Site of Formation 1984

Milford Graves and Bill Dixon at the Top of the Gate

Ben Hall

Milford Graves. Bill Dixon. Top of the Gate, as in above the Village Gate, Bleecker Street, 1984. The concert was arranged by Reggie Workman and was initially to be a presentation of Milford Graves solo, a performance in support of the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign. We ended up with Reagan. Dixon, recounting this to Ben Young: “Graves was going to do a drum solo, but I said, ‘I’ll be there, why don’t we do a duet?’ ” It was that casual in its genesis. 

The outcome was a presentation of the oceanic and the particular. Both men are deeply and uniformly engaged in the ritual of holding spacetime together—the two of them here like surrounded gunfighters, back to back, trying to find a way, finding a way. Spacetime is often referred to as an explanation for how the universe appears: motion through space creating alterations in the flow of time. Most time, the flow of time continues uncaptured, unrecorded, and unmeasured. The Dixon/Graves Top of the Gate recording is one small moment—a field recording almost, or maybe a recording of the universe—of two beings identifying themselves as segments of spacetime and articulating their own shapes just enough so that we may distinguish them individually out of all the other things occurring in the cosmos in that moment of time, which of course is all the moments of time. 

Suggested Listening

Bill Dixon and Milford Graves: Top of the Gate, 1984 (YouTube)

Ben Hall: Weight/Counterweight (with Bill Dixon and Aaron Siegel) (Broken-research, 2009)

Ben Hall: The New Favorite Thing Called Breathing (Relative Pitch, 2018)

This recording is like overhearing a conversation wherein every word carries equal importance, density, and dimension. Milford and Bill were both talkers, lots of talking and lots of laughs, laughing, and laughter. You can see it with half the band on the back cover of Bill Dixon Live in Italy Volume 1 (Soul Note, 1980). However, the brightness and fun that you would experience with Bill in person is not evident on any recording I’ve ever heard, excepting this one. Which, in this case, is not so much his joyousness as his playing and its relationship to Milford’s joy.

Bill was the epitome of serious, and seriousness pervaded “the work” or “the music,” as Stephen Haynes reminds us Bill called it. Seriousness is not a knock, not an indication of self-seriousness. He had seen the myriad ways in which Black expressivity was discounted and denigrated, so there was a high degree of “I’m taking this seriously. I have taken this seriously. I will continue to take this seriously, and consequently, you will need to take this seriously as well.” But taking one’s work and life seriously doesn’t mean that you can’t laugh and experience joy off-camera or off-stage. But again, this recording may the only time we see Bill in close proximity to joy in “the work.”

It would be easy to classify each of them—by interview, by photo—Dixon as the pipe smoking academician, cardigans; and Milford as the vegetarian auto-didact rocking the dashiki. But they were both principally involved in an extremely finite and precise pursuit: how to present their enormous, and enormously generative, intellectual property in such a way that they weren’t uniformly discounted as humans in contemplation and execution of those tremendous gifts, not to mention the self-requirement to protect what they do from the most handsiest of stalker/assaulters (capital) which can glom on to any material—any being, whether commodifiable or not—and inhabit it fully, evacuating everything that makes a thing what it is, destroying its specific ontological being, and then leave behind an evacuated skin that is no longer a living thing. Capital as succubus. Both men realized this very early in their creative and expressive lives, and the result is the paucity of their recorded catalogs relative to their enormous creative output. They were enormously generous, but they weren’t just giving it away for free because they understood capital is not a generative machine; it’s a machine of negation, the negation of the individual and the negation of joy among other things. 

That joyfulness that Milford Graves brought to many, if not all, of his performances (see the image of his face on the cover of Bäbi (IPS, 1977) for clarification) created a space of joy and thrill at The Top of the Gate that Bill takes to with such ease. Milford’s framing totally recategorizes the way you hear Bill Dixon. The framework is the propulsion of joy as opposed to the propulsion of time, meter, and orchestration. 

