Bill Dixon, 1925-2010
I got the news at 9am this morning from Stephen Haynes, my friend, my brother in brass, and the man who introduced me to Bill a little over a decade ago. A little later in the day, I talked to Sharon Vogel, Bill’s life-partner. She has been an amazing presence in Bill’s life, loving and committed to the music and as iron-willed as the maestro. My thoughts and love to her, and there is great comfort knowing Bill’s legacy is in such strong hands.
I visited Bill just last Friday, and it was obvious this day was coming soon, but it is still hard to process. I spent a few hours by his bedside. I played him the pocket cornet I had just received as a gift from our friend Michel Cote. I read him passages from a new book, I Want To Be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom, by my friend Danielle Goldman, that includes a fantastic chapter on the important and grossly under-recognized interdisciplinary partnership between Bill and dancer/choreographer Judith Dunn in the ‘60s and ‘70s. (When asked by Goldman why there is not more discussion of their collaboration, Bill offered the classic quote “The history that gets written is the history that’s permissible.” I’m glad he lived to see scholars like Goldman, Andrew Raffo Dewar, Ben Young, and others, establish the standard for a new and deeper level of documentation.)
He also quizzed me about what projects I was working on, and we discussed plans for releasing the concert recording of the performance we had done at the Victoriaville festival two weeks prior. Even in a weakened state, he was engaged in the work.
It’s hard to believe the Victoriaville concert was only three weeks ago. We had been invited to reconvene the ensemble that recorded Tapestries for Small Orchestra in the summer of 2008: Bill, Graham Haynes, Stephen Haynes, Rob Mazurek, Glynis Lomon, Michel Cote, Ken Filiano, Warren Smith, and myself. It was one of the most intense musical weekends I’ve ever experienced. Bill had composed all new music for the occasion. It was clear Bill was fighting for the strength to make it happen, and we all understood the stakes. In his life, he could be demanding, because he refused to compromise the quality of the sound he was always searching for. And he was still pushing us hard in that last rehearsal. Stephen and I quietly shared a smile when he chastised the trumpets for an unconvincing entrance; Bill was definitely still with us! He was telling stories, he was dropping wisdom in his inimitable fashion, he was challenging us to play something new. At one point he said, “You know, they might drop the bomb tomorrow, and this will be the last concert for all of us. Play like it matters!”
When Bill arrived at the soundcheck, after we had set-up and gotten all the basic levels, he took command of the stage. The immediate strength of his presence erased any doubts or concerns we might have had about his ability to make it through the night. The concert was powerful, Bill conducting us through the material, drawing the music out of the band. At the end, Bill took to his feet, gesturing for the brass section to reach beyond what we thought we had left in a final burst of musical intensity. After the show, Bill was full of life backstage, thanking us all for the music, receiving our profound gratitude in return.
It is so hard to lose someone like that. As a facebook post I saw this morning said “I thought Bill would outlive the planet!” His achievements were extraordinary, as all the obituaries that will come out in the next few days will attest. His legacy is enduring, as all of us fighting for that one true sound continue the journey. And he made it through 85 years, making vibrant, beautiful, world-changing music up until the very end, and what more could you ask for.
When I said goodbye last week at his home, I told him I’d try to visit him again in a few weeks, but I knew that was unlikely. I wish I had the guts to really say goodbye, to tell him how much his music changed me, changed so many of us. To tell him I loved him and would never forget what he taught me. But I like to think he knew.