Patricia Nicholson Parker: Everyone Has a Vision
“ All I have to do for the Vision Festival is keep on encouraging people to feel free to be their most creative and do their best work ”
Patricia Nicholson Parker has been an indefatigable organizing spirit in New York City's artistic community centered on the Lower East Side since 1981, when she directed and helped to organize "A Thousand Cranes Peace Opera," for the opening of the UN Special Sessions on Disarmament. After working with bassists Peter Kowald and William Parker to help organize the ground-breaking artist-run Sound Unity Festivals in 1984 and 1988, Nicholson Parker successfully initiated and coordinated the Improvisers Collective, which ran from 1993 till 1995. The success of the Collective suggested the idea for the now globally famous Vision Festival. In 1995 she founded Arts for Art, which has successfully presented twelve Vision Festivals, and latterly a dance/music series, the Vision Collaboration Festival and a weekly Vision Club series.
Now upcoming fast is Vision Festival 13, to be held from June 10 to 16, 2008 at the Clemente Soto Velez Center. Featuring 32 bands on the main stage over the six days, the Festival brings together the cream of New York City's avant jazz artists to commune with fans from across the USA and further afield. Each year the Vision Festival honors the lifetime achievement of a particular artist, with recent honorees including Fred Anderson, Sam Rivers and Bill Dixon. This year is the turn of New Orleans saxophonist and educator Edward "Kidd" Jordan, with the whole of the second evening featuring Jordan or groupings related to him. Being the Vision Festival it is not just about the music, and so a second stage will present photo projections, films, dance and music, and spoken word over the course of the Festival.
All About Jazz: Where does the name Vision Festival come from?
Patricia Nicholson Parker: It is called the Vision because everyone has a vision, and we need to take our visions seriously. The idea is to give birth to your own vision, and make it a reality in this world. The Mayans have this idea of a shaman, and what the shaman does is: he hunts down visions in the other world. And he kills them so they can be born into this world. So when you have a brilliant and beautiful idea you should try to make it happen. You should take it out of the world of dreams and you should bring it into the world of reality because we need them. The Vision Festival is not my vision. Each artist has done that, every artist at the Vision Festival has caught his or her vision, given birth to it and presented it to you, sharing it with you.
AAJ: This is Vision 13 upcomingdoes it get any easier to put on the festival over the years?
PNP: [laughs] Yes and no. You know what you are doing better as time goes on obviously, but if it's getting too easy that means that you're not doing a good job, because you have to reinvent it every year. It's important to keep it fresh. So in that sense, no. Also we up the ante every year, because if I was resting on my laurels, that's not me.
The ability to communicate to the world at large, through the media, varies from year to year, and it doesn't always get easier. We're having a real stuck issue in that regard because we are both a very large festival and we are grass roots. Because this is our thirteenth year the grass roots doesn't look interesting to people. We're not given the same credibility. We're compared in a kind of absurd way to the JVC Jazz Festival, although we have almost nothing in common with them, and then, we don't get the same treatment in the press at all. On top of this, we are doing so much. It is hard to communicate it all effectively.
There are other things happening that week in New York, but there won't be anything like the Vision Festival. The Vision Festival has four or five groups a night, all playing in this environment, which brings people together, within a visual art installation by Jo Wood Brown. And there's a wonderful photo exhibit, though it's more than that, almost like a film, that Luciano Rossetti did from last year's performances. There are all these different aspects. There are dancers and poets and panels. It's this coming together and this opportunity and there's nothing else like it. And I'm really proud of it.
In a sense the Vision Festival in the beginning was a response to a problem. The problem being that this whole genre of music was not being noticed. All these musicians were coming into their prime. They were at their best, David S. Ware, William Parker and so many others, who weren't getting any play. And so the Vision Festival addressed that issue, and I would say, very successfully, although too many in the press never got it.
The Vision Festival was very successful right from the beginning. It was evident that this music was indeed important to many people. Then the problem was that we had to keep the Vision Festival going year after year. Other problems became apparent as the simple awareness of this whole genre of music was being addressed. We still needed the Festival to keep a focus on this music. If we didn't there was no other infrastructure that would support it. There are organizations and infrastructures that support different genres of music and art through a whole range of things. It's partly funding, but it's also education, clubs, performance venues, radio, TV and all the things that go with it. So there wasn't that infrastructure for this music and there really still isn't.
Cooper-Moore and Patricia Nicholson Parker
But at this point, this year, we are trying to address this lack of infrastructure for avant-jazz and the innovative music and arts. Hence we have an ongoing series that isn't only the Vision Festival music. It includes it somewhat but it scope is broader. At the Festival we will have three panel discussions: one called New Orleans: Culture, Crisis, and Community, another one on Jazz Factions and a third on Community and the Arts. This panel reflects our new initiative, the Rise Up Creative Music and Arts (RUCMA). The ideas behind all three panels are interconnected.
