents his work, he may be turned down but he gets a fairer shot in terms of his work. The black artist, when he hits the room, people size him up because of what he looks like, whether they’re aware of that or not. This seems to me to open the door for a black aesthetic, though it’s another question whether you want to be confined by it. If you are a black architect and you build rows of small houses, two-storey houses, it doesn’t mean to say you’ve confined your studies and knowledge to building only those row houses; you know how to build a skyscraper too. You can’t be imprisoned by the canon: “They don’t build skyscrapers, that’s not the black aesthetic.”
You hear people talking, it’s like living in a land of black people; the way people speak, the way they slur their words, the way they walk, high fives . . . and these things weren’t invented down in Appalachia. So, yes, there’s a black aesthetic, but you don’t have to be a prisoner to it: whereas, if you say a blues aesthetic, you’re already narrowing it down. The next thing you’re going to say is that there’s a jazz aesthetic and that a trumpet player can’t play this or that because it’s going outside of “jazz”, like Marsalis and his people are trying to say. You’re narrowing it down and you’re saying, if we don’t see that aesthetic, then what you’re doing isn’t authentic, in terms of where you’re coming from.
GL: I don’t think Richard Powell is proposing the blues aesthetic as a measure of authenticity or as a kind of feeling. I think he’s saying that one reason why so many black painters have been neglected or misunderstood is that they’re being judged by white aesthetic standards, and there’s no recognition that a different set of formal concerns might be at work in their paintings.
BD: Okay, then he’s right, but he’s still saying it clumsily. Because what are white standards? White standards vacillate back and forth; they’re not consistent with any damn thing. You’re going to be judged by the majority society; they have the power both to do the judging and to decide what’s eligible for judgment. That has less to do with aesthetics, as far as I’m concerned: that’s unadulterated power. I mean, there would be no way in the world that the black artist could escape the dilemma of the people he comes from: black people. If black people are not being accorded status as human beings, why should we single out the black artist for special treatment?
GL: Let me try to come at this from a different angle. When we talked about a black aesthetic in 1998, you said you thought there were certain things that black musicians did that white musicians didn’t, and vice versa. Is the same not true of painters?
BD: Well, if you look back, there have always been black painters who painted exactly like white painters; you couldn’t tell the difference. Okay, you get the same argument in music: there were certain people who couldn’t tell the difference between, say, Miles Davis and Chet Baker! But in music, the innovations, the changes, the looking at another way of doing something, that’s come from the black point of view. Now, since our exposure to black painters has been frighteningly limited, we don’t really know what black painters have done. A painter needs his work to be seen, he needs a gallery, he has to be highly successful before someone makes reproductions of his work.
In addition, how is a black person going to paint, given the living conditions? How can a black man, say, a Pullman car porter, have a studio? Whereas a guy can go to the pawnshop, buy a horn for $25, come home from work and just play for himself. Don’t forget this music started with musicians playing for themselves, doing the only thing they could do. Music always had an easier path, I think, in terms of people not being so dependent upon the outside environment. The painters are not in the galleries; they’re certainly not represented in the books, the art histories, so I don’t think we can be sure what the story is with the painters.
We know more about black musicians, for obvious reasons. The music made money. When the record companies realized that blacks bought this music, they thought, well, maybe whites will too. The history of the music has always been that the blacks did something, whites appropriated it . . . look at the big bands. I mean, Billie Holiday, when I was a kid, was singing down there on 33rd Street at the Lincoln Hotel and she couldn’t go in through the front door. This kind of stuff. Someone always reminding you that no matter what you did and how valued it might be, you were not going to be accorded the status. I remember Ornette Coleman—this was in the ’60s—saying to me, “Do you ever get the feeling that they like what you do but they wish it was someone else doing it?” I said, “YES! That’s it exactly.”
But getting back to painting, we may find one day that many of the characteristics we thought were white really aren’t. We just don’t know. The literature on black painting is not extensive.
GL: I think it’s acknowledged now that many of the early modernist painters were very much influenced by African art.
BD: No question about it. But I think the idea of a black aesthetic in painting is still an unknown factor at this point.
GL: The notion of a black aesthetic seems to imply a kind of racial consciousness, a racial self-awareness. Does that impinge at all on your own work?
BD: I don’t approach painting as a ‘black’ person, if that’s what you mean; just as me, and with regard to what interests me. Mind you, everyday I’m reminded that I’m black. Unless I stay in the house.
GL: Can we talk about your own work? I’m interested in the relationship between your music and your painting. For example, on the Odyssey CDs you have six or seven pieces of music with titles that correspond to the titles of six or seven of the paintings in the accompanying booklet. What’s the relationship between the music and the paintings?
