For over 20 years, Eric Zinman has dedicated his life to the pursuit of this music. Eric is mentioned in Bill Dixon's book L'Opera, and frequently works with colleagues of Dixon in and outside the Boston/Cambridge area.
A big thank you to Eric for his time and patience creating this thorough, honest interview.
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The Dixon Society: When (and where) did you first hear the music of Bill Dixon?
Eric Zinman: I first heard a recording of Bill Dixon's music in 1980. I was still living in my parent’s home in
Q: What else were you listening to at the time? What were your musical interests and direction(s) before meeting Bill?
A: I can't say much about my direction as I was not sure I wanted to be a musician--I was very fond of writing and particularly poetry (a godforsaken religion without hope). My musical interests were very conservative. I had just discovered "Kind of Blue" and still thought of a lot of modernism, like Schoenberg, as overly intellectual. I was bored with rock music and wanted to deal with a music where the piano played an important role.
So the music called Jazz was very inviting not only for its acoustic sensibility but also the rhythm. I heard Thelonious Monk and was floored by the placement and unusual tension of his chords. When Monk hit the piano I wanted to jump. My classical teacher Angel Ramone Rivera had introduced me to modernism, but it was largely populist modernism from the 50's: Kabalevsky, Tcherepnin, Waxman, Mennoti, even Brubeck. Angel naturally believed that formal concert music was the central core of all serious music study, but encouraged interest in jazz because he thought that it would create more interest in Classical music for young children, which was his specialty. I was given Bartok, but didn't care for the Microcosmos. I later regretted my lack of interest in those pieces as they could have solved a lot of technical problems. Of course there were the 19th and 18th century standards, Bach, Hanon, Czerny, Chopin, Haydn etc.
I took on a couple jazz teachers, first Don Hemwall (among the few to actually graduate with a degree in composition from Berklee College of Music) and later Paul Barringer who had been of student of Harvey Diamond's. Both gave me some good advice and helped my control of the instrument. Both of these teachers were quite reactionary and referred to the music of Cecil Taylor and Andrew Hill as outsider music (and felt it wasn’t important.) Both thought that these musicians outdid themselves and that you had to know your changes before attempting that sort of thing. They had never heard of Bill Dixon. Such is/was the provincial nature of art/music in
As a teenager I was involved in some professional choirs as a boy’s soprano and was singing Mahler and contemporary works such as Donal Martino's Opera, The Divine Comedy which involved over 100 voices and several conductors and percussion and wind ensemble. I would also attend evening sessions in a church where good musicians played standards like Autumn Leaves and Stella by Starlight. I also sang in several other choirs and musicals which involved more popular music. So I was very fortunate for these experiences and I heard music in my head constantly, even in my sleep, it consumed me and that scared me a little, but I was exposed to incredible things conservative though they were. I remember listening to a recording of Boulez conducting Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and thinking how noisy it was and then later recognizing the folk material because I could sing it.
Q: What was the instrumentation of the ensemble class when you were at
A: OK let’s see... I was at
Arthur selected me to perform in his ensemble piece "Maze" which I saw listed on pg 269 of Dixonia. I thought we met more than once a week but I’m not sure. The instrumentation was as stated:
Arthur Brooks: Trumpet
Jeff Taylor: Tenor Saxophone
Pilar Castro: cello
Eric Zinman: Piano
Andy Dillon and Rick O'Neil: Percussion
Special guest Bill Dixon: Trumpet, Flugelhorn
My memory was that each musician or pairs of musicians were given different musical tasks that would occur simultaneously. The result was a glorious mass of sound. This first experience stretched my concept of how ensembles could create music using improvisation as a tool. I remember also the character of the solo would be defined according to what was needed, what came after or what preceded. I was impressed with how Arthur Brooks instructed the 2 percussionists to do rolls with mallets on different drums, when they matched each other on the same drum Arthur instructed them to move away quickly to another drum creating this delicate and intense dynamic dialogue. Other instructions involved long tones and a melody played in chords on the piano. Bill Dixon created his own part which had a pointillistic sound which added depth and dimension to this 'maze' of sound. Solos were not traditional solos but rather integral parts of the pieces logic.
Bill Dixon always explained that the character and reason for the solo had to be defined i.e. its significance to the whole. You would be aware of each instrument within the ensemble as they might be singled out but there were no changes or trading fours or any historic pedantics
Bill Dixon also performed his piece Stations at that concert
At Bennington, I had 2 piano teachers and 2 paper courses so frankly it was a bit too much to absorb. Later I reduced my course load to focus more on piano/composition with Bill/ and the ensemble.
