William Parker: Embracing The Unknown

Luke Seabright By

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His is one of the most distinctive and respected voices on double bass today. William Parker, the tireless composer, multi-instrumentalist, educator and poet, is still today omnipresent on the contemporary free jazz scene. What's more, he has been consistently for the last four decades. The William Parker Sessionography: A Work in Progress by Rick Lopez clocks in at just below 500 pages, and, as the title suggests, it hasn't finished growing. In it are of course referenced his many acclaimed sessions as leader but also the wealth of collaborative efforts he has been involved in, with leading figures in experimental jazz from the US, such as David S. Ware and Bill Dixon, but also from Europe where he has developed strong ties with musicians such as Peter Brötzmann. All About Jazz got a chance to meet him at the close of 2017, the day before a concert with his quartet (Hamid Drake, Rob Brown, Cooper Moore) at the Théâtre Garonne in Toulouse, France for a special New Year's Eve event. A good time to reflect on the past year, its highlights and challenges.

''You try to stay focused on what you have to do. There's a lot of distractions, particularly with the politics of America. At the same time, you lend an ear to what's going on. Part of the year we've been going to a lot of marches and doing a lot of street protesting. I'll play gralla [traditional Catalan double reed instrument], other double reeds, bombarde. We've been doing that since November, since the election. That was good. In terms of collaborations, I recorded music for my vocal anthology that I'm putting out in June. I wrote music for Fay Victor, singer Raina Sokolov-Gonzalez, singer Bernardo Palombo from Argentina. That was interesting. But you know, everything, whether it's old, whether it's new, you always try to make it come to life. When things are alive, they're not old or new, they're just in the moment, and that's kind of what you're really trying to do. I play with a lot of different people and right now I'm not really interested so much in doing a piece with this person or that person because I haven't played with them. I'm sticking to the family, the people I've had a musical relationship with all these years, because it's hard to form a musical relationship with somebody. I've been playing as much as I can, talking to people, helping people out when I can, doing musician social work, writing, playing music. Protesting."

Musician social work. An apt description for many of the initiatives of a man noted for his generosity, his commitment to transmission, and to community-driven projects. He is one of the founding members of Arts for Art, which describes itself as a "multicultural, artist-initiated and artist-run organization whose purpose is to build awareness and understanding of avantjazz and related expressive movements." This desire to place the artist at the centre of the industry (one of the many respects in which we see his affinity to Charles Mingus) echoes back to his early days playing in the New York Loft Jazz scene, when avant-garde musicians would gather to improvise and record in converted loft spaces in lower Manhattan. That drive to continuously create, even in the face of adversity, and actively foster one's own creative environment, is still with him, albeit tinged with a certain pessimism.

"Society will always try to kill the artist. It will always try to step on the flowers, and try to put handcuffs on the flowers. That's a statement from a play by Fernando Arrabal. They'll always try to do that because the flowers make people think, dream, have visions, awake and protest. The people in power don't like that because they're afraid people will find out that a paper bag has been pulled over our eyes and we're being pushed towards an abyss. The reason people don't like art is because it's awakening. That's why in the music industry, you can't worry too much about acceptance. You have to focus and proceed to create your own industry. Arts for Art was not created by a musician. It was created by Patricia Nicholson who's a dancer. But it was created for the musicians, and they love it, they participate, they gain exposure, they're able to come over to Europe sometimes for these events. That was the whole thing with the Loft scene. If no one is hiring you, you create work for yourself. You create an environment for yourself to blossom and work in."

"I was sleeping one day and I had a dream that every musician, artist, has an assignment. Their assignment might be 'you're gonna reach thousands of people, you're gonna reach 40 people, 35, 100.' You don't know who those people are or when they're going to come to your concert and that's why every time you play you have to play like your life depended on it, like it's the last time you're going to play. That's why you exist. That's why the music exists. And there are those who really develop that. An artist might do 300 concerts a year, and one concert the band gets hot, and goes over the top. Then another artist the band is over the top for all 300 concerts. Because he wants to be over the top, he desires to enlighten people and seek enlightenment. It's not about style. It's about wanting to play one note and change the world. And you might think that if you get up every morning and play that note, no one is hearing it. But that's not true, someone is hearing it. It's going into the earth. Sound vibrations keep the earth balanced. What we do, whether we're famous, whether we play after work or in the market, when we're playing that beautiful long tone, we're helping to keep the world balanced. And that's what people have to remember. It's not about being a star. The only stars are in the sky. Forget about the Grammys, playing at the Village Vanguard and all that. It's nice if you can, but if you can't play at the Vanguard play in your living room, play in your kitchen, play that one note every day, keep practising, keep that vibration going because that vibration is keeping the world balanced, especially with all this craziness that's going on."

300 dates a year might not be that far off the mark when it comes to the famously prolific Parker's schedule. With a career spanning almost half a century, he's seen it all. But he retains today an uncanny ability to stay fresh, to renew himself and keep exploring. It stems partly from his trust in his own intuition, and a willingness to seek out what is yet unexplored.

"You need to remember that the music has a life of its own, that you're not creating the music, the music is coming through you. Open up, let it flow. And work on your instrument enough so as to not block it by saying 'I'm the musician, I want this to happen, that to happen.' You can say that in rehearsals but when the music kicks off it does have a life of its own. Part of it is not running away from the intuitiveness of it. So how do you learn the intuitive language of improvisation? In many ways it's already inside you, you have to shine the light on it. You can learn all the chords, all the patterns, all the modes, that's got nothing to do with improvisation. Improvisation is an intuitive language, it's got to do with what's inside the people you're playing with. If you're open to it, you can grab it, and ride with it. I don't really try to control. I don't know what's going to happen, I don't know where the music is going to go. I try to prepare, I might write a few little things for us to play off. But who knows, we might change our mind, that's possible too. You have to be comfortable with the unknown. Because the unknown is much wider than the known. It's a big big universe. And that's why it's never boring. Don't worry about being right, being wrong. Worry about being. Like Sun Ra said, the known has failed already. We already did that. We only have the unknown, and that's where perhaps you'll find a little thread of light. That's what you need to focus on, being comfortable in not knowing what you're doing while you're doing it. Some people have a different personality, they want to know 'we're gonna play this here, and that there,' because they think that will help them reach a state of enlightenment. But it doesn't, I don't think. Everything is in order, but you're not leaving room for the X factor to come in. It'll come in anyway, but you need to leave room for it and hold a light up in the window. When you start music, you're holding a light in the window. And usually the sound will come, and you just follow it wherever it leads you. You might stop but the music continues. It's like a river. You jump out, the river's still flowing."

These are ideas that Parker places at the heart of his work as an educator. He hosts music workshops all over the world and has taught at Bennington College, NYU and The New England Conservatory of Music among others. He is also the author of several books including Who Owns Music? and Conversations.' Being comfortable with the unknown and not worrying about being right or wrong. It might be easier said than done, but ultimately for Parker it boils down to teaching self-understanding and self-realization.
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