Mike Johnston asked if my crew at JFM would mount this interview with vibraphone maestro Walt Dickerson, and here it is. Mike is a good friend and I play his music as often as I can on my radio show and now this addition to the annals of jazz reminds me to dig out my old Walt Dickerson LPs, I used to listen to his music quite a lot at one time. —-Mark Weber
Walt Dickerson (1928 – 2008)
Interview w/ Mike Johnston May 1, 1995
This interview with Walt Dickerson was originally intended to be issued in Coda Publications. One of my objectives in writing for Coda was to expose lesser known quality musicians to a wider audience. At the time that I conducted this interview there were no interviews of Walt published in any magazines that I was aware of. Subsequently a couple of interesting interviews have surfaced, and I have included a link for interested readers at the end of my interview. Originally I transcribed our telephone conversation to disc, but somewhere along the way I misplaced the recording and copy. Therefore, regretfully, it never was published in Coda. I recently found the disc and wanted to make this interview available for people that dig his music.
To date there have been no releases issued of his music recorded after 1982. He has indeed been under documented in every sense. Surprisingly, all of his albums have been reissued on CD, and several include quality bonus tracks.
Walt Dickerson had a very unique and singular approach on the vibraphone, an instrument rarely featured, even in jazz. He had a “plush sound” (his words) and even today remains one of the most distinguished voices on the instrument. After the 60’s Walt quit playing and recording standard tunes. From 1976, beginning with his album “Tell Us Only the Beautiful Things”, to the end of his life his music is very personal, open and distinct. During this latter period his music unfolds and flows organically, taking the listener on sensitive and intimate musical journeys.
Mike: I’m curious what you’re up to now in terms of performing and recording your music? I haven’t seen any new recordings in quite a while.
Walt: Well, recordings in America have not come my way for whatever reason. And I really haven’t been looking either. I don’t even know what’s going on in the States as far as recording opportunities are concerned, because I haven’t been pursuing them. I’ve been fortunate to have made friends the past decade, particularly in the Mediterranean area. So I’ve been back and forth quite a bit to that part of the world. And that has been very positive for me, monetarily, musically, and friendship-wise.
Mike: Have you been performing live there?
Walt: Yes, and mostly solo. I’m enjoying the solo circuit.
Mike: Pardon me for referring to recordings, but that’s my only reference to your music. The only solo recording that I’m familiar with is the “Shades of love” album on the Steeplechase label. Is that reflective of what you’re doing musically right now?
Walt: Actually I’ve moved into a different thing all together now. And it’s difficult to describe because I feel that the progress is of another dimension. First of all, my music has always been considered spiritual and even more so as time has passed. Realizing where it comes from and giving the glory to the source allows me growth in the music sphere over and above the academics of the music. I’m fortunate, as I have been able to view the overall situation, I’ve met a lot of great people and have remained married and close to my wife for many years. She is my most beautiful and diligent fan. I feel fortunate in that respect as well, especially when I look around and see the situation of my fellow artists. I’ve been blessed and I give credit to the creator for this. Also my music now is in the realm of dealing with aspects of understanding and accepting spiritual life forces. It’s opened up a sphere of musical possibilities whereby my musical improvisational projections come from another dimension. I’ve been delving into that area for the past ten years now. Which has brought me to a point of constant elation as far as my music is concerned.
In the past decade several vibraphonists have said how they have pinched ideas from my musical projections. This also gives me joy because passing music along and connecting is what it is all about.
Mike: Who are some of your musical influences?
Walt: Those that influenced me the most are the honorable Mr. Art Tatum, the noble Mr. Charlie Parker, and the majestic Mr. John Coltrane. I speak of them in awe as they all nurtured me from the beginning.
Mike: Did you interact with Coltrane in Philadelphia when you were younger?
Walt: Yes, I did. As a matter of fact we were in the Jimmy Heath Big Band together in the Philadelphia area.
Mike: How did your first recording, “This is Walt Dickerson,” come about?
Walt: That came about because of phone calls that were made by John Coltrane and Philly Joe Jones. Their recommendations opened the door for me to record for the Prestige label.
Mike: While you’re talking about some other musicians, I’m interested to ask if you would offer some comments in regards to your personal connection with Sun Ra. I know that you recorded the duet record “Visions” in 1976 and also the “Impressions of a Patch of Blue” album with him, recorded in the mid 60’s.
Walt: Our relationship was a beautiful one. I found Sonny to be an interesting and beautiful person. He accepted musical ideas from me that I didn’t feel that he was open to from others. And I’m glad our relationship was such that he did accept ideas from me and that’s why we had the type of relationship that we did. There was a real give and take there between us.
Mike: I think that your duet recording with Sun Ra,“Visions” is really beautiful and unique. I listen to it frequently.
Walt: That’s beautiful, Mike. We did a lot of improvising on that recording and we had taken a journey prior to it. A lot happens prior to a recording. It’s what I call stage-setting an atmosphere. And it has a lot to do with meditation and getting in touch with each other as far as the spiritual realm is concerned. That kind of thing preceded the recording, which took it to another level. I love Sonny’s creative projections on that album.
