Guitarist and visual artist Justin Perdue was kind enough to answer our questions regarding Bill Dixon, Bill Dixon's ensemble class, the Bennington College music division as a whole and more. Thank you Justin Perdue!
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Q: When and where did you first hear the music of Bill Dixon.
A: I may have heard some (without realizing who it was) previously, but the first time I deliberately listened was during my first term at Bennington - the first time I really heard Dixon's music - was doing some listening with some of the "usual suspects." It was the Thoughts album and it knocked me out - think we listened to it twice or more in one sitting. It was like some strange deja vu - as if I'd finally had a music from a dream: Something I'd been expecting to hear, something that seemed innately right and made sense to me on an intuitive, instinctual level (similar to hearing Trane or Bird for first time). It resonated with me. Not to trivialize the music, but the sensation was akin to that of tasting a Cuban cigar or a great wine or dessert for the first time - as in:Ahhhh, so this is what it supposed to be like...
Whatever the case, I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of bassist Jeremy Harlos around this time - he was working w/Dixon ensembles, and had other Dixon recordings which he hipped me to. Had similar reactions to my "Thoughts" episode upon initially hearing Intents and Purposes and Son of Sysiphus - that latter of which probably impacted my playing/conception the most at the time and for years following.
Q: What was your musical background at that point? What else were you listening to at the time?
A: I grew up being more exposed to visual art than music, my father being a sculptor. I always had an appetite for music though, and early on sifted through theirLPs on got into Beatles and other sundry folky stuff like Donovan and Pete Seeger (of all things) as a kid (typical early 70s kid-fare, I s'pose ...). Took up the trumpet in grade school, but remained largely unexposed to jazz. Do recall that the school band had painfully poor intonation, and I could scarcely bear to endure our rehearsals/concerts. Not sure my intonation on the horn was much better, but I could definitely hear that something was quite wrong with the band: We were trying to play Sousa stuff that ended up sounding closer to Harry Partch. It was chorus class which really cemented my desire to do music - my teacher did a lot to encourage/challenge me, singling me out for (what seemed at the time to be) bizarre exercises like singing in a different key than she was accompanying in, singing in different keys than the rest of the chorus, etc. Right off the bat I was comfortable with this kind of pan-tonality, and never found it odd, grating or "off-key" - likely an early indicator of my future musical tastes...
Anyway, perhaps the band experience was part of what led me to quit the horn and take up guitar when I was 12 - it was certainly easier to keep in tune. Certainly my interest in Beatles, etc. contributed. I started out learning basics and moved on to the rock/folk stuff I was listening too. By the time I got to Bennington, I'd had had some composition training in classical (12-tone, Schoenberg-type stuff mostly), several years of classical guitar training, and the typical guitarist's high-school garage-band background of the time in "blues," psychedelic/progressive rock, etc.
I'd become frustrated by the harmonic/stylistic limitations of rock guitar by the time I got off the boat at Bennington. Was more interested in finding ways to get some of the "avant-garde" classical music ideas I'd been exposed top out of the guitar, but to have it infused with energy/passion/rhythm - not the antiseptic/clinical feel I'd gotten from much of the atonal classical music. So, needless to say, I had big ears for "jazz" and was listening to everything in the genre that I could once at Bennington - from Art Tatum to Cecil Taylor - but initially gravitated towards Miles and Trane (early-mid quartet - through Love Supreme). Dixon's music fit right in - just the kind of sounds and conception that I wanted to hear...
Q: What made you choose Bennington College? Was it the music program? Did you intend to study music when you arrived?
A: I arrived at Bennington intending to study music and painting (leaning more towards music) - I was particularly eager to become more immersed in "jazz" as I'd been exposed to a lot more in the way of visual art, given that my father is a sculptor and (visual arts) educator. I spent some time with bassist Jeremy Harlos on my college visit to Bennington - got some sense of the music program from him, seeing a group he was in play, and got to meet some of the other musicians studying there - all of which left me with a positive impression, a sort of simpatico feeling. I didn't meet Dixon or Brooks on this visit, but just students. The politics of the music dept's "divisions" (i.e. black music/white music weren't apparent to me during the visit). I was intrigued by the "Black Music" side of the music program that I gained some insight into during my visit - recall that it was the visit and meeting the cats studying the music that (began to) open my eyes to what could be studied at Bennington - don't recall getting such a compelling sense of it from the catalog/printed materials I'd seen prior to that. Anyway, probably on account of the visit and the sense of the "Black Music dept" the scales tipped enough towards Bennington's music program to make a difference. Other schools I'd looked at like Oberlin & Wesleyan had left me nonplussed - these seemed more classically-oriented; Ithaca struck me as very formulaic-jazz oriented kind of a liberal arts Berklee. Suppose I was more interested in rebelling against the "tyranny of the bar line and triad" (to paraphrase Dixon) at the time - and Bennington seemed more the place for that kind of thinking...
Q: Setting Dixon and your work with him aside, what were some of the other music classes you remember taking? What were the high-points? Did any of these classes inform or support your work with Dixon?
