Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Taylor Ho Bynum

Taylor Ho Bynum first came to the attention of The Dixon Society with his post Dixon on his thought provoking and delightfully well written blog SpiderMonkey Stories. Taylor will be performing with Bill Dixon at this year's Vision Festival. Before that, he is going on tour, performing in a number of different configurations and settings. He has also recently released a new recording on the Firehouse 12 label.

In the midst of all this, Taylor kindly took some time out to talk with the Dixon society.

Thank you Taylor!

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The Dixon Society: When did you first hear the music of Bill Dixon? What were the circumstances? What else were you listening to at the time?

Taylor Ho Bynum: I think I first heard Dixon when I was about 19, when I was spending one semester at the New School Jazz program. (Not a terribly happy one, but important, it helped me define exactly what I DIDN'T want to do as a musician...). Having already spent a year at Wesleyan working with Anthony Braxton, and coming up in high school under Bill Lowe, I was already interested in "post-60's" improvisational styles, listening to a lot of Lester Bowie, some Don Cherry, etc, as well as the usual jazz suspects like Miles, Dizzy, etc. (Like most of us, Miles was and is still probably my most frequent listen.)

A couple of my more sympathetic teachers at the New School mentioned that I must be a big Dixon fan, though I had not yet really listened to him. And of course Braxton and Lowe had spoken of him. So as I talked about in that long blog post, I picked up "November 1981."

Also at this time, Ben Young was still doing his Dixonia radio show on WKCR (once a week he played a couple hours of Dixon), so I would check that out whenever I would get a chance. And I actually had some friends who worked at WKCR, so we would get together there and play sessions, then hit the station library for serious listening (they have some incredible stuff in the archives there). That was a period of serious musical listening education for me, and Dixon's music was a big part of that.

On a side note, that was also the time where I finally really got into Louis Armstrong, of all people. Obviously I had heard his music before, but it was around this period that I finally got it, if you know what I mean, really hearing the brilliance of it rather than just thinking it was old-timey stuff. In some ways, it's interesting this was happening around the same time I was digging into Dixon, and I think there might have been some connection. They both have such simple conviction and strength in their playing, not about tricky harmony or fast notes but about sound and space.

Q: What prompted you to go to the new school and what was it about that curriculum and experience that turned you off?

THB: I went to Wesleyan from 1993-94, then dropped out and biked from Vancouver to San Francisco in the fall of 94. I moved to NYC early 95, went to the New School fall 95, then returned to Wesleyan spring 96, and finished there fall of 97.

I had an inspiring musical experience my freshman year at Wesleyan, but wasn't really happy there for other reasons, and needed some time out of school. I didn't play that much that next year; I took a long bike trip down the West Coast and lived in San Francisco for a couple of months, then moved to New York. After a year off, I wanted to rededicate myself to music, and after the very open musical environment of Wesleyan, I thought it would be good to get a stronger traditional technical background, and went to the New School. However, I really disliked the jazz conservatory environment of the New School, after having such open-minded and creative mentors, the New School vibe was stultifying. It wasn't really the instructors' fault, there are some very good teachers there, it was more the student body, fetishizing the music of the 50s (though I did find a few like-minded souls.) After one semester there, it was clear to me that Braxton's pedagogical style and the creative community of Wesleyan were much more up my alley.

Q: Can you tell us how study with Braxton at Wesleyan was structured? How many classes did you take with Braxton and/or within the area of this music? Were there any other professors at Wesleyan dealing with the music?’ Did Braxton have an ensemble? If so, what was the instrumentation and what were those rehearsals like? Was there written music? Specific pieces or did the class 'just' improvise?

THB: At Wesleyan, Braxton teaches an ensemble class (that focuses on his composed large ensemble music, as well as his principles of language improvisation, ghost trance music, etc), music history classes (such as "The music of Coleman, Coltrane, and Mingus" or "Sun Ra and Stockhausen"), and composition seminars for graduate students. His ensemble class met twice weekly, and probably was my most important entree into his music. The instrumentation and size of the ensemble varied from semester to semester, from balanced fifteen piece groups with reeds, brass, and strings, to 50 piece orchestras with multiple guitarists, melodica players, and singers. I think between the six semesters I spent at Wesleyan as an undergraduate, and the four semesters as a graduate student, I took this ensemble class 10 times. (Even more, really...I would swing though Middletown and sit in even when I wasn't enrolled at the school.) Some really profound early musical lessons there, but I also got a lot out of his seminars, and of course the one-on-one compositional critiques were priceless. Though obviously, since then, I've learned more from him in life and on the bandstand than I ever could have in the classroom, the classroom taught me the basic language to get into it all. The vibraphonist Jay Hoggard and drummer Pheeroan akLaff also teach at Wesleyan, and are both very important teacher/mentor/friends for me.

Q: After hearing November 1981 were you 'sold' on Dixon? Was there another recording or experience that cemented Dixon's place in your mind?