Sonny wanted to go to Scandinavia, at the time too, but things didn’t work out along those lines. We tried but they didn’t happen for him. I think that’s the only area that he didn’t make it to.
Mike: Actually, about 5 or 6 years ago I saw the Arkestra play in Stockholm at the Museum of Modern Art. I don’t know if that was the only time he’d been there?
Walt: At the time that we did the first album, he wanted to go to Sweden. I let people there know of his desire but I guess it was late in coming. I guess it happened many years after that when he made a brief appearance. Perhaps it was the concert that you caught?
Mike: Do you keep up or are you concerned much with reissues of your recordings?
Walt: You know, Mike, it doesn’t concern me very much. I’m aware of them and people might be surprised at how many have been reissued in Latin America. All the Prestige recordings are available there as well as the one I did for Audio Fidelity. But the beautiful aspect of it for me is that in Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Poland, many of my works have been adapted for ballet. I have recently received these reports from the different ballets in these countries.
Actually, everything that’s transpired is interesting to me. Through the years some individuals have expected me to be angry about the fact that I have had limited recording and playing opportunities. I understand what they’re talking about. But you see, I’ve done a lot of introspection and become aware of things on a higher level, and I realize that I have no room for anger because it’s self-defeating. I try not to focus much on the death cycle and but I remain interested in the creative side of things, or in other words, the life cycle. I stay focused and try not to look down on negative situations that have transpired through the years. I see a totality of life and music. My life is not separate from my creations. The writers in other countries often ask me about the American scene and why it is that I’m not a household name. They feel that I should be because of the innovative approach that I have on my instrument. And they think that I should be angry because I’ve been largely ignored in America. But I have no need for anger because I’ve been very fortunate overall. And this seems to confuse them, but I think they’re viewing my life as one-dimensional and don’t consider other aspects of it.
Mike: In other words you’re being viewed primarily in terms of sales and recognition?
Walt: That’s correct. And these aspects to music and life aren’t of great importance to me. When others try to grasp my perspective the discussion often gets directed to aspects of fulfillment of the soul. But this discussion also seems limited and one dimensional to me, because in breaking it down, I see personal will and emotions as important components of the soul. Not in the context, as viewed by many, as say “soul” music. But an understanding that will and emotion are ingredients of the soul. When that dimension of music is full or complete it is deeply satisfactory.
Mike: Have you been almost exclusively playing solo for the last ten years?
Walt: Yes almost exclusively, but recently I took a trio gig at the Vanguard in N.Y. Andrew Cyrille was on drums and Doug Gersher (?) was on bass. I asked Andy Mckee but he wasn’t available. I love his playing.
Mike: Recently in Cadence jazz magazine, there was an interview with Andrew Cyrille and he talked about the type of mallets that you use and mentioned that you play at a quieter volume level and are also concerned with sound itself. So I wonder if you would mind discussing the idea of sound.
Walt: Sound is so important, and it’s difficult for me discuss sound and omit execution too. The two are the same, if you understand what I’m saying. Each is an integral part of the other. My approach has always been to be physically close to the instrument, very close. This is different than the approach that is taught on the instrument. I was unable to play intricate things on the instrument with the commonly taught approach. The music that the creator sends me is not of a cosmetic nature; it seems to come as streams of intricate passages of flowing imagery. This means that I can’t use the common approach to the instrument in order to perform these passages. So I’ve modified a complete personal style or technique so I can play the music I receive. So, in adapting my personal approach to playing my instrument my sound has adapted as well. Both are a part of the projection.
Mike: Was this a slow process or is this something that you came to more quickly?
Walt: The revelation came in a short span of time. But to effectively work it out took a long period of time. I had to work quite hard at it.
Mike: Francois Rabbath, a bassist that I like, mentioned that it’s one thing to be a good musician, but it’s another thing to project a vision of what you’re playing. I get this sense from your music. Can you comment on this idea?
Walt: I’ll tell you Mike, you being a fellow artist, and I’ve discussed this with very few other artists. First of all, when I listen to other artists and I sense a similarity or this kind of spiritual connection, I also look to see if there’s an excursion. An aspect of playing music that comes by way of another level in the music. These are often the kinds of things that get called magical. For me it is an important dimension of music. I’ve had experiences and it happens more frequently now whereby I view myself, I actually see myself performing. What some people call an out of body experience. And most of the time I enjoy observing what’s coming through and I can stay in that state for, I’d say, as long as five minutes. My wife and I have developed a way to measure the length of time that these states sustain in performance. I see me and can watch part of my performance as a spectator.
Mike: That’s pretty wild; I can honestly say I have had some overwhelming moments playing music but nothing ever like that.
