Bill Dixon and the author, (photograph taken in 2000 by Sharon Vogel)
Early winter. Heater at my ankles. I think of all the souls I taught, certainly in the hundreds, perhaps thousands. Just heard a recording of one of them, a gifted creative pianist; he has surpassed all my expectations. This does me good. Who out there remembers their teachers? I had one in 10th grade, Mr. Karavetsos, American History. We were a smart class (founder of Nova ed TV, big time doctors, writers, etc.), and he knew this. Gave us university stuff. But most of all I remember his “concentration exercise”. Every time he gave exams, he’d run a ruler across the old-fashioned radiator; he’d walk back and forth, over and over again. The annoying sound penetrated our brains, shattered all our attempts to concentrate. But this was the training. Those who survived answered the questions. Those who didn’t, didn’t. At first I thought, “sadist”. But then I learned his system, learned to close out the sound through what is now known as auditory masking. In the end he was my hero, not because of the grades, but because he believed in all of us. We all were propelled forward into the big bad world.
History teacher Mr. Michael Karavetsos and his intense stare (school yearbook 1965)
Thinking further along.. my second teacher Bill Dixon had his unique methods. For instance, when I first played for him, he stopped me every 10 seconds and said, “Oh, there’s your Sonny Rollins (great tenor saxophone virtuoso)…oh, there’s Ben Webster (ditto)…wait, are you trying to put Archie Shepp on the map? On and on. Finally, when I sunk knee-deep in exhaustion, frustration and even anger, he said calmly, “Now go somewhere, for as long as it takes, and play the bullshit out of yourself”. Well, I did. For a solid month. Then I came back…
Bill Dixon did one other thing that was truly transformative We were volunteering in a maximum security prison (Great Meadow, sister prison to Attica). It was Black Solidarity Day. I was supposed to back up the prisoner soul band. I was warming up. I saw Bill joking with some guy. Then the doors opened and 700 inmates rushed tsunami-like through the doors. I took a huge step backward and nearly cowered. But no sooner than I did, I felt two hands on my back; Bill pushed me hard and yelled out, “PLAY!”. I was stage center! What could I do? Of course: PLAY!. I started to blow frantically, passionately. I played and played. Soon I heard a commotion. I peeked through one eye, and saw what looked like prisoners rioting. They were yelling at the top of their lungs, “Yeh, yeh, yeh, yeh..” Standing on their chairs, stomping. The guards were powerless. I thought there WOULD be a riot. But the more they yelled, urging me on. Upward. I played louder and louder, stronger and stronger! I had the illusion I was shattering the walls of the prison! Then finally I stopped, nearly collapsing The crowd roared with massive applause and appreciation. I walked off, and backstage Bill comes up to me and in a quiet calm voice, says “Now, that’s the way you should ALWAYS play!” and walked off. He was a Zen teacher on steroids. At first I was pissed. Then got over it…And continued to learn. He was my master. Eventually he was my friend.
Today? Imagine teaching that way?…Sure, we all have our mentors, many of them, long gone. Now it’s us. We keep the ball going. We give of ourselves. We help shape character. We set high standards, but not those which paralyze. We never feel threatened, even if a student clearly will surpass or has surpassed us (whatever that means). Yes, we would love them to call us once in a while, but even if they don’t, we know that somewhere in their hearts lies the memory. I think of all the lives I’ve touched over the years, perhaps at the expense of some music I didn’t write. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Oh occasionally I fantasize. How did Mr. Holland feel when he danced at his “Opus”? Not sure I want to feel that… So all of you teachers out there. Stand fast. Stand cool. In the end it’s worth it all. For you are them, and they are you (and I am not the walrus). If one teaches with love, there’s no failing. We all remember each other. The other day I received a beautiful call from a student I taught twenty years ago. He said, “I never told you some things. What you were to me. I met you right when my father died. You took me under your wings. You were more than a teacher. You guided me. I was lost. And now I have a family, work as a musician, and have a great life. I just wanted you to know.” One cannot want more than that in life, I think. As I sail out to listen….
Bill Dixon (piano, trumpet), Stephen Horenstein (tenor saxophone), Henry Letcher (drums); recorded in 1975. The author was twenty-seven years old.