The role that art plays in the healing of New Orleans: New Orleans is very visible to the world; what enormous problem it exemplifies, problems that afflict all our societies. That's what's compelling about it. It's not just a problem down in New Orleans. New Orleans brought up, for all of us, issues of culture and community and economics and racism, and the world's disregard for these things and how the needs of people of color, and the needs of the poor are not being handled effectively by our government. How do we function to overcome this and form a positive perspective? Here art is helping. Art helps transform us in real substantive ways. It is transforms neighborhoods and gives people hope. That's an example for everywhere. Not that it's not keenly important in New Orleans, but it's also keenly important in New York and anywhere else
Then we have Jazz Factions, and that relates to how in New York we need to be building bridges. That is an important aspect of what I'm trying to do. In the Festival itself this year it is not entirely traditional Vision music. We have James Spaulding, Donald Harrison, they're great musicians, and we have Connie Crothers, who bridges different worlds. So there is the music itself, and the music we present at the Vision Festival is close to my heart. I do, however, respect other artists who don't play my favorites. Each artist has a different emphasis and I think it is important to hear the diversity of ideas and aesthetics. But what is not good, at any time, is name calling or disrespecting people who are of different genres or aesthetics or different in any way.
AAJ: Was it a conscious decision to expand the range of music and bring in people who represent different factions this year?
PNP: Well, a little. We didn't do it that much this year. Actually that is part of the way the Festival has always been booked to tell you the truth. People accuse me of being completely in the pocket, but I don't know why they got on my case about that because that's no more true of me than anyone else. We try to be very conscious. We have criteria for booking and that has always been diversity. It's like you know who you are, you have a certain thing that you are representing. But it is important for the creativity of the music itself to keep your edges open. That's a concept that is invested in the way that Art for Arts functions.
Sometimes if you include someone's favorite they'll think you are being inclusive, but if you don't include their personal favorite, then they accuse you of being closed. You're not going to make everyone happy every year. That's not what our purpose is. The concept of diversity is absolutely embedded and it is really important to me. It is not just in terms of keeping the creativity alive and keeping the edges open, it's also about making our community healthier. It is counter productive that our community is split up into different factions. That is not helpful to any of us, any genre, any stream or aesthetic.
AAJ: Particularly a relatively marginalized genre like jazz in the first place. You don't want to divide, to subdivide.
PNP: And it is. But I think that the community of artists is ready to change this. We are now working on finding ways to come together and all sorts of people are very receptive. I believe that as we learn to work together effectively we can help to change the way innovative arts are supported.
The Vision Festival itself is this wonderful event that brings a lot of people together. The reason we have four groups on a night, that is not to make sure we have big audiences, it is to make sure that we include different people, so that we have interesting groupings so that we expose people to each other. So it is bringing everything together under one roof. That is why you have the visual art there. It is why you have the dance and the spoken word there. It was to bring it all and mix it up and create this whole experience which would really enliven our creativity.
This hasn't made the schedule yet but Sunday, the last day of the Vision Festival, at one in the afternoon we're going to have youth performances. They're from three schools. Two that some of the musicians have been volunteer teaching at, because it's so important we feel to reach out to young people. Two of those schools, then a third; is a group that comes from high schools all over the city, to play together. That's the most accomplished group. The other groups maybe don't have the same technical know how, but they are very creative and innovative in their music, so it will be interesting.
That's Sunday afternoon, the final day of the festival, and that evening, for the closing performance, there will be a youth choir working with William Parker's Curtis Mayfield project. It will be the first time this project performs in New York. The choir is a church youth choir from Brooklyn. There will be other youth participating as well. The youth component, it's part of out reaching to the community, to bring the kids in and have them be part of what we do, because they're our future.
AAJ: Have you found your audience has grown since the first festival?
PNP: Yes, and not as much as it should have. I am not interested in being content; it is not in my nature at all. And in New York there definitely seems to be a lid on it, and I'm trying to struggle with that lid and take it off. One of the things I want to do is, if I can get to this other level as an organization, is to have other Festivals during the year so I can focus on different aspects of things. So you don't try to have the Vision Festival do everything. People love it a certain way and it makes sense to me, keep it vital and flexible and changing, but it deals with certain things and you can have other festivals that deal with other things that really should deserve attention as well.
AAJ: Do you get support from the dance, spoken word or visual arts worlds for the work of the Festival?
