William Parker: Everything Is Valid

Eyal Hareuveni By

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William Parker is, no doubt, the most remarkable bassist in the post-Mingus era. A great musician who is gifted with an uncanny ability to make any artist near him—musician, dancer, painter or poet—perform better. Parker presents a musical vision that is full with compassion and commitment to his community at large.

William Parker began his European tour in the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival, performing with Roy Campbell Jr.'s Pyramid Trio. Parker and drummer Hamid Drake recorded a trio album in Tel Aviv with Israeli saxophonist Albert Beger, and Parker performed with his daughter, dancer Miriam, who resides in Tel Aviv. On his tour he will play in a trio with Matthew Shipp and drummer Gerald Cleaver, with his Violin Trio alongside Billy Bang and Sunny Murray, and in a duo with bassist Joëlle Léandre. The interview was conducted in Tel Aviv.

The Bass and Other Instruments

"I got the underlying idea of music from my father, who played constantly the music of Duke Ellington since I was five years old, and he had the idea that one day I would join the Ellington Orchestra. When I was eight years old I began playing the trumpet, and when I got to junior high school I played the cello, and it was there that I began to get the idea of the bass. And when I got to high school I began to really think seriously about the bass, but I didn't start the bass until I was out of high school. I guess that I made the decision that I wanted to play music and I can make contribution to what was called the New Thing, the avant-garde, the free jazz, around 1968, '69.

"I got an instrument and my first formal training was in the Jazz Mobil School of Music up in Harlem and they had a nice faculty there with Richard Davis and Artie Davis, who taught the bass. We played charts by Oliver Nelson, but I was so interested in the sounds of the Fire Music, improvised music of any kind, music that was uncharted, no paper. So I began to study privately with Jimmy Garrison and Wilbur Ware and I began playing, on-the-job training, learning about the music by playing with the musicians.

"The bass was just the beginning of everything else. I began to be interested in other instruments. I began to be interested in the music of Africa, India, Mid-East, Japan, China. Right now when I take an instrument from a different country I adapt it to who I am and what I'm doing, rather take the traditional approach because that is life-long approach, you have to be there, you have to feel those rhythms. I'm playing the shaukahachi and it's adapting it into Afro-American concept, a William Parker concept. Right now it's all I can do.

"I did not go to Africa, as Don Cherry did, where African musicians will say, 'I'll teach you a song,' and then interpolated that into jazz. But there is definitely a connection between black African music and black American music. Pygmies' music is the first rap music. They're talking and telling stories, and you can hear the inflection—aha-aha-aha-aha. You hear Grandmaster Flash through the pygmies, though he is not listening necessarily to the pygmies, but there is a connection.

"There's always a thing about trained and untrained musicians. I have nothing against anybody who picks up a bass. They want to make a gig on Tuesday; be my guest. It's not for me to say, 'you haven't trained, you don't know music.' That's your business. If you can play the instrument and it works, go ahead and play. There's no fear of the mysteries that you will find in music. It can only be a joy when someone else is trying to participate in the music. Either the music will fly or float, and no matter what I say or don't say. Many people are saying he's playing by ears, he's just improvising, but little kids all over the world are picking instruments and just playing. There's no such thing as music police, saying this is music, this is not music. Everything is valid."

Spirituality and Freedom

"That was the reason I wanted to get into music, after putting together the messages of records called Love Cry and Spirits Rejoice [Albert Ayler], A Love Supreme [John Coltrane], Karma [Pharoah Sanders], Mingus' Fables of Faubus, Things Got To Change [Archie Shepp], Alan Silva, Sun Ra, so you got basically four things—spirituality, politics, the special ideas of space and time, and the tradition of folk and world music, Don Cherry, and all laced with the spiritual idea that you play music for music, to uplift, to enlighten, to change people lives. Not necessarily to get people to pray or get people to believe in something. Just the idea that love, basically, will change the world.

"The greatest revolutionary is a flower. A smile of a baby might stop a murderer from killing somebody, for a minute. Music has the same quality. It gets you into your deeper, deeper self. That's the purpose of the music, whether you play it slow, fast or loud or soft, rhythmic or arrhythmic, repetitious rhythms or broken rhythms, syrupy melody or long continuous blocked out melody, all of these things are the same manifestations of the same idea.

"That's when I learnt that it's not about a style that will set you free. The definition of what free music is that you are free to choose whatever style you wanted to play, and it broke down to that it wasn't about style, it was about music itself. It is about using any kind of rhythm, melody, a harmony that's available to use in the music and that's what free music is. It's not no-structure, it's free to use any structure that you want to use."

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