from the January 28, 2008 Bennington Banner:
From Taps to jazzWorld War II veteran found his calling in the world of musicThey Served is an occassional Banner series that will profile local veterans who served during wartime.
NORTH BENNINGTON — Bill Dixon always knew that racism existed, but it never truly hit home until 1943 — when he put on an U.S. Army uniform. The New York native was 18 when he enlisted and served in World War II.
"I enlisted because I didn't want to be drafted," said Dixon on Wednesday at his North Bennington home. "It wasn't a pleasant experience. World War II was fought with a segregated army."
Dixon said that joining the army was a growing experience. The first day he went to Ford Devens, in Ayer, Mass., he placed his belongings on his bunk and took a shower. When he returned, all his money was gone.
"I came out, everybody knew who took my money and nobody said a word to me. I caught on and said, 'OK, that is the way it is, you have to watch out for that kind of stuff.' I didn't complain. I didn't say a word," said Dixon.
Dixon then traveled first class on a train to Fort Breckenridge in Louisville, Ky. But halfway there, he was stripped of his first class ticket and forced to sit next to the train engine.
"I knew these things happened but they never happened to me and I'm in uniform," said Dixon. "Camp Breckenridge — the military integrated shortly after I came out of the service — had a white section and a black section and black troops could not go in the white section."
Dixon said that there was a prisoner of war camp there and the prisoners could go places on the base that the black troops could not. Prisoners even ate better food than the black troops, he said.
Most of the other black troops served as truck drivers or collected dead bodies. Dixon, however, learned how to type and became a quartermaster, in charge of supplies.
Dixon spent time in a staging area where replacement troops were stationed near England.
"The sound of all those guns going off, as a constant, I said, 'I'm not going to be able to do it,'" said Dixon. "There was this constant rumble of guns going off. At night, the sky was always lighting up."
He then was aboard a ship on his way to Japan when the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Once that news reached the ship, the troops were brought back to America, off the coast of Virginia, said Dixon.
"The war just ended. We're marching off the ships and here came the usual: you're black and an American. I went into the PX to buy a new uniform to go home. I wanted to look good for my family. I stood in the wrong line and I was told that wasn't the line the blacks stood in. It wasn't 'black' — it was the favorite word people use."
"When the war was over and we came back, then we start dealing with the social issues," said Dixon. "That's when your thinking begins to get formulated."
In 1946, when Dixon was 21, he was discharged from the service and returned to New York. He quickly got married and had three children by 1949. He used money from the G.I. Bill to study painting.
"The racism was just too much for me, so I left that," said Dixon. "I was sitting in Central Park. I was about 22 years old. I thought my life was completely over and I always wanted to study music."
He attended the Hartnett Conservatory of Music, where he studied the trumpet. He was helped along by the likes of jazz giants Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
"It was just absolutely wonderful," said Dixon. "Charlie Parker was not what people write about him. He was really good with beginning people."
Dixon said that he would work a variety of 9 to 5 jobs and then play music at night until he built up the confidence to make it his career.
"I studied music because I was interested in music. I never intended to become a musician to become a musician, but before you know it, you're in it," said Dixon. "Music is still a mystery to me. I don't totally understand it."
A former Bennington College faculty member, Dixon became known world-wide in musical circles for pioneering "free jazz," a style that dispensed with traditional structures, relying intensely on improvisation.
Over the course of his long career he has released over 30 records; four are to be issued this year.
"There were doors closed and you were not admitted. ... I've done all those things that I was not supposed to do and I am known today for a thing that has affected music very profoundly. There is a way that I do things that other people now follow," said Dixon.