William Parker: Deep Roots
“ Youth have this great source of energy, but they don't know how to use it. Music or art can be a transformer for that energy. ”
William Parker's East Village apartment is abuzz with activity on what would seem to be a typical November afternoon in the hive of New York free jazz. Cell phones and laptops are whirring, Parker making arrangements for an upcoming tour as his wife, the dancer and tireless organizer Patricia Nicholson, sets details for an upcoming fundraiser in her efforts to find a permanent home and performing space for Art for Arts and RUCMA, the sibling organizations that put on the annual Vision Festival as well as year-round concerts. Meanwhile, son Isiahwho has been performing with his father and plays in several bands on his ownis meeting with friends in the back bedroom. The exposed brick walls are a scrapbook for Parker's travels, covered in musical instruments and exotic hats from around the world. Instrument cases and a baby grand piano occupy much of the front room. A set of wooden shelves strains in agony under the weight of LPs, four box sets of Mozart crowning the collection.
Add to the living family portrait their daughter, dancer Miriam Parker, and Nicholson's nephew, bassist Todd Nicholson, and the apartment they've shared for more than two decades is a nexus for the survival of free jazz in the city. It's their home, of course, but also a symbol of Parker's philosophy: the internationally known bassist has deep roots in and a deep commitment to the neighborhood and to the energetic form of free jazz he generally refers to simply as "the music." He is very much the music's hometown hero.
It was in this neighborhoodat least if stretched a few blockswhere Parker started hanging out on his daily trips down from the Bronx in the early '70s. Riding the Manhattan-bound X55 bus south was how he first met percussionist Gunter Hampel and singer Jeanne Lee. Making the rounds downtown, he soon met Clifford Jordan and Wilbur Ware. Daniel Carter took him to Studio We and Jemeel Moondoc invited him to Sam Rivers' Studio Rivbea. It's a point in time that clearly means a lot to him. He can talk at length about those days, reciting lineups for every band he saw or played in some 35 years ago (a glint in his eye will notify the listener that a deep truth or clever turn of phraseor one embedded in the otheris a few seconds away). It was also at one of those Rivbea shows, in 1973, that he first met Nicholson.
"Everything was kind of coming together and moving very fast," he recalled. "It was like this living music school, a training ground that was put before you. On a good day, I could meet tons of musicians and interact with them. It was a very inspirational period."
Days would be spent in rehearsal studios, after which they would retire to Rivbea. Late nights were dedicated to long sessions with the Music Ensemble (with Carter, Billy Bang and others) which would convene at the Waverly Theater (now the IFC) where they would play until the early hours, some reading or simply listening until struck with their moment to jump in.
"That group was playing something I called 'daily music,'" Parker said. "We were waiting for the music to tell us to start playing and we would sometimes play three, four, five hours. It was like living theatereverything was part of the show. It's actually a wonderful thing to be concerned with the music and not business. It you're surviving, nobody can say 'What are you doing?'"
It was a period that culminated with a little funding and a rare bit of acknowledgment. Grants and public school teaching jobs were available. President Jimmy Carter invited Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and Cecil Taylor to play at the White House. And the "loft scene" was written into history with the release of the essential Wildflowers sessions. Art funding cutbacks and rising real estate costs, however, changed all of that during the Reagan '80s. What Parker refers to as the "capitalist movement" of the time was mirrored in the music as well, with musicians working to "fit into America by giving the illusion that you were able to make money."
It was also in those halcyon pre-Reagan days that Parker first encountered saxophonist Charles Gayle. They first met at the E-Stop Cultural Center in Brooklyn in 1978, but didn't cross paths again until 1984. They would eventually form a group with drummer Rashied Ali called By Any Means, one of the strongest downtown jazz groups of the '90s.
The trio came together in 1990 at the FMP festival in Germany and was a mainstay at such clubs as The Cooler and the Knitting Factory back when the music was readily found between Houston and 14th streets. After a hiatus of a decade or so, By Any Means is back. They have recently been playing again in Europe, a reunion marked on the powerful new double CD Live at Crescendo, recorded in Sweden in October 2007 and released on Ayler Records. Their previous record, 1991's Touchin' on Trane (FMP), has just been reissued by Jazzwerkstatt. And an appearance at two local festivals this month will mark their triumphant return to the New York stage.
"All these lives intersect and bounce off each other," Parker said, perhaps, particularly reflective on this day after Thanksgiving. "It's been quite wonderful. There's a lot to be thankful for. I haven't met anyone I wasn't supposed to meet."
Parker is humble when asked about his role in keeping the music vital in New York, but he is clearly thinking about the future of the music and how younger musicians will find the opportunities he had at their age and building projects around creating those opportunities. He closed last year's Vision Festival with his ongoing project The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield, performed with a youth choir from Brooklyn and his Olmec group (as heard on the AUM Fidelity CD Long Hidden) includes his son's percussion- heavy band Southern Satellites.
Isiah, 23, plays keyboards, guitar and bass, drawing inspiration not just from his family life but the largely Latin surroundings of his neighborhood, the round-the-clock drum circles in nearby Tompkins Square and the largely Dominican school he attended, where he met many of his future bandmates.
"Nobody said 'be a musician,'" Parker said. "They're picking up something in the air or through coming to the house. They're being rained on with possibility. Maybe his friends are being rained on with the same sort of possibility I had. Youth have this great source of energy, but they don't know how to use it. Music or art can be a transformer for that energy."
Parker acknowledges, however, that times have changed and exploring the music around the clock might be a thing of the past. But the inspiration to create, he said, lives on.
"It seems harder now because of the economics and the dumbing down of the whole society," he said. "30 years ago there were more people who were aware of things. You could just go to Columbia Records and get a record date. Now you can't get past the guard. It seems harder, but what has not changed is sunlight, mountains, rivers, trees. These are the foundations. And they'll have help. They'll run into someone somewhere who will say 'Oh, why don't you try this?'"
And with a little guidance and a little good fortune, they go on to set their own path, through which the music will survive.
"There are rulesyou can't put seeds in sand and expect something to come up," Parker said. "But that's the wonderful thing about musicanything can work."
William Parker, Through Acceptance of the Mystery Peace (Centering-Eremite, 1974-1979)
William Parker/In Order To Survive, The Peach Orchard (AUM Fidelity, 1997-98)
William Parker & The Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, Mass For the Healing of the World (Black Saint, 1998)
William Parker/Hamid Drake, First Communion + Piercing the Veil (AUM Fidelity, 2000)
William Parker/Joe Morris/ Hamid Drake, Eloping with the Sun (Riti, 2001)
William Parker, Corn Meal Dance (AUM Fidelity, 2007)