Previous to the inception of The Dixon Society, the prolific and eloquent Marc Medwin posted two articles for consideration by the think tank that is Bagatellen. These insightful articles and, more to the point, the undeniable reactions that followed were pivotal in the decision to create The Dixon Society and establish this unofficial outpost of the Institute for Black Music Studies Research and Performance.It seemed somehow seemed pre-ordained that Marc should be the first Friend of Bill Dixon to be interviewed. Among other things, Marc talks about his path to Dixon and the hysteria he's encountered along the way.
Thank you Marc Medwin!
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The Dixon Society: When did you first hear Bill's music? What where the circumstances? What did you hear?
Marc Medwin: I didn't hear his music until after I'd heard about his ability to tell a story. It was probably about a year and a half ago, and I remember deciding that I'd better investigate this trumpet player at some point. I was doing a really deep study of Cecil Taylor's music, so I heard Conquistador, but honestly, I didn't really concentrate on what
Then, I heard a disc of
Q: Tell us about the nature and circumstances behind your study of Cecil Taylor
M. M.: I first heard his music, or rather his music in contrast with his voice, on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz--this must have been in 1986, but we'll have to look that one up. I knew nothing about his work, and the only "free" "jazz" I'd heard to that point was some of Chic Corea's work with Braxton in the band Circle--the Paris Concert where they play Nefertiti. The upshot was that I wasn't entirely unaware of the language
So I had to think, and I didn't confront
Q: I know you are a piano player, and clearly you are well listened. Tell us a little about your personal involvement in music (then and now) and how you came to investigate
MM: You asked for it: You have to understand that music has, until very recently, been a very private experience for me. I certainly improvised as a child, but I very rarely showed anything to anybody. I never wanted to write songs, which is what I was always told you were supposed to do, and the few people I showed my music said it was fragmented, had no melody, was like a collage--you get the idea? So I was somewhat discouraged, thinking that what those fantastic musicians I was listening to were doing had nothing to do with what I was doing--I felt as if we lived on separate planets. One of my first musical heroes was Frank Zappa, because he got away with all that collage amidst some song structures and some extraordinarily complex music. Then it was Pink Floyd, Hendrix, King Crimson, Yes--mainly things in the "progressive" arena, until my next door neighbor introduced me to Fred Frith in 1986—that changed everything.
1985-1986 was a very important year for me, as I was given a decent stereo, had a Bar Mitzvah and was given gift certificates to local record stores by almost everyone. I got to explore, purchasing everything from Keith Jarrett to the earliest Muddy Waters recordings—you know those 1941-42 discs that Lomax made? They also were a formative influence on me. The stereo meant that I could hear details I'd never heard before, so listening became a different experience every time I did it.
The first jazz I really studied, moment to moment, was Duke Ellington—this would have been the same year, probably early 1986, when I found some LP reissues of the Cotton Club Material. I'd heard early Louis Armstrong, and while I noticed the similarities between 1920s Ellington and what Louis was doing, Ellington kept me coming back more frequently in those days. Black and Tan Fantasy really floored me--the chords in the bridge, the non-blues section, with the beautiful saxophone over them and the chromatic harmonies during the break before it is repeated--I can hear it all in my head any time I want. I'm talking about the RCA version, with that fantastic Bubber Miley muted trumpet! My studies in classical piano (oh how I hated them!) showed me it was Chopin quoted at the end of the tune, and I thought that was brilliant!
I should also give a big thank you to NPR, without whose late-night programming I'd never have heard the many things I now treasure. It was there that I first heard Ellington's Carnegie Hall concert of 1943, and the impact almost made me sick. Was this possible? Did the same person that wrote those "jungle" pieces write Black, Brown and Beige? Then I had to buy everything by Ellington that I could, and
From 1988-1991, I was back into art-rock, but it was Henry Cow, National Health, Soft Machine, Gong--in short, things with more of a jazz influence. Then, in 1991, I heard the Bartok third string quartet under what we'll just call interesting conditions, and then it was an eight-year journey though classical music, beginning with Bartok and stretching out, simultaneously backwards and forwards.
It was only after I stopped taking piano lessons, when I went off to college that I began to enjoy playing. I have always been fascinated by electronics, and I pretended I was Jan Hammer that summer we both were at Berklee in 1989--one of the best summers of my life! Of course, my classical phase lead me to Varese, Xenakis, Ligeti (to whom I once sent five of my own compositions but got no response) and Nancarrow.
In brief, I took five years to get into musicology grad school after getting a degree in English. I got my history chops up, learned to play continuo voicings to realize figured bass, that sort of thing. I listened the whole time, Penderecke, Mahler, Schonberg, Sorabji--you name it I ate it up! When I entered grad school in 2000, I never thought I'd study jazz! I was going to do a dissertation on Messiaen, and I even got a proposal written and defended on the subject.
I've not spent too much time on Trane, because that's difficult to discuss. The first time I heard late Coltrane was on a weekly show that was dedicated to the Grateful Dead, who’s 60s and 70s work I enjoy very much. I don't even know what was played, but it was so disturbing to me that I didn't want to hear it--Duke Ellington was easier to take! In 1992, I was in a college class where the opening of Meditations was played, and I decided then that I needed to listen to this music at some point. All those shofar-fifths and that small melodic fragment exuding such power, springing up like a flower amidst the concrete rattlings, rusty janglings, tonal, even familiar, but so far away from recognizability ...