BD: There was actually no relationship intended. Originally what I wanted to do was find paintings from the same time period as the music to include in the booklet and I wasn’t able to find many that corresponded in terms of their dates. So then it became a matter of trying to make the booklet more representative of my artwork.
GL: The music covers the period 1970 to 1990?
BD: Yes. Some of the paintings come from that period too: The Cloisters, When We Were Children. Others are more recent: Sfumato, Poemm per I Delicati, Resolution, Murmurs, The End of Silence, these are from 1999, 2000.
GL: Why did you give some of those paintings the same titles as the pieces of music?
BD: I was working on auditing the tapes for the CDs, checking balances et cetera, and coincidentally I was sorting through my paintings. And I put them together. The only aesthetic liaison had to do with the fact that as I was hearing the music, certain paintings seemed to suggest themselves. But this was after the fact.
So it was a two-fold process. First, trying to get a selection of paintings that was representative of the total period. Okay, I did that. But if I were to have included them all, the booklet would have been much longer and much more expensive to produce. So then I selected some by that listening process and gave the music and the paintings the same titles. It was down to practical considerations and some accident, in terms of listening over to the music and shuffling the paintings.
It took the longest time to get the paintings in the right order, where if you look at one page, it greets the eye in a certain way, and the next page relieves it in a certain way. A sort of dovetailing. It took me months to do this: I can show you all my notebooks, all the mock-ups I made. I worked on Odyssey for five years altogether, trying to make it the best I could make it.
GL: Does this mean that the titles themselves are not very important to you?
BD: Not for some things. I always had a problem with titles. The only reason I started doing titles at all had to do with when I formed my publishing company and we needed titles in order to register the compositions. I would have had just Composition 1, 2, 3.
I think titles lead you too much into trying to relate the work to the title, and I think that’s an unfair boundary to impose on people. We claim we want people to have all these experiences, all these responses to art: the title immediately cuts that off. If I say, this is Peter and the Wolf, people are stuck with that being Peter and the Wolf, no matter how hard they try to avoid it.
The thing I’ve tried to do with my titles, and most of them have been very literary (what I would call literary), I’ve tried to make my titles formally deal with the concept of that work. That goes for the titles on the recordings and the titles of the paintings. You don’t find titles that are overtly political, for instance. When you name things for people, when you say this is a dedication to someone, that’s different. When I’ve done that, it’s because, when I was doing that work, I was really thinking of that person. Like on the Papyrus CDs, those pieces for Larry Neal, Allen Polite, Henry Dumas, N. H. Pritchard, Jeanne Phillips . . . for the longest time I’ve wanted to do something and dedicate it to the works of black writers.
I’ve been criticized for using Italian titles. The Italian titles have seemed more musical to me, in their sound, their euphony; and let’s be practical, I’ve been studying Italian, so I might as well use it. [Laughs.] Also I have idiosyncrasies relating to spelling, say doubling up on letters, ‘poem’ as ‘poemm.’ That’s for the visual. It looks different. I like that. Things have to look a certain way for me.
But if I was to do my work over again, why do I need titles? Having to have a title because the work has to be identified, I resent it, I really do.
GL: You say you dedicate a piece to a person because you have that person in mind when you’re working on it. The group of lithographs you showed me yesterday, the ones for Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor—they’re abstract, there’s no figurative element there at all.
BD: When I did those lithographs, I had each of those people in mind. But I had them in my mind; they’re not in anybody else’s mind.
GL: Would you be able to explain how each lithograph relates to what you were thinking about its dedicatee?
BD: No, no. It’s not narrative at all; it’s not representational. I would say it’s about as far as abstraction can go. In fact, it goes beyond abstraction. There is nothing to guide the viewer as to why those lithographs have anything to do with any of those people. Absolutely nothing. I was thinking about them consciously the entire time and, metaphysically, trying to place that ‘thought’ in the painting, if that was possible. That’s all.
Now, I think that’s a valid way of keeping certain ‘secrets’ from your viewer, regarding a work. As I said before, the title already puts the viewer in a box; you don’t have to tell him or her any more than that. And if the viewer ‘knows’ any more than that, is looking at that picture going to be any more informative or interesting?
I exhibited half a dozen or so paintings in a group show in New York a few years ago. There were three of us who shared the show, which was on a jazz theme. The other paintings were more traditional—pianist playing piano, et cetera. But my pictures, the Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, people at the opening were saying: “Monk? Coltrane? What the . . . ?” [Laughs.] Because we haven’t sufficiently ‘educated’ people for that kind of visual experience. It’s like poems that don’t rhyme, you know, “What! They don’t rhyme!” [Laughs.] I think it’s relatively easy to do, say, a portrait of Thelonious Monk. However, it’s more intriguing, in my opinion, to put down what you think about Monk, who he is, what his music has meant to you. And if you have to have a title, let people mull over it.