PNP: It's like pulling teeth. [laughs]. What I would say is that in America- everyone wants to be a star. And dance, they're at the bottom of the barrel in terms of funding, they are always struggling. But what's happened as a result of what we do is that we have expanded the audience for the dance a little bit and some dance people have gotten into this music, and that's worked. The spoken word people, we must have done something, because we have strengthened ties to certain groups like the Gathering of the Tribes, run by Steve Cannon, and he presents music and he does what he can. So we have strong ties there and we have some ties with Bob Holman at the Bowery poetry club. We will have to find a way to turn these facts about how our connections with other organizations affect our outcomes into statistics. If I want the big funding. [laughs].
AAJ: The Vision Festival is moving to a new venue this year, at the Clemente Soto Velez Center. You've been at the Angel Orensanz Center for the last three years. What is reason behind the move?
PNP: Well basically it all breaks down to money. The Orensanz is beautiful. It is the most beautiful venue that we could have, but it's extremely expensive and with all that we are doing and never enough moneywe just can't afford it any more.
Where we're moving to now is very much a community space. We haven't done it yet, but I think it might really be a great answer because the space isn't beautiful of itself, but what we're doing is to give it to an artist to make an installation. I think that will be great to have the music in the midst of an art work. As well the sound should be better 'cause the ceilings are much less high.
There is a second space right next to it where people can hang out. It's one of the charms of the Vision Festival that it's built for that, being able to hang out and schmooze. I'm obsessed with the idea of community. I think in this world where we have so little power if we can find a community, build a sense of community, then with community we have power. We have power to do good. And that's what I want. If you want to change the world, you have to change the world that you live and work in. So that's why I have all these ideas of building community, dealing with factions, and treating your staff and audience with respect. All these things are to me extremely important and embedded in the whole idea of the Vision Festival and everything that I do.
AAJ: Am I right in thinking that you have an egalitarian way of paying all the musicians the same rate?
PNP: No, no. I never did that completely. This is what I did, though it was easier to do it in the beginning, but it gets harder and harder. But from the beginning, the Sound Unity Festival that was held [in 1984] paid each musician a set fee. You weren't paid by band. Each musician was paid a set fee and that was it across the board. No-one got paid anything different.
But I thought there was something unfair in that. One time I did this enormous piece at La Mama. I had one scene where I had fifteen extra people in it. The policy of paying was that everyone would get the same thing. That wasn't my policy, that was La Mama's and it was a piece I was doing in their festival. And the fifteen people who came in for one rehearsal got paid the same thing as the people who had been working their asses off every day to get this piece right.
What I try to do is, in the beginning, I pay the most famous people a little less than their normal rate, and the middle people maybe more, and the smallest people I paid them well. And there was a sort of evenness, but I always felt that I needed to respect where people were at in their career. Mostly by age actually. I have this thing about respecting your elders. Now what I'm really trying to do, and I can't really do it quite yet because I don't have enough money, is I would like to be able to pay people their going rate, the way they would get paid in Europe. And some people really hijack me for that and other people don't. And I try to resist that tendency 'cause there are people who are so aggressive and good at business, and I've always tried to resist that kinda stuff. If I can give so and so more money, then I'm gonna try and give other people more money too.
I'm in my transition phase in my growth as a presenting organization, where I'm having trouble keeping up with everything. Because in order for us to grow, I need to build my staff. My staff is still getting totally underpaid and after thirteen years it is ridiculous. I mean I didn't pay myself at all for the first few years. I never paid myself a living wage. Never. And I'm still not. I'm getting closer, but not really. Because I don't care about money, but I do care about treating people fairly and I need to create a sustainable model. My goal is to pay the artists well because they deserve it. I'm fighting for the importance of art and the rights of artists.
There are only two cliches about artists that I can think of that exist in America. One is "neurotic or crazy" and the other is "starving." [laughs]. These are not good clichés. There are no positive cliches. This is the way that art is treated and I do not want to support this concept of the starving artist. I think it is just sick. There is this funny thing, where the city of New York is building these spaces and they were offering to let people have the space on this empty pier to have a festival there. And they weren't going to pay them anything. I was joking with someone that maybe they can't afford to pay us, so maybe we should do a benefit for New York City [laughs].
And then there is this festival called "Music New York." They are not only not paying the artists, they are asking the artists to set up their own space and venue on the streets and the only thing they are doing is publicizing the day's event. And they are saying "this is your chance to be discovered." Typically they are asking that art supports everything and nobody wants to support the arts. And the thing is, the artists don't understand well enough that they are important, they are critical for the health of their communities at large. Here I'm getting off the subject of the Vision Festival 'cause I'm really into the politics.
AAJ: Following on from the subject of respecting people is the Lifetime achievement award, I guess you would call it, which has happened every year of late at the Vision Festival. This year New Orleans saxophonist Edward Kidd Jordan is going to be honored on June 11th. I've seen some criticism that there's no actual award or honor being presented to the recipient while they are there. Are there any plans to remedy this?