THB: As far as November 1981, I was "sold" on Dixon pretty immediately. Around that time, I also became close friends and collaborators with trumpeter Stephen Haynes, who of course has a long and intimate association with Dixon's music, so got some insight into his ideas and processes, which helped me appreciate the music more.

Q: Another question about the Wesleyan experience:

You said

"The instrumentation and size of the ensemble varied from semester to semester, from balanced fifteen piece groups with reeds, brass, and strings, to 50 piece orchestras with multiple guitarists, melodica players, and singers."

From your reply, it would appear that there was a significant a degree of organization dedicated to and interest in this music at Wesleyan. How was this music received by the Wesleyan community at large? Did Braxton enjoy support or did he endure skepticism and derision (or both?)

THB: Like any small community in the bubble of academia, the level of interest and support, on both the institutional and student level, for 'this music' waxed and waned at Wesleyan, but there was a general appreciation and open-mindedness there, if not complete understanding or a consistent audience. In the larger argument/discussion about jazz and academia, I do think it interesting that I find more vibrant creative artists around today that came out of the 'liberal arts' environments of Wesleyan or Bennington, even with a much smaller pool of musicians, than came out of the 'conservatory' environments of Berklee or Julliard or wherever. Again, that's a gross generalization, I know some brilliant folks who attended Berklee and some total hacks that went to Wesleyan, but there is a larger pattern there. (Basically, studying things other than music is good for your music. And having musical geniuses around is helpful too.)

Q: Getting back to Dixon, how did November 1981 change you/your music/your trumpet playing? Would you say there was a 'before Dixon v. after Dixon' in your playing? What did you hear in Dixon's music that didn't hear elsewhere?


After November 1981, do you remember the next recording you heard? Do you hear a different Dixon in say, Vade Mecum or Papyrus? Do you have a favorite period of Dixon's work or a favorite album?

THB: I'd say two things were most immediately impacted me from November 1981. First of all, just the incredible expansion of the trumpet's possibilities in terms of timbre, digging in extremes in both the upper and lower registers, breaths, half valves, etc etc. (Particularly interesting since Dixon almost never uses any mutes, the usual means for brass timbral manipulation.) Yet still connected to a powerful sense of melody and line. The other 'avant' trumpet players I'd listened to at that point (Don Cherry, Lester Bowie, etc) still stayed closer the 'jazz conventions' of harmony and form. Dixon really opened that up, really painting with sound and line.

Second, his sense of phrasing and timing. Dixon's got a dramatic sense of space that is reminiscent of Miles Davis, yet in a totally open rhythmic environment. Almost like Miles gave a sense of space and silence to the frenetic style of 'bebop', for me, Dixon gave a sense of space and silence to the frenetic style of 'free jazz'. (Forgive the generalizations, I tend to hate those terms but it simplifies things I guess...damn semantics of music writing!)

I honestly don't remember the next Dixon record I heard, but that was the point I really began digging into his discography. November 1981 is probably still my favorite partly for sentimental reasons, since it was my first listen, and it is sort of a perfect mid-career statement, summing up his previous work and hinting at his future endeavors. I really enjoy and get different things out of all of the various periods of his work, like Miles or Ellington or Braxton or anyone with a 40 plus year artistic career, part of the joy of it is following the evolutions and progressions of a creative individual over time, each period provides a different lesson yet is essentially connected to the overall body of work.

Q: Can you talk a little about Dixon's events at Wesleyan in 2005? How do you compare Dixon and Braxton's approach to the large ensemble?

THB: Their basic approaches are very different...Anthony will present a large body of composed or conceived materials, and specific rules of engagement to those materials, but the players have full freedom in implementing those rules and dealing with those materials in practice and performance. Bill will bring in less pre-composed materials, sometimes as simple as a melodic line or a single voicing, but in practice will actively and specifically shape those materials into something more. It's interesting, both composers present systems that allow (and demand) input from the performers, and trust the performers to bring their own sensibilities and aesthetics into the music, but almost on opposite sides of the equation as to when that input happens.

Q: What's coming up in your future?

THB: I would prefer to answer on a more conceptual level of where I'd like to go next, particularly as they relate to a discussion of Dixon's work and influence. One of the periods of Dixon's music that particularly inspires me is the solo music of the 70s (as documented on the Odyssey set), where you can hear him actively challenging and expanding the possibilities of his own playing. These days, with the time demands and stresses of New York, I feel I can barely keep up my basic technical and rudimentary practice to keep my chops together. I am generally happy with the music I am creating as a composer and an improviser, but I feel like I am pulling from the well of what I already know I can do. I feel my next step is devising and defining a personal practice method and artistic routine to physically and creatively challenge myself to reach beyond what I can already do, to hear new things, to play in new ways. Hopefully I can find a way to do that without having the solitude and focus of the Vermont woods!

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