At that time Bill
The ensemble met Thursday and Friday every week and it included Dan Gorn for a while, Marco Eneidi, a singer who Marco brought up whose name I have forgotten, and a guitarist named Joel Stillerman, Jeff Taylor (tenor saxophone) and occasionally Arthur Brooks would be there. Different percussionists would show up including Rick O'Neil and Andy Dillon. We did all sorts of pieces from Ellington, Monk, and Mingus to Bill Dixon, George Russell and Ornette Coleman. We created many of our own pieces through many different methods from conventional notation to verbal directives and instant playing. As a result I think we all learned the meaning of orchestration and composition. Mostly we did our own music and Bill Dixon's music.
There was an ensemble that met weekly at one time to do an arrangement of Elllington's 'Echoes of Harlem' I think it had at least 8 musicians. I remember Bill explained the history of the piece and after several weeks it had grown to an incredible mass of musical lines and sonorities that had me speechless. My memory of the situation in terms of pedagogy was that Bill Dixon believed that the study of the traditional music was invaluable particularly if one understood the subtleties but did not prequalify you to play the music of Ayler, Taylor, Coleman and other luminaries of the 60's. That music had to be tackled on its own and we had to find our own way to respond to it and no amount of isolated study would make it happen. Everything had to come from the ensemble and from us.
What I heard and saw transported me out of myself. Words cannot express the far reaching conception that was created within that department. This was something that defied academic expectations. In addition Bill Dixon paid out of his budget and his own pocket to bring the best from NYC and PA to
Q: What was your Masters Degree experience at NEC like? Was there an 'ensemble' at NEC?
A: I attended NEC from 1985-1988. I failed my diagnostics on the graduate comprehensive so had to take it again a year later to pass. Bill Dixon tutored me on that so that I could pass. No one at the school had taught me how to do this kind of analysis, but after Bill showed me it was easy.
Yes there were many ensembles at NEC but nothing like what
The general musical climate was still based on playing chords and doing tributes to the "Masters". In Third Stream which was directed by Ran Blake student after student played the same material though often the original piece that was being interpreted was unrecognizable and purely academic. I don't think it’s really possible to modernize Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington as much as we're all students and we love to learn. Ran Blake repeated much of the pedantic criticism from the 60's referring to the "anger of the avant-garde" in relation to Albert Ayler. When I asked Ran about the October Revolution he simply said he knew about it, but I gathered from his response that he did not attend it.
The Third Stream department did not have any strong ensembles where people really knew how to write and consequently this carried over into the improvisation which had no raison d'etre. They were very interested in researching music from other places but when it came down to orchestration, whether it was written or not, the level of skill or awareness was substandard. Perhaps it reflected the paucity of ideas as they didn't seem to intimately know the recordings from that period. My first evaluation involved playing tunes of Ran's choice which were not my taste and I didn't try to play them in any adventurous way so the very young faculty who witnessed this said that I needed to do more 'free improvisation'. Ran seemed speechless after that because he didn't like 'free improvisation' and actually that was first time I had heard that term. So the evaluation was meaningless.
Q: Was anyone at NEC dealing with 'this music'?
A: I would say no. The European students I met were very familiar with "this music" but it was rarely discussed and thought by many as passé. I remember reading in an interview from the mid 70's where Jimmy Giuffre said "we will now use the language of the established jazz tradition" so there was a sense that this music didn't go anywhere in their eyes (though clearly it had changed the way they do music).
To be fair to Jimmy and tell his side of the story, he acknowledged that he never cared for my teacher, Bill Dixon's music and explained now when he had his 60's ensemble he was working less than he had ever worked in his life such that he abandoned it. George Russell rarely if ever discussed
Students acknowledged playing freely but it was not taken very seriously. I suggested to the head of the Jazz department, Hankus Netsky at the time, that he bring some musicians from NYC and offer Laurence Cook a master class. I met with him for dinner and we discussed these musicians and I played recordings. He told me he was a conservative and felt that the students wouldn't know who these people were and wouldn't relate to it or find it intriguing and even went so far as to say that they prefer musicians who show more obvious connections to the older music, what he referred to as "halfway" or "in and out." This reminds me of all the clichés about proving to people that you have an education rather than dealing with music as an art form, but to be fair I suppose it is called a "conservatory"--though it shows their arrogance, ignorance and love of "culture" as opposed to art. Hankus eventually told me that there was not enough money in the budget to hire Laurence.
I also asked Ran Blake the same thing in a letter though he did not respond. I also recall my friend Raphe Malik being turned down for a teaching position at NEC and that saddened me because I knew he cold play circles around the trumpet teacher they had at the time and had hoped Raphe would bring more spirit and a different ensemble technique to the students.
Joe Maneri was a school unto himself
Later Bill Dixon showed me an article from Downbeat 1965 "Caught in the Act" by Martin Williams. This was all about Joe Maneri's appearance at the Cellar Club which was the beginning of the October Revolution. Though the article spelled Joe Maneri's name wrong, I knew it was him from the photo. When I asked Joe about that, he denied it and said that he never played in NYC at that time. Bill said he remembered him as the musician who was working out 1/4 tones from Turkish music.