Walt: If you stay open Mike, I believe that it will come, because it does happen. I bear witness to that. And I give the glory to God. And this speaks to our earlier discussion on personal musical and life fulfillment. This is also why I don’t like to greet audiences right away after playing because I’m in such a state of elation and giving praise to God for the experience, do you follow me? I need that down time because I realize it isn’t me that keeps this flow going. I find that it also intensifies for me by giving recognition to it. You have to keep very open and when you do, you receive more. It’s difficult because people want to talk with you after performances, and I don’t like to be misunderstood because I appreciate the audience as well. It’s beautiful to talk about these heavy things. Oh, so beautiful (gently laughing). Thank you.
Mike: With what you’ve just said, do you think the standard concert performance setting is a good or natural setting for you to perform your music in?
Walt: What I’m doing is not in the natural realm. What this is about is in the supernatural realm. And that’s a different perspective, Mike. I’d describe it as a projection from the supernatural realm. In America in particular the public or audience lacks a lot of musical knowledge. They suffer from lack of knowledge and this restricts opportunities for me to play my music and similar styles that others play. Music is a good barometer for the overall intelligence of people. Because if the audience is intelligent they are sensitive to music as a high art form and open to multiple possibilities.
Mike: Do you work with any set musical forms or concepts in your current approach?
Walt: To start with my concept is not let’s get together and play music, but let’s make music. There’s a difference. You go where your spirit takes you, where your ear takes you. If we’re playing a duet, ok, you play a motif, or a line. Be my guest. Play a line. I’m with you. You play your line. I’m with you. I’ll superimpose upon that. That’s what it is — superimposition. And through close listening and our abilities we’ll create a composition together. We creatively enter the infinite unending flow together.
This approach to creating music with people seems to happen only with people that have a need to play this way. And that is pure uninhibited music and development. Most players can’t get away from their concepts and get caught up in webs of musical rules—- don’t do this, watch those overtones, be careful, oh don’t do that. That’s a dominant, you can’t put that there. Oh why did you raise that four—– Gee whiz, when people play like this, genuine beauty simply gets omitted!
Mike: You play a tempered tuned musical instrument. Do you feel any restrictions in what we’re talking about? It seems like you need a contemporary Harry Partch type of individual to build you an instrument.
Walt: I have asked a couple of the individuals that make the instruments to make a set of vibes in only one or two octaves, and to break it down it down into quarter tones. So you would augment the instrument so the instrument would be twice the size. But, it would only be one or two octaves. And of course they looked at me like I was a bit crazy and said we’ll get back to you. But of course they never got back to me.
You have the ability on your string bass to do that, you see. But I’m inhibited from that because of the make-up of my instrument. Whereby, if the instrument was built with an expanded quarter tone scale, the other sounds that I hear could be projected better.
Mike: Because of your touch on the instrument and your awareness and sensitivity to sound, I hear those quarter tone things happening, in a sense; do you know what I’m saying?
Walt: Yes, I know what you’re saying. And sometimes I try by way of a trill to get the in between. But that’s been as close as I’ve been able to do that kind of thing.
Mike: You recorded and played with Wilbur Ware some. He’s such an iconic bassist I wonder if you mind commenting on him.
Walt: Wilbur was a very natural player and his playing moved me deeply. But he was not in the other realm. And I specifically call that realm the supernatural, yes. But, he was a beautiful natural player, yes. I also love Richard Davis, Sirone and Andy Mckee. They are great explorers of the bass as well. And all play from the heart.
Mike: Did you start out playing a different instrument other than the vibes?
Walt: Oh yes, yes, I ran through about four instruments. As a matter of fact I was taking drum lessons at this particular studio that I would go to. There was a set of xylophones there and I used to play around on them prior to taking my drum lessons. And then I got myself into xylophone and then there was a set of vibes down at the other end of the studio and I found myself going from one to another and then I said oh wait a moment now, I think I’d like to switch instruments. I came home to my mom and she said well if that’s what you want to do, if that’s the instrument that you really like and you want to explore that instrument, then fine, you can play them. My mom was always perceptive concerning my desires and everything else in life. As a matter of fact, she encouraged me to explore all areas of study because I was inquisitive intellectually as well. And that was sometimes annoying to my father because I was a bit too inquisitive for him. So she encouraged me along those lines and of course my pop, he eventually got me the set of vibes and that’s how the love affair began. Yes, beautiful.
Mike: Andrew Cyrille was on your first record and you still play with him can you talk about him?
Walt: Andrew I met in New York, I call him the mad Haitian. He’s a beautiful young man. That’s why we were together so long. Andrew is a very open supernatural player as well. He can play anyway the music goes. Yes, he’s fantastic. He’s definitely in there. I love making music with him.
Mike: Thank you, it’s been nice visiting with you and getting thoughtful and insightful information about you and your music. Would you like to add any comments?
Walt: Only that I’d like to thank you for being willing to discuss music in open and honest terms. It’s been a pleasure Mike.
Mike Johnston is a bassist and founding member of the Northwoods Improvisers jazz ensemble. He currently teaches music courses at Delta college and Mid Michigan Community College. He hosts a Jazz program on CMU Public Radio based in central lower Michigan called Destination Out Sunday evenings at 11 PM.