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From his publicist comes the news that Bill Dixon, the experimental jazz trumpeter and composer, died in his sleep last night at his home in North Bennington, Vt. He was 84 years old.
Dixon was a professional musician for over 60 years and one of the most reliable exploratory voices in jazz—-a word he hated. His music, in (very) large and small ensembles as well as solo work and collaborations, pushed continually outward, both artistically and politically; Dixon was the organizer of 1964’s infamous festival “The October Revolution in Jazz,” and the founder of the influential early collective the Jazz Composers Guild. He continued to defy convention over nearly three decades as an educator, making his legacy immense.
William Robert Dixon was born on Nantucket Island, Mass., in 1925, and grew up in Harlem. His family was nonmusical, but Dixon fell in love with the trumpet after seeing a Louis Armstrong concert as a child. He bought his first trumpet in high school, then attended the Hartnette Conservatory of Music in Manhattan after serving in the Army during the closing months of World War II. He began his career after graduating from Hartnette in 1951, but also began composing on his own; at the same time, however, he worked a day job at the United Nations, where in 1958 he founded a listening and discussion group for the diplomats, the UN Jazz Society.
Throughout the 1960s Dixon established himself in collaborations with forward thinkers Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, and avant-garde dancer/choreographer Judith Dunn. He also gained a reputation as a composer and bandleader in his own right, including a band co-led with Shepp and a large-ensemble recording, 1967’s Intents and Purposes, commonly regarded as his masterpiece.
In 1968 Dixon took a teaching position at Bennington College in Vermont. He remained affiliated with Bennington for 28 years, gaining tenure and founding and chairing the school’s Black Music Division for 19 years. Meanwhile, however, his recording and performing (as well as painting, examples of which often adorned his album covers) continued unabated, including a remarkably consistent string of albums recorded for the Italian Soul Note label in the 1980s and ’90s. His most recent recordings included two large-ensemble pieces, 2007’s 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur and 2008’s Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra, a collaboration with Chicago post-rocker Rob Mazurek. Shortly after the release of the latter, however, Dixon withdrew from performance due to illness, which persisted until his death last night.
He is survived by his longtime partner Sharon Vogel and two children.