PNP: I know, the word award is weird and we should probably not have used it. But it isn't really true either. We didn't give an award at the event, but I did try to give them extra money, although I didn't do it formally at the Festival. I think the criticism is a little mean. I think it's valid though and I don't know, but maybe we will do something public this year. We are going to give Kidd Jordan, like we gave Bill Dixon and we gave Fred Anderson, we gave a bunch of people things after the Festival, we gave them a framed painting by Jeff Schlanger. So we are doing that as well as the extra money. I haven't been able to get grants for this so it has to come out of the whole, so it's not as much as I wish it could be. I do whatever I can. I do something to acknowledge their achievement and I find a way to make that work. I probably should do it publicly and I probably will say something this year and do something symbolic at the Festival itself.
AAJ: That will be good.
PNP: You know, you get these awards, and you get a piece of plastic. What I do, the acknowledgement has been to really focus on what that person's achievements have been. I've got to say that I'm so happy that Scott [Menhinick, publicist] put this bio together for Kidd Jordan. I'm so pleased with it. There really didn't exist a good bio of Kidd Jordan anywhere. Scott put this together and it really does give you a sense of how much Kidd Jordan has done and how important he is.
AAJ: You have a new group appearing this year, following appearances from your PaNic group in previous yearsthe Celestial Moon Beams funk group. How did that come about?
PNP: This is fun. It has the same concept as RUCMA, the community initiative. I think it is actually the group that people like the most, because it's an avant jazz funk band. I wrote the music and the words and the words carry the idea. I don't sing in it. I have different parts of my personality and this is my funk soul. I can't sing like that, so Sabir (Mateen) is great and Flip (Lewis Barnes) is great. I wish in a way that I had Cooper-Moore in it, 'cause he was in one of the performances. This band has performed a few times, with the musicians singing and the dance and capoeira. It just goes with the music.
AAJ: You received "Producer of the Year" award from the Jazz Journalists Association in 2003, were nominated in 2005, won again in 2007, and have been nominated again this yearwhat does this recognition mean to you?
PNP: I'm thankful for what support I get. It's a little ironic to me I have to say, because they don't award the artists that I present. How can they award me and not award the artists? I don't get it. I'm embarrassed by it. But of course I appreciate it. It's fun to receive an award.
AAJ: I noticed that some of the Vision type artists have been nominated this year.
PNP: They usually mention a couple of people, but they never win. I don't know what to say. I'm trying to learn to hold my tongue.
AAJ: Last year you were able to commission pieces to be premiered at the Festival from Roy Campbell, Bill Dixon and William Parker, and then subsequently released on CD. Do you see any prospect of sustained support to allow this initiative to continue?
PNP: I don't know. That particular grant doesn't exist this year. And another source of funding for commissioning has also come to an end. So it won't be easy. Also that grant that funded those three commissions included releasing the CDs. And with all the things I do, releasing CDs is too much work. I didn't realize quite how much work. I thought it was going to be more straightforward and would be out of my hair most of the time, but it was way too much in my hair. The performances were fantastic. I was so thrilled with the performances of those pieces, and proud. They were so great, and I thought that they were so special and I'm really happy they've been recorded. But then you want the recording to be right and there were little problems with this and that to get the sound right 'cause there were glitches. So we had to do a lot of post production stuff.
William's piece was even recorded twice during the Festival 'cause that was the opening night and we had all sorts of sound problems. So Steven Joerg suggested that we should do it and I said OK let's do it. I'm a can do person. If something should be done then let's do it. Let's not worry about the fact that it's a gigantic pain in the ass and let's just do it. But because you're just putting together a second recording at the last minute that's not perfect either. But it was good and between the two, the recordings are going to be great.
AAJ: I love the Roy Campbell release which I've heard.
PNP: I was so pleased with it and proud to be able to release it. I am pretty excited about the Bill Dixon and William Parker CDs as well. But you will hear it for yourself soon enough.
AAJ: You're hugely committed to the Vision Festival, to the music, and to the artistic community and its future. If it's not too bad a time to ask with the next Vision Festival coming up fast, what are your future plans for the Festival and yourself?
PNP: I want a secure home. That's what I care about. A secure home for the Vision Festival and the ongoing series of events. A secure home not just for avant-garde or avant jazz or whatever you want to call it, not just for Vision music, but for all the innovative musics . I want there to be a secure home. All I have to do for the Vision Festival is keep on encouraging people to feel free to be their most creative and do their best work.
First Two Photos: Peter Gannushkin / DOWNTOWNMUSIC.NET, courtesy of Patricia Nicholson Parker and Vision Festival
Third Photo: Courtesy of Darcy James Argue's Secret Society
Fourth Photo: Helene Collon