GL: Is it the same when you title your music? When you have a piece that’s named for a person, there’s not necessarily a clear link?
BD: Not a link, not a link. Like the piece for Jeanne Phillips, those little short pieces. You work on the piece, listen back to it, say, okay—Jeanne Phillips! Contrary to that, the pieces I did for my mother, they were very consciously thought out: ‘Sumi-E’, on Son of Sisyphus, which is one of my favorites, I think it’s a very beautiful piece of music. I think my mother would’ve liked that.
GL: Do you see any similarities in the way you prepare and perform your music and the way you prepare and present your artwork?
BD: Not now. Perhaps at one time. Don’t forget, in the performance of music now, for me, the whole preparation is being able to play the instrument. If I was going to play tomorrow, whether solo or with a trio or quartet, I will practice the instrument based upon trying to maintain flexibility, so if in the process of playing I need to execute something, I will have traveled that route before and I can execute it. I don't try to practice things that I can play. I don’t try to practice sequences. When it’s time for me to play, I don’t know what I’m going to do until the minute I play the first note, and the first note I play will dictate what I’m going to do. What I try to do is be a blank slate upon which things can be imprinted.
With painting, with the other artwork, I can work on something and it can be finished; but I can look at it again the next day and if I don’t like the way it looks, I’ll take a part and move it around. I move things around when I write music. That orchestra work Index, which we played at the Vision Festival in 2000, had me moving things around during the performance. For instance, I was going to play a long introduction to the piece on trumpet, but when we did the sound-check they couldn’t get the set-up that I use right; they were taking so much time, people were already coming in for the concert. I didn’t even have time to go back to the hotel to change my clothes. So I had to content myself with the fact that I wouldn’t be able to play the introduction. Well, the players wanted to hear me play but I told them, it’s not about a virtuoso thing. And during the performance, I was deciding, based on what was going down, what I could place where.
So, similarities in preparation? With regard to painting and large group performances, yes: with regard to my own playing, no. My own playing, for me, at this particular point, and it’s been this way for the last ten years, is all about the magic of the moment.
GL: What happened prior to those ten years?
BD: Let’s see . . . Son of Sisyphus [recorded in 1988], that’s when I started on the musical path I’m on now. Thoughts [recorded in 1986] is a formally notated situation, with other things interspersed. November 1981 . . . it’s remarkable because all the pieces I play sound notated, and I wanted them to, but they were not formally notated. There’s some beautiful music on November 1981: ‘Velvet,’ ‘The Second Son,’ ‘The Sirens’ . . .
GL: I agree they’re beautiful, but why would you want to have improvised pieces sound notated?
BD: Because I liked those pieces that I’d composed and I wanted them played exactly that way.
GL: Then why not notate them?
BD: I didn’t want to. [Laughs.] I didn’t have to, I have a good memory: I don’t notate anything for myself unless it’s very, very long. Those are short pieces, they’re almost like songs rather than compositions; why would I take the time to notate them? To show I’m literate? I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted them to sound formal, that’s all. I’m not always informal. Sometimes you want a certain thing, so you do whatever is required to achieve that. If I’d wanted another person to play those pieces, I’d have written them out—but then they wouldn’t have come out the same anyway.
I did write out some of the bass parts on November 1981 and even on Son of Sisyphus. But after Son of Sisyphus I thought, I don’t want to write out parts any more, why not just wait until it’s time and then play? I’ve been doing that ever since. I don’t tell the players anything. Vade Mecum is a beautiful record because those people, Barry [Guy], William [Parker], Tony [Oxley], they wanted to play, I wanted to play, and it’s really something. That’s the way I view music, it’s got to be exciting: I don’t want to know how everything will go. I want that edge. That’s how I feel about playing.
When I’m painting too, that’s the kind of feeling I have inside about wanting to do a work. The only thing is, in painting I can change it if I want to. In music, once it’s out there, it’s out there.
GL: Well, once a painting is on the cover of a CD, it’s out there. You’ve used your artwork on a lot of your CDs, from the Considerations LPs in the ’70s through to Odyssey in the present.
BD: More people have seen my paintings than a whole lot of other painters’ work because I use them on my covers. That was one of the reasons I opted to take less money. I have complete artistic control over my work and that’s important because your work is all you can control; you can’t control anything else. So I’ve used the CD covers and, unlike a lot of painters who are totally dependent on galleries, my work has been published and people see it. And benefits have accrued from that: I was invited to Lyon in 1994 because they saw some covers of mine and they said, look, this guy would be able to do lithographs. I’d never done a lithograph in my life, although I had done some etchings. I initially said, no, no, I don’t want to deal with any stone, but they said, we know you can do it, and they were right.
