"Bill Dixon left us a lot of homework, and the job now is to sit down and do the work--because if you don't, when you see him again, Bill will kick your ass."--Stephen Haynes
In the month since trumpeter and improvising composer Bill Dixon passed away, some things have become abundantly clear. I've often found that when I was listening to his music, I felt the presence of Bill in the room, car, or wherever I was at the time. This memorably occurred while I was driving around South Austin listening to a live recording from Newport of the composition Pomegranate." It's not just Bill's own music from which I feel this presence, but at any time I was thinking seriously about the music--any of this music. For example, when I was asking myself whether Andrew Hill's sidemen in the '60s could really play his music (I don't think so) or if a crucial difference between Albert Ayler and John Coltrane was that the former may have played everything he had in him, while the latter may not have (debatable). And that it's okay to be wrong about some things as long as you own your own wrongheadedness, rather than apologizing for it. Democracy, politics, art, and consciousness all demand dialogue and learning from one's own difficult, unfolding experience.
In my own writing and thoughts, the task at hand is to be as rigorous with a piece on an up-and-coming or lesser-known figure as with the acknowledged masters. And when I write something, I must be able to stand by it. I was recently taken to task on a review of a work which was actually a positive review, though it was brief (which was apparently part of the problem--not all artists can be afforded unlimited space, unfortunately). In my conversation with this artist, the idea of comparisons came up. I have generally tried not to compare artists who are working in similar-but-different realms, and sometimes I slip up, maybe because it is easier." This gets into another area, and that is how one chooses to define art, whether by proximity, recommendation, and familiarity, or on its own singular terms. The latter is, of course, ideal, but the former has its place too, and I'm trying to figure out what that is. After all, one cannot build a bridge in the middle of the air (or if one could, I doubt it would be very useful). Art still needs bridges toward understanding, and yet it is an extremely challenging feat of verbal architecture to make something like that a reality. Not just the understanding, mind you, but the bridge itself, and you have to know in order to help others know, all the while acknowledge your learning process.
In any case, even in areas which I was a) incomplete or b) brief, I stood behind those words because they came from honest thought and a desire to build something between art and those who might receive it. I am okay with that, but what I am not okay with is the instances in which that does not come across. What is very clear is that there is a lot of work to be done and a process set in motion. Sometimes I'll be wrong and borderline off-base, but if being closer to a clear perspective on this music is a hope, then no other path could be chosen. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy.
Thanks, Bill, for guiding us to a place where we can see the work that must be done on ALL of this music. It can't be reiterated enough.
This story appears courtesy of Ni Kantu by Clifford Allen.
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