A: Being a "music major" at Bennington (at least during the political climate present there in the late 80s) I had to take the requisite assortment of non-Black Music classes in the music dept. This involved the usual gamut of composition, history and theory classes. Such requirements became a bone of some contention at the time - questions were being raised as to why couldn't one study exclusively "Black Music" to fulfill music major requirements, etc - generally it was an ugly situation, and not a particularly healthy learning environment. Various (thinly veiled) political agendas were in play constantly - it was next to impossible not to get caught in the crossfire, and there were certainly a few casualties. So, in a roundabout way of answering this question - yes, there were some high points, but also too much wheel-spinning on politics and areas of study that didn't seem (and still don't, in hindsight) terribly relevant. So, enough about that.
After enduring some of the requisite classes with "shrubby" I managed to settle in to doing much of my officially sanctioned composition work with Allen Shawn, who was very supportive of my Black Music studies, and my incorporation of the "jazz idiom" into my compositions. My composition "process" involved essentially "transcribing" music in my head - in many ways the same music I would have improvised. Stylistically or idiomatically it was all music to me, improvised or written down. Other highlights for me were hearing Shawn's "readings" of my compositions - to hear the music realized on piano, etc. Also, though (regrettably) I didn't manage to study directly with him, listening to Lionel Nowak play on several occasions was definitely a learning experience.
Q: Tell us a little about Dixon's ensemble class and your participation in it. How long were classes? How were they structured? Was there written music or did you "just improvise?" Also, what was the level and kind of musicianship in the ensemble? Were the players coming from a "Jazz" background? Where they coming from a "classical" background?
A: Ensemble classes with Dixon were a trip. A real adventure. Classes could begin with Dixon arriving and regaling us with colorful "jazz history" anecdotes out of Dixon's past about how "the man was fuckin' with my [archie shepp's] mind," surreal diatribes about African cross-hatched chicken, or possibly an explanation to a student as to the importance of "getting to the point where you can wear a hat." Or, the ensemble might arrive to find Dixon already there, intently the midst of playing his horn, whereupon we'd set up quietly and begin playing along. Sometimes the bulk of the class would be passed in this manner, Dixon communicating and teaching with the music and few gestures and glances - we might not actually get to talking until the end of the class, after an hour or so of playing... Classes often ran over when the music was happening - several hours with little or no discussion until the very end was not uncommon. This latter was often this case during the time I was in the ensemble class along with a group of other players that were largely on the same level of playing, played together consistently outside of class, and were generally on the same page. I think in that ensemble, most of the players were pretty immersed in the music that we were working on with Dixon - most had come from a background of some formal training in jazz or classical, but at the time were focused almost exclusively on improvised (and other music) akin to what was going down in the ensemble class.
There were certainly periods where we worked on written/structured pieces, sometimes part of a class was devoted to this, sometimes all of it. There were written/structured pieces that were rehearsed for concerts, where Dixon brought in some of his collaborators to augment the ensemble class. Classwork also consisted of "exercises" - working in specific, narrowly defined textures, etc. A classic Dixon exercise that comes to mind: "play a unison line with me" - after which he'd play a blistering line that spanned the range of the horn and the whole gamut of dynamics, densities and micro-tonalities, with the expectation that a student (or perhaps some/all of the ensemble) would play along, "note for note." definitely got me thinking about some outside the box guitar techniques. overall, Dixon's ensemble classes - and how he had me participate in them - did a lot to open up my thinking about the possibilities of the guitar texturally and orchestrally, blurring the lines between soloist and rhythm instrument, yet also nurturing my conception of how the guitar could be more like a horn; more linear and less percussive/chordal...
Q: Lionel Nowak is someone readers of The Dixon Society will remember as being sympathetic to Dixon's aesthetic, and now we have the name Alan Shawn. How did the rest of the music faculty deal with Bill Dixon's music? For those who didn't deal with it particularly well, what musical reasons (if any) did they give?
A: Apart from Arthur Brooks (who was obviously many orders of magnitude closer to and involved with Dixon's music, having actually studied, performed & recorded with Dixon), Nowak and Shawn seemed the most respectful of Dixon's music. Several others (deeply embroiled in the Music Dept's twisted internal politics) were openly hostile to Dixon and his music. Otherwise, there seemed a general lack of any real grasp of what Dixon had done and could teach with regards to composition. Also, it seemed his unorthodox playing techniques was met with scorn or plain bewilderment by some. Here's a good example of the breadth of the gulf of opinion as to what constituted good technique: one of the composition teachers, who was a ("classically-trained") bassist not only dismissed Paul Chambers' playing as "out of tune" but also ridiculed Art Davis for the way he used his left hand pinky while playing. Needless to say, said bassist didn't approve of Dixon's playing either. I'm not really sure what the musical reasons for this type of thing was - apart from some kinda "my way or the highway" rationale...
Q: How was Bill Dixon perceived by the non-musical faculty and student body? Were his concerts well received? Was his work respected? Was he respected?