By the time I established a relationship with Bill and Milford—between 2000 and 2004—they had not been down with each other for many years. As a consequence, I couldn’t get word one out of either of them about anything other than basic institutional candor. It’s a bit like asking someone about their ex, like: “Tell me about all the good times you had. I want to know EVERYTHING.” Obviously, they were mum; I received neither myth nor gossip from either of them. But you have to understand, they were the only Black people in the town of Bennington, Vermont. These two spheres of intelligence, knowledge, embodiment, and even the music library told no tales of their relationship. I was desperate, so so desperate, to obtain the knowledge they possessed and had been dispensing for 30+ years. But my timing was off. I arrived late, and by the end of my time in Vermont, it felt very much like being the child of divorced parents: “But, I love you both equally.”

Their reticence to pull out the yearbook didn’t stop me from asking, annoyingly asking: “Where are the recordings? How did it work? Was it ever in groups? If you played all the time, WHERE ARE THE RECORDINGS?” In my brain I said over and over: “Where the fuck is the recording that, as I imagine it, will be a map to my own future?” Top of the Gate is the map I was searching for. 

Bill and Milford both taught at Bennington College for 30+ years. In April 1974, Bill composed a letter to the administration of Bennington College titled, “Statement of Intents and Purposes With Regards To Being A Division among Divisions at Bennington College.” At the beginning of the sixteen-page sermon, he states, “For those who would raise the old argument as to why it is not a part of the regular music situation here at Bennington College, the reasons are too numerous to go into, but it can be said that the necessity for there being two separate divisions rests with the structure and philosophy of the college and was not invented by the people currently teaching Black Music. The current music faculty, with two exceptions, has rationalized their position by declaring that (1) there is no such thing as Black Music, (2) if there were such a thing they themselves could not teach it because they don’t know what it is.” 

I include this excerpt to elucidate the necessity and preoccupation with seriousness and protectionism. This isn’t ruffled feathers and ego, peacocking and self-seriousness, this is the very close-quarter questioning of legitimacy and invisibilizing that both men were actively responding to in both art and career. Bill, as a consequence of constant restatement of the legitimacy and individuality of Black Music, was able to provide paychecks, pensions, vision, safety, and collaboration to Milford, Arthur Brooks, Nadi Qamar, Charles Gayle, Jimmy Garrison, and Raphe Malik, to name just a few of the people who found a temporary home at Bennington as a consequence of Dixon’s relentless placemaking inside the institution. Bill and Milford were there, by far, the longest, and this place-making and collaboration was what they were tasked with ten years prior to the Top of the Gate recording. Administrative and institutional spacetime.

I was particularly stalky with Bill, seeing him at the Hannafords, the North Bennington post office, but not yet introducing myself. Listening to both Intents and Purposes (RCA Victor, 1967) and November 1981 (Soul Note, 1982), I understood/you understand that Bill had a deep desire to add/use/utilize a certain sort of leaping, loping, academically angular boogaloo with which he could breathe his half-time floats and feints over. I thought I could be the leaper and loper, provide those surfaces for him to float on. He loved a deep, swirling rhythmic complexity. He often positioned himself as wind above a churning sea. I wanted to know how to do this. How to respond to this. 

This duo with Milford is at the dead center, timewise, of Bill Dixon’s research into the two-bassist-and-drummer-quartet architecture that is emblematic of perhaps his most engaging and expansive compositional research. Putting Milford in a position to occupy all three of those roles makes total sense: that’s what he wanted to do anyway—all the time—and the forward propulsion to the Top of the Gate is unparalleled in Milford’s catalog. 

They are spheres, planets, the concept of the worthy constituent personified. Neither of them looked back for a nostalgic kind of future that composed the present. They just kept articulating spacetime.

There is a quality of finding a part of the archive you didn’t know existed that both completes the picture and makes said picture more arresting. It gathers and cinches the complexity. That cinching of complexity is like remastering a recording, bringing out the frequencies that you couldn’t hear before or in this case hadn’t ever heard before. This is a performance that all other Milford duos have to be measured against for total clarity. Bill is so far off into his own thing on this recording that the closest previous Milford duo to measure it against is with Min Tanaka (Bennington College, 1993). So independent is Bill’s playing and compositional methodology that it’s almost as if he’s making a different type of art, different than what came before or after. Like Charlie Parker, Bill and Milford both played TONS but there is no chaff. The elimination of waste and filigree gives us the clearest of visions of both men’s methodology and execution even with the Xerox
audio blur of the recording.

Milford Graves and Bill Dixon at the Top of the Gate