To further elaborate my point, the graduate comprehensive required familiarity with certain musical luminaries of the past. I am referring to the Jazz section of the comprehensive. So of course you had to know who Miles Davis was and who John Coltrane was but when it came to the 60's you had to know who "Weather Report" is. I was able to answer the question but I protested the question later. My conclusion is that "that music" forced them to deal with something they didn't want to deal with. I am referring to the current faculty. It would be interesting to see if the essential musicians from that period are really discussed today but I doubt it.
Q: Were you around when Cecil Taylor was at NEC?
A: The story of Cecil being there took place after I graduated. That was a bit of a fiasco. I was no longer a student there so my participation was as alumni. I understood Cecil's rehearsal technique. It was not like Big Band rehearsing. Each musician had their part and section of players to work it out with and they would rehearse each part simultaneously so there was an incredible buzz in the room but it gave you a sense of the mass of sound Cecil was trying to create.
Most of the students walked out, but a few of us stayed. Most of the pianists walked out. Hankus was concerned that students in the honors jazz ensemble weren't being recognized in this ensemble.
Naturally Hankus wanted the school and particularly the Jazz Department to look good. I was offended by the fact that in conversations Hankus noted that Cecil was a great band leader but not a good teacher. Now I had known many people who had worked with Cecil and in the course of 5 days working with Cecil I decided that Cecil was an excellent teacher but taught from the standpoint of the ensemble. Cecil is a great intellect and a gifted lecturer. I concluded that it was not that Cecil was a bad teacher but that they didn't want to hear what he had to say. After all it was only a few years prior that Cecil was listed in the alumni catalog as a "noted arranger of popular music". But all this was embarrassing and the school issued an honorary degree to Cecil a year or two later.
Only 2 pianists remained, Bennett Pastor and myself. The piece was called "Burning Poles". Bennett asked me what music I mainly do and when I said "this music" he was shocked. Most of the people who stayed to play were not the strongest players in the school but they were open to what Cecil was trying to do. My memory of the piece's execution was that the students did not understand the music and tended to over blow their sounds so a lot of the subtleties of the textures were lost. Cecil did not direct the band on stage but rather was back stage reciting poetry on a microphone with orgiastic screams. There were good musicians in the ensemble. I know Glynis Lomon was there as was Raqib Hassan. I thought it would have been better if Cecil had directed but Cecil didn't want to. It was still an incredible experience. We rehearsed 5 hours a day for a week. I was also arranging a piece of Cecil's at that time called 'Legba Crossing' which I thought was perfectly done though a bit stiff in its directive. I selected players for this myself.
I want to make sure I explain the nature of my studies at NEC. It was mostly academic and in saying that it sounds like I'm putting it down, however these studies were important in some ways and useful. I studied Madame Challoff's "light arm" technique" with one of her students, Greg Silberman and it helped and I was exposed to many interesting things in history and did some interesting transcriptions and I was truly interested in learning. It may also be true that my "bull shit meter" had a low setting, but many of Ran's faculty were young and very inexperienced like they had never been out of school compared to many musicians I had met and known, but I was too young to criticize. I kept to myself and played with a few musicians who I could relate to but if I wanted to do something other than standard material it was especially hard to find a percussionist who could do it. Fortunately Whit Dickey ended up as my classmate and I enjoyed working with him. We did one ensemble piece together and for my senior concert Laurence Cook played drums. My teacher Ran Blake didn't even attend the concert. I kept to myself until I was out of there.
While at NEC there were instances of people putting down
Basically the response to the avant-garde and Bill Dixon's work was silence and that silence continued through the 80's and into the 90's. Nobody I studied with knew
Another story: When I was a new student and didn't know anybody at NEC, Hankus took me around and introduced me to a group of composers sitting at a lunch table and introduced me as a student of Bill Dixon, which of course embarrassed me because I don't wish to hide under anyone's reputation. There was a long silence and Hankus asked if they knew who he was and they said "yes" but were very cold. This attitude pervades a provincial city like
Q: How would you compare the two experiences? Which experience provided the better training for what you do in music?
A: It would be easy to say that Bill Dixon's knowledge and teaching ability far exceeded anyone that I have known and that he really showed me how you learn everything in the ensemble which in turn made everything else seem academic. Hostility aside, NEC had valuable information to offer, and it must be said that if you are surrounded by 10 pianists who play better than you, in a certain kind of way, you naturally get better. This is what
I know the history a little. If it wasn't for Gunther Schuller NEC wouldn't even have the faculty they have, but most were hired in 1969-1970. It’s the current climate that has brought about this negativity towards "this music" and that is in a large part supported by the students. So you can't totally blame a school for the students it puts out, but of course jazz, though still a token art form has become a victim of the same "pitfalls" that plague formal concert music. And this is supported by institutions and again this is what I call "culture". So it is doubtful that if Thelonious Monk was alive he would be able to win the "THELONIOUS MONK COMPETITION"
I think this may be a Bill Dixon quote, but I saw it in action.