A: Dixon and his music were either embraced or eschewed by the non-combatants outside the music division - it was hit or miss, all or nothing: people either heard it or they didn't. It was an acquired taste that few seemed to labor much to acquire if they didn't like it from the git-go. I think a number of students and faculty alike were a bit intimidated by Dixon. He was definitely not viewed as a wallflower by anyone that I can recall. Come to think of it, I think many were intimidated by his music as well - and in response, some rejected it outright as too abstract or far out, others blindly championed it for the very same reasons, and (perhaps most interestingly) some faced up to the unknown and really tried to come to terms with it, gradually digesting it over several semesters (or years).
Q: You play guitar and Bill Dixon plays the trumpet. Was there a guitar teacher at Bennington college at the time? Did Bill Dixon ever give you a "guitar" lesson? What was Bill's relationship to the guitar? Did he ever tell you specifically what he wanted out of you as a guitar player, or were you left on your own to "learn by doing?"
A: "Learn by Doing" was definitely a big aspect of guitar playing there at the time. There was a cat Matt Henderson there for a while (early during my stay, maybe freshman of sophomore year, before I was heavily involved with Dixon ensembles) - he came out of a Robert Fripp approach to the guitar, which I was already familiar with to some extent. Matt did a lot to help me along the "Learn by Doing" path - helping me think of how I could develop exercises for myself, etc. He was also supportive in my switching to tuning the guitar in fourths, which necessitated the development of my own exercises, and ironically forced me to be self-taught ever since. So, I created my own exercises, voicings and scale patterns - and (at the urging or Dixon and Brooks) got my hands on Andrew White's Trane transcriptions. Also got into Nicholas Slonimsky's "Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns" (all of which I'm still digesting and working on)...
Dixon's "guitar lessons" often revolved around the "play a unison line with me" approach (as I mentioned before), which nudged me into developing some rather unorthodox techniques for speed-picking (for unisons with his ascending runs), scratching of the wound strings, and tremolo/"whammy bar" de-tuning (for non-tempered notes/chords and sub-tones). Dixon also had me play "bass" in various orchestrations, which opened up my thinking about the lower end, and finger/thumb picking. In many respects though, I viewed all of it as a guitar lesson - it was all about finding a way to get the sound that I was hearing, the sound the music wanted. The lesson was that technique was a means to that end, and that one could get there using whatever means possible, however unorthodox they may seem.
Q: What did you do musically after graduating from Bennington College? After graduating from Bennington College and entering the "real world" what did you feel were your musical strengths and your musical weaknesses? Was there something you didn't get out of the Bennington College that you wished you had? Did you feel like your experiences with studying Bill Dixon gave you an "advantage" or unique insights in your musical pursuits?
A: I played a bit in NYC after Bennington - mostly at the Knitting Factory - the "free jazz" scene. Played, recorded and toured with saxophonist Jack Wright after that, and eventually settled into a gig working as an accompanist with the Middlebury College Dance Dept. This was also the beginning of a stint with the So-Called Jazz Sextet, based out of Vermont. We made several recordings and toured through the mid-90's, working with the Dance Dept. periodically.
I think I came out of Bennington with a good sense of the music and it's history, a very focused (and somewhat narrow) idea of what constituted a viable approach to improvisation, a relatively unique technical approach to the guitar, and solid composition & arranging skills. What was lacking? In retrospect, I found myself still "learning" standards and more bebop-oriented styles after Bennington. Not to focus on this was certainly a choice I'd made while there - I'd chosen to immerse myself more in pure improvisation. Post-grad, there certainly were some lean times when having all the Berklee bop chops would've helped out - but, I truly wasn't as interested in "tunes" during that time... Truly, I have only gradually arrived at a real appreciation of bebop and "straight-ahead" playing that evolved out of an initial immersion in and love of "free jazz" (a path that many others seem to traverse in the opposite direction). So as for unique insights/advantages, perhaps that's it: coming at it from a different direction, not being daunted by "learning by doing"/teaching myself on an ongoing basis, approaching the guitar with my own home-brewed techniques, realizing that I'd rather play in my own style (for better or worse) than trot out the coolest licks somebody else just played... Striving to make some honest music that reflects what I'm really hearing/feeling at any given time.
Q: How much of your music now references your experiences studying with Bill Dixon? What's on your musical horizon?
A: Most of it (both consciously and unconsciously). While I don't often find myself literally playing much of anything I'd worked on with Dixon, much of the conceptual underpinning of my playing - and the way I hear music and approach improvisation and guiutar techniques as mentioned above - stems from those studies. I'm mostly working with original compositions at this point, and foresee continuing to do so. These are by and large "tunes" - chord changes, melodies, structure - but, hearkening back to more improvisational approaches, I really view these as vehicles for just that. The level/degree of abstraction upon these forms strikes me as being only limited by what I can hear and technically execute. So, I'm really looking to continue synthesizing influences from Wes Montgomery to Trane to Dixon to Hendrix to James Brown to Monk (...etc...) into my playing and composing - to find the commonalities and transitions between these supposedly disparate "styles", and despite whether or not it neatly fits into some category or another, to bring forth the music that's been informed by all I've heard, imagined, learned and unlearned...