The time came in 1999, during the summer, when another neighbor let me borrow the Village Vanguard Master-takes, and
Grad school was ... well, what grad school is, an endurance test--exam after exam, papers, boatloads of reading nobody completes, let's be honest about it, and the masters thesis, which I chose to do on Coltrane! I never thought I'd do that, it was a blast, I thought I'd have two areas from which to create academic credibility--great!! Then the dissertation, for which I defended the Messiaen proposal in 2004--everybody was happy. Except me.
Just after defending that proposal, I got introduced to some local musicians, I started playing keyboards again, even in public, I began to write reviews and features for magazines, I started meeting musicians ... I love Messiaen's music to this day, dearly, but the rift between my studies and my passion was growing.
When I made the decision to switch topics in 2005, everything changed. I could dedicate myself, freely and without restraint, to the music about which I care more every day. I could study all aspects of it, from the earliest contentious utterances of the ODJB to Cooper-Moore's work for Hopscotch.
I feel now as if I'd been preparing for
Q: Here is a list of the musicians you mentioned and the order in which you mentioned them.
Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Hendrix, King Crimson, Yes, Fred Frith, Keith Jarrett, Muddy Waters, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bubber Miley, Chopin, Emmerson Lake and Palmer, King Oliver, Fats Waller, Bennie Goodman, Henry Cow, National Health, Soft Machine, Gong, Bartok, Jan Hammer, Varese, Xenakis, Ligeti, Nancarrow, Penderecke, Mahler, Schoenberg, Sorabji, Messiaen, The Grateful Dead, John Coltrane, ODJB, Cooper-Moore, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Bill Dixon.
Q: Do you have a 'unified theory' on all these musicians? What was it about them and not someone else?
M.M.: No, I don't have a unified theory about them. I chose them because they seemed to fit the context of what I was saying to you at the time, and yes there were many others! Much of my time has been spent listening, and much of what I hear impacts me in some way.
Q: To put it awkwardly, do you consider
M.M.: Not sure how to tackle this one except with yet another reminiscence. I once had an argument with several die-hard fans about whether the Beatles were the greatest musicians of all time--ever. One of my attempted rebuttals to this ridiculous proposition was that music history had to be taken into consideration. In that light, it would be very difficult to put ELP in the same musical phylum(?) as either Schonberg or Waller. Both composers engaged musical form on several levels, and while Waller will most likely continue to be remembered, by most, for some stunning pianism and infectious vocal delivery, his musical scope and vision far exceed such considerations.
Schonberg also wrote popular songs, but of course, they are dwarfed by his other accomplishments. As for ELP, they were far from the first power trio, not the first guitar-less trio, not the first to combine classical and rock forms, not particularly boundary-breaking in form or timbre ... you get my point. Yes I still enjoy listening to them, very occasionally.
Q: Who do you think are
M.M.: This is a very difficult and complex question, and I'd qualify my answer by saying that I'm getting more familiar with his music every day, but it's all fairly new to me. Beyond that, I think it depends on what period of his work is under discussion. The first recording for
I am assuming familiarity with
Q: Do you have the same difficult ascribing influence with other artists as you do with
M.M.: Tough call! Again, I invoke the nightmare of history! Better to say that I don't hear very many moving forward as restlessly as
Q: Do you have a favorite period of
M.M.: This answer is not a copout.
I've never heard a trumpet sound like a flute before, let alone a tuba, and he does both. Lately, I've been listening to his playing on Taylor's Conquistador, and I'm convinced that he helps make that session what it is--great playing all around mind you, but if you'll notice, when it's Dixon's turn to play, everything recedes for him--really a wonderful moment!
Q: I know the receding moment of which you speak. Indeed, that moment encapsulates so much of Dixon's aesthetic, his strident originality and the reaction he so often elicits; shock followed by hysteria either for or against. As mentioned in the introduction, part of The Dixon Society's genesis stems from the reactions on Bagatellen.com to the 2002
M.M.: When I first met
Why? Part of me thinks that he's spent so long making his opinions known, in no uncertain terms, that such reactions are, as you might say, a racing certainty. There's no guessing with
None of that should effect how his music is perceived, but I think that it does. My feeling is that we accept inferior music from others because they fit the social/political/racial/spiritual frameworks and modes of discourse we have fashioned to give ourselves comfort regarding this music. Let me say here that I'm no different—I don't like having my feathers ruffled any more than the next person, and
Q: What do you think it is about the
M.M.: OK, I've spent a lot of time thinking about this one. I was going to say that it's the fact that
Taylor and Oxley's work with the Feel Trio presents an aesthetic with which
Q: What’s been going for Marc Medwin, and what's on the horizion?
M.M.: I gave a paper at the first International Society for Improvised Music meeting in An Arbor Michigan,
The other paper, coming up in March, will be presented in
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Thanks again to Marc Medwin.
Are you a friend of Bill Dixon? Have you performed with Bill Dixon? Did you study with Bill at the University of the Streets, University of Wisconsin/Madison or the Bennington College Black Music Department? We'd love to hear from you! Send an e-mail! The.Dixon.Society@gmail.com