Friday, June 25, 2010

Goodbye to Two Giants

I haven't posted here in awhile, and it gives me no pleasure that this post is a memorial. Two giants of avant-garde jazz (for lack of a better term) have died in the past few days. Trumpeter/composer Bill Dixon passed last week at the age of 84. And tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson, 81, left us yesterday.

For much of their careers, these two men were, to an extent, outsiders - even by the already marginalized standards of avant-garde improvised music. Both were founding members of organizations whose purpose was to encourage and promote the somewhat challenging music created by their members; Dixon was the primary mover behind the Jazz Composers Guild, which grew out of the October Revolution in Jazz, a week-long series of concerts he set up in 1964. Anderson was a founding member of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), the Chicago organization that gave a forum to Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, Joseph Jarman, George Lewis, and many others. The Jazz Composers Guild soon fell apart, split by the differing aims of its members, but the AACM is still going strong.

On his first recording, a 1962 album by the Bill Dixon/Archie Shepp Quartet, Dixon sounds like a fairly conventional free-jazz trumpet player, if that's not too much of a contradiction in terms. It was soon apparent that his music went beyond Jazz with a capital J, however. His magnificent 1966 record Intents and Purposes sounds like it has at least one foot in the realm of contemporary classical music. And his trumpet style developed into one of the most distinctive and unusual in jazz - he used smears, spaces, squeezed notes, blats, sounds that were more air that pitch, and multiphonics. And it all worked; when a Dixon solo was over, it felt like a unified statement, not like a series of effects.

Bill Dixon was, by many accounts, a difficult figure to deal with. I suspect that he would have responded to such a statement by saying that he was uncompromising. He became a professor at Bennington College at Vermont in the late 1960s, and remained there for many years. Dixon recorded infrequently in the seventies and eighties, but recordings became more frequent during the last two decades of his life. His solo on "With (Exit)," from Cecil Taylor's 1966 Conquistador! album, is still one of the most striking passages in recorded music. Just as the piano, basses, and drums begin to get more agitated, Dixon enters with long, ethereal notes separated by spaces, the intervals carefully chosen. It's a beautiful moment.

For many years, Fred Anderson was even more obscure than Bill Dixon, at least to the world outside of Chicago. He made strong contributions to Joseph Jarman's first two albums in 1966 and 1968, then didn't record again for a decade. When I was a young man learning about jazz, I knew Anderson as a somewhat legendary figure who had contributed to the Chicago avant-garde scene of the the sixties, but I had no idea if he had ever recorded again. Somewhere along the way, he became something of a father figure to younger Chicago musicians such as Hamid Drake and Ken Vandermark. Recordings became more frequent, and he developed a strong reputation in the avant-garde jazz world.

His tenor sound was filled with history; you could hear Coleman Hawkins and Gene Ammons in his playing, although his influences were so well internalized that he never sounded like anyone except himself. While Dixon went into academia, Anderson became a saloon owner - his Velvet Lounge on the Near South Side of Chicago became a mecca for musicians and fans. For those of us who never had the chance to hear him there, there are several live albums from the Velvet Lounge, including an 80th birthday tribute CD and DVD.

Recordings by Dixon and Anderson are easier to find now than in the past, although there are still plenty of gaps in what is available. Hear them on record, since we can't hear them in person anymore. Every year, every month, fewer giants walk the earth. We've just lost two.