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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.

"People often ask me 'you studied with Richard Davis, Jimmy Garrison and Wilbur Ware and all these people, what they teach you?' and I say 'well, I don't know if I learned anything other than that I need to be myself.' That's the greatest lesson. When I was studying with Wilbur Ware, every time I played something like him he said 'no, that's wrong,' but every time I played like myself he said 'yeah, that's right.' Today they've made an institution out of how to teach music, so they have to have a right and a wrong way to play. Musicians struggle and need to teach to make money. There's no political pressure to support the arts, so you're teaching so you can live. It's great if the teachers are enlightening students, but that's not always the case. It's not so much about whether the student is going to be a great musician. What's important is that every student find themselves. If you want to learn music, you can go home and get a trumpet and teach yourself. I can't teach you how to be a great trumpet player. People keep saying 'I sound bad.' Well, you sounding band, that's the embryo of your individuality. You have to see where it goes. And who says it's bad? You investigate, and the teacher is there to guide you through the maze, and get you to be comfortable with being yourself. Today, the minute you're born you're told "buy this makeup," if you're a woman, so you can look beautiful, at 3, 5 years old, buy this, you have to look like Barbie, you have to look like this person, like what's on TV. And they never say that what's on TV should look like you. It always pushes you to be something outside yourself, and never empowers you to be yourself. But you look fine the way you are, and cool the way you are. Obviously, certain people just have a drive to follow their path. Like Albert Ayler, like John Coltrane. He would finish a set of music, take a 15-minute break and he was practising. That was his personality. Eric Dolphy was also a practicer. You have to go where your personality lies. Once you find out that it's okay to be yourself, you can blossom rather quickly. Don't doubt yourself. Just keep playing and then one day it'll all come together. For some people it comes together when they're 7 years old. They know what they want to do, and there's a brightness in that little kid. They might not blossom until they're 19 or 20, but you can see it there. And you also realise that all kids are bright, and you wonder, what happens between them as a kid and them as an adult? The buffers come in, the people who lower our consciousness. University, parents, religion, school teachers. All these things, they're like fire. Fire can warm your house and keep you safe, or fire can burn your house down. All these things are beautiful but they can backfire. The wrong words, the wrong nurturing. Running into the wrong people, not getting the right advice.'

The right words, the right nurturing, the right people with the right advice, Parker is aware that he was lucky to receive them. In the early '70s he was already playing with some of the leading figures of the avant-garde such as Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell, Bill Dixon and Sunny Murray. In 1980 he become a member of Cecil Taylor's band. He recognises the strong influence that these artists, and the intellectual milieu surrounding them, have had on him.

"I was very lucky, I always ran into the right people, always heard the right things. You know, you get up and James Baldwin is speaking, he's taking about how difficult it is being James Baldwin and you think "oh wow, it's difficult for him?" and he says "yeah, but it's all I could be, James Baldwin." You begin to hear about Thomas Merton, Kenneth Patchen, Stan Brakhage, Langston Hughes, Julius Lester, Amiri Baraka, and then you learn about the Modern Jazz Quartet and Duke Ellington, Bill Dixon, Milford Graves and Cecil Taylor. I'm standing on the corner and I run into Don Cherry, he says "come play with me at the Five Spot," I says okay! This was 1975. I played with Don Cherry for a week at the Five Spot. He didn't even know I was a bassist but we talked and walked all the way up to the Chelsea Hotel, we ate, we were talking about the Dalai Lama, about peace, about inspiration. As soon as I saw him, we just connected. I was very very lucky. And I still feel that everybody I meet is inspirational, in some kind of way. We need to feed each other, and that's what we do, by being, by talking, by communicating, by playing, by listening. It clicks sometimes the first time you play with someone. The first time I played with Cecil Taylor, I clicked with him. Bill Dixon, Milford Graves. We clicked right away. First time I played with Matthew Shipp, I clicked with him."

Pianist Mathew Shipp has been a frequent collaborator of Parker's and they've recorded over 15 albums together. It's a partnership that's lasted over 25 years, an example of the kind of strong musical connection he has fostered over the years with many artists, and which he interprets through the lens of shared musical philosophies and an idea of universal tonality.

"When we play, it really works. There's a lot of things happening in music. There's space, there's time, there's movement, there's all kind of energies. There are a lot of things that can vibrate to turn sound into tone. And that's what we try to do. Daniel Carter does it one way, Roy Campbell did it another way, Billy Bang, Milford Graves, Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon all did it another way. The other idea is Universal Tonality, which came to me in the nineties. I was doing a concert with a trombone player, Steve Turre (he was bringing his shells), and it was organised by this drummer called Harold E. Smith. There were a lot of didgeridoo players, from all over. Harold had got injured in a car accident and couldn't really play his left foot on the drum so he took up didgeridoo. He also had some Cherokee Indian dancers. Nobody said you play this, you do this, you do that. It just happened. A vision came to me after that, that if you took a master musician from every country and you put them in a room together and said on the count of three we're going to play, you'll be able to play with them. And there'll be music. The idea of universal tonality is that you can bring musicians from all over the world and not have them sacrifice anything they do, not have to tell them what to do, not have to talk about it, you just do it. That gave me hint of something, a tonality, that's universal. We all laugh in the same language, we all cry in the same language. You can take someone from Japan, from Russia, from Australia, they'll all laugh in the same way. And that's what music is, a universal language. All these things help you connect, but it just happens beyond our control sometimes. We don't know why they connect. You're playing with opposites. But it works. Joe McPhee for example. Why does his music work all the time, in lots of different situations? He doesn't alter what he does. Everybody is going all over the place and he'll just come out and play his thing. And that's what every good player does, he comes out and he does his thing. I was studying bass with Jimmy Garrison years ago. Every recording I ever heard of Jimmy Garrison you think 'Oh yeah that's Jimmy Garrison.' He didn't alter too much from what he was doing. There weren't ten Jimmy Garrisons. It's your musical DNA. All these things help bring people together. Now does it mean that people can't mesh? Yes, people who have different philosophies about music. So sometimes you make sacrifices. This guy wants to play bebop, this guy wants to play changes, because every time you go off the changes they look at you and say, 'I need those changes to play.' You have a choice, whether to say 'Okay, get someone else to play these changes' or keep playing and maybe he'll figure that you he doesn't need them. You can keep playing with this person or move on to someone else. The right person for him, the right glove for the right hand will come eventually, and this person will find the right player for them that will make his universe light up."

So what are the next steps?

"I'm doing a residency at the Stone in June and I'm doing a piece with trombones, dedicated to the late trombone player Johannes Bauer. I'm also doing a piece that I haven't completely settled yet, it might be an ensemble of skakuhachis [Japanese flutes]. I also have a record coming out, of aquasonic music. It's music played on an instrument called the waterphone. I wrote music for that, it'll come out in the spring. I'll be called 'Lake of Light.' It's four people playing waterphones. It's the first time I've done something like this. I've played the instrument for about ten years though. We're doing a concert at the Stone with maybe 20 aquasonics. Little Huey Creative Orchestra will also resurface soon. Little Huey is always ready. We're playing in the spring."

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