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William Parker: Embracing The Unknown

Luke Seabright By

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"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."

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