Atlanta native Rob Dixon's home has been Indianapolis for a little over a decade, where he's been hard at work – during that time the saxophonist's name has become synonymous with the Indianapolis jazz scene. On Thursday. November 19, the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation will recognize Dixon's important contributions to Indy jazz by inducting Dixon into the Indianapolis Jazz Hall of Fame. Dixon will be inducted alongside fellow Indy jazz greats James Spaulding, Kenny Phelps and the late Erroll "Groundhog" Grandy. The festivities will be happening at the Jewel Arts & Events Center and you can go to IndyJazzFoundation.org to purchase tickets.
Listen to my full interview with Dixon and hear a preview from his forthcoming LP on the radio edition of Cultural Manifesto this Wednesday at 9 on 90.1 WFYI Public Radio.
NUVO: For a lot of musicians of your generation or younger, jazz took a backseat to other popular music styles like rock or hip-hop. As a young person, what attracted you to performing jazz music?
Rob Dixon: I think it was the complexity of the music. When you learn to play an instrument you look for music that excites you. I got in a phase where I really liked classical music. I liked Shostakovich and all the Russian composers. Then I heard jazz. I remember thinking "I can't play that or even begin to understand what they're doing." That inspired me to want to figure it out. Subsequently I found out I had to learn about music holistically: melodic structure, harmony, scales and chords. You have to learn everything if you want to be a good jazz musician.
NUVO: You originally came to Indiana from Atlanta to study jazz at IU with the great Indianapolis musician David Baker. In addition to his incredible career as a musician, Baker founded one of the first collegiate jazz studies programs in the U.S. and he's considered one of the most important jazz academics in the world. I'm curious what you took away from studying with Baker.
Dixon: Students come from all over the world to study with Baker. I felt like the program was tailor-made for me. He gave me starting blocks and said this is the way we formulate the jazz language. After a year in I had an epiphany and everything clicked. His tools helped me to move forward as a musician.
NUVO: When you moved to Indianapolis were you aware of the city's extraordinary jazz heritage?
Dixon: When I was at IU, I'd come up to listen to Frank Glover and Claude Sifferlen and I was blown away. I'd come hear Jimmy Coe and Pookie Johnson and I got to know about David Young. Through knowing them I came to learn about the history of the Avenue. I was definitely aware of the rich history of the music. A lot of musicians in other cities like New York would talk about musicians from Indianapolis.
NUVO: You just mentioned several legendary figures from Indianapolis jazz history. I'm curious if you feel the city does enough to pay homage to those musicians.
Dixon: I think a lot of people here don't realize the importance. It's funny that sometimes you don't see the history and treasures in your own backyard. J.J. Johnson was the definition of the trombone. Wes Montgomery was the definition of jazz guitar. Freddie Hubbard redefined the jazz trumpet. They were at the top of the genre worldwide and they were all from Indianapolis. I think it escapes people a lot of times.
Organizations like Indy Jazz Fest and the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation do work to get people aware of this legacy and great history. I always contend that we have as much right to brag about jazz as New Orleans does. There are so many great things that developed here in Indianapolis that are world renowned.
I remember I went to play in Russia a couple years back with Mike Clark, the drummer from The Headhunters. We were in Krasnodar and our host there shows up in this fleet of BMWs and he says "I'm the boss of jazz in Krasnodar. I want to play you my CD." He puts it in and it's a Wes Montgomery album. I was laughing and I told him, "That's a Wes Montgomery CD." He said, "But this is me." I thought that was beautiful that he actually saw himself in that music. From all the way around the world he identified so strongly with Wes Montgomery that he felt that the music embodied him.