Q: Do you have a favorite Bill Dixon Album?
A: You also asked what my favorite
"Endeavor strongly not to make the first compromise so you won't have to spend a lifetime making excuses for the rest that will naturally follow"
Thoughts took me longer to relate to though it ultimately changed my thinking. I had attended that recording/performance and remember some microphones were moved around the room while musicians were playing. I like the effect of the piano being distant on this. "Intents and Purposes" greatly influenced my thinking on writing and playing in an ensemble. I can't say precisely why, but vaguely 2 words: instrumentation and orchestration.
At various points the cross voicing and resultant texture is so deceptive that I can't tell what instruments I'm listening to. For a long time I didn't even notice the sequence that moves behind Byard
The albums with Laurence were very special to me. Laurence is also one of my mentors. I learned to use space from him.
Q: Can you tell me about your trio with Laurence and John Voight? How did you meet? Would you say that
A: While I had known of Laurence Cook when I was a student at
to play with.
I met Laurence again at Charlie’s Tap in Central Sq. Cambridge sitting at the bar. He remembered me and gave me his card. He was very warm and said “you never know”. Craig Schildhauer brought his bass on the bus to play with me where I was at
My first gig with them was at the Collonade Hotel in
Initially many of the pieces we did were prepared in a strict way with specific instructions. Many had “heads” or obvious expositions that gave us a place to start. We did a wide range of pieces from lines, tone rows, short wave radio, and even a standard like Ornette Coleman’s PEACE. There was always a relaxed give and take within the ensemble.
I learned how to place my sound with Laurence and Craig. They made it easy and they never took anything too seriously so that we could explore and find out what we could do even if it didn’t work. Laurence would just laugh and say “play the pretty chords” and I would just drop these sounds in place and they would hang there mulching and fermenting in the puddle of splashing cymbals. Craig used more bow than anybody I had worked with which I thought magnified the group sound. I could really play duets with Craig. He would play all over what I was doing almost like a horn player.
I had always wanted to play with John Voigt and after Craig left
It’s difficult to say how someone influences you because you must create your own music. Bill Dixon gave me more encouragement in that area than anybody. He impressed upon me that you could collect things on the instrument just by working with sounds, chords, lines, intervals etc…. They did not have to come from standard pieces and no amount of practicing standard material would help you play this way. Everything had to be invented for this music. There were many things Bill Dixon had said to me that continue to resurface in my thinking. Many were questions and some were facts:
There was always the question of beginnings and endings.
How to leave space so that each musician is allowed to say what they need to say?
How to listen, to hear what to play so the group can get a fine sampling of the various types of blends that are possible?
How you can imply momentum without playing fast.
How you can bring your sound into the sounds of the other instruments and create intensity without playing too loud and then work up to a louder or fierier palate (or perhaps lure the listener into the experience.)
Use the whole piano.
When does a musical idea become tired and expire?
When is a sequence appropriate?
If you use the right touch and register you will be able to both project and sing with the other instruments.
What is the appropriate balance between the pedaled and the un-pedaled sounds?
From Monk I think I learned if you hit the piano in the right space and time you can make everybody jump out of their seat.
I learned how to work with masses of sound (i.e. different saturations and super saturations of sound that can be produced by large numbers of instruments).
I learned how the tuning of instruments can continually change (the microtonal expression inherent in the instruments) and the limitless possibility of sound production from the most pristine sound to noise.
What are the possible combinations within the ensemble and what sorts of entrances and exits are possible and can sustain the curve of the music?
If there is a solo where should it occur and what character should it have and what kind of support and balance of textures are entered into and maintained around it. Will the solo or its surroundings be rhythmic, horizontal, vertical etc?
Of course I learned from listening to Bill’s playing: his sense of continuity, one that required less repetition, and exquisite form in his sense of the 'long line'. All This reflects back to my first composition assignment which involved writing solo pieces for each instrument. How can the solo sound like many instruments? Bill Dixon allowed me to articulate the inherent possibilities
Q: What are you working on now? What’s coming up for Eric Zinman?
A: I am working more on music than ever before in my life. The opportunities are still what I make of them. I expanded from my initial ensemble where everything began. I have reached out across the globe looking for fresh experiences perhaps more now because I am more confident in what I am doing and have a better idea of what I want. I would like to do more large-group writing and playing and I will have some of that experience in