But for the average painter, it’s cruel! If they don’t have a show in a gallery, their work is invisible: no prints, no catalogue. I’ve been lucky. Not that I’m very well known or acknowledged or whatever you want to call it—in fact, I’m overly ignored! [Laughs.] But I have managed to record and thus I’ve managed to have my music heard and documented and also to have my artwork viewed by people. Whether they buy the records or not, they are out there. When I get down in my cups sometimes, I realize . . . well, my work is out there, someplace.
GL: You were talking about the changes in your approach to playing. Can you say a little about the various stylistic shifts and phases that your artwork has been through?
BD: Well, I did a lot of posters at one time. When we had the ‘Four Days in December’ concerts in 1964, we had no money, we being the Jazz Composers Guild, so I got a bunch of newspapers . . . okay, the Cellar Café, where we had regular concerts, was on 91st Street, between Lexington and Broadway, and Judson Hall, where we put on ‘Four Days in December,’ was on 57th Street. So there were all these subway stops in between. I designed a poster—it just said “Four Days in December,” the dates, and “Judson Hall,” nothing else—and it was on newspaper, because we had a pile of old newspapers. I had the members of the Jazz Composers Guild plaster the walls of every subway stop between 57th Street and 91st Street with those posters. On the opening night, you couldn’t get in! I remember, when Cecil [Taylor] did his first Town Hall concert, I designed his poster too.
I did a lot of book covers, book designs. When I was younger, I was very interested in book illustration. I loved it. Illustration’s very difficult: an illustration has to tell a story, which is hard to do. In my generation it was different, it was all about craft, being able to do all of these things; we didn’t make distinctions the way people do today. People don’t think about craft any more, or they think of it as gauche. I used to do a lot of portraits too, because you could sell them. I used to do studies of jazz musicians, realistic portraits.
GL: Do they still exist?
BD: People still have them. I was thinking I should ask people who have things of mine to send me copies. Let me see, what was the next phase? I worked exclusively in oil for a while, but oil’s not my favorite, it’s slow drying. Watercolor was frightfully difficult to do. When I discovered acrylic, which you can mix with anything—and I mix a lot, I make my own colors—I began to deal with subject matter differently. Subject matter became, for me, how things looked. Rather than people, rather than . . . well, I never did like landscapes. But still life held an attraction for me. Just a glass, sunlight, windows. I used to photograph doors; I’ve photographed doors and windows all over Europe. I make drawings and paintings from them too; I continue to like those kinds of things.
Then it reached a point, many years ago . . . if you look at the cover of Sisyphus, that’s the way I was working: one solitary figure, a nude figure, in a variety of situations. Next I did the ‘target’ paintings, you could call them, like on the back of Sisyphus.
[Doorbell rings. Brief interruption.]
GL: You were describing the various stylistic phases your artwork has gone through.
BD: They haven’t been conscious. They’ve just worked themselves to the present stage. It’s been a sort of evolution, without being overly complex or simplistic about it. Whether your work ‘goes’ any place or not, in terms of reception, you can do it; whether anyone sees it or not, you can do it. And depending on the necessity for you to do this, that’s how it will evolve. You make things, you put them aside; you make other things, you put them aside. Periodically you look, you have a bunch of stuff; some of it you like, or it suggests something that you’d like to pursue further. It’s a process, which you can control, and you subsequently find yourself going down different paths.
I find there are certain things that continue because I like the way they look: certain figures, half figures. There’s an ‘eye’ kind of situation that I like: I don’t know what it means, I don’t even want to know what it means. I like doing it. It wasn’t for any conscious reason that I stopped drawing figuratively. I got tired of it. I was too shy to do nude pictures; the female figure is absolutely incredible, but I had to bypass that.
GL: Don’t you include female nudes in your work now? Like on the cover of Son of Sisyphus?
BD: I don’t really do figures any more, I do parts of figures—with other kinds of things. I also do pyramids a lot. I have about half a dozen books on pyramids. I was very interested at one time in seeing if I could keep a razor blade sharp underneath a pyramid. [Laughs.] I like boxes; I have drawings of boxes with their shadows when the sun hits. Circles have intrigued me too. I’m not good at math but I love those symbols—all these things that have no meaning but which look good and around which you can build interesting compositions.
GL: Are you sure there’s no meaning to those shapes? Because people will look for one. [Laughs.]
All images © Bill Dixon Estate, 2010. Used by kind permission of Sharon Vogel.
Interview © Graham Lock, 2010.