William Parker: Deep Roots

Kurt Gottschalk By

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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 Isiah—who has been performing with his father and plays in several bands on his own—is 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 neighborhood—at least if stretched a few blocks—where 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 phrase—or one embedded in the other—is 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 theater—everything 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.


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