William Parker: His Own ‘New Thing’


Bassist William Parker is reaching an audience beyond the commercially restrictive categorization he refers to as the “avant-garde ghetto.”

(Photo: Courtesy of the Artist)

William Parker talks like he plays, with an improvisatory grace, free wheeling through long series of interconnected ideas, following tangents but never getting lost. Traces of the 1960s emerge in the bassist’s speech—the energized idealism, humanism and questioning of the status quo. Parker is no throwback, but his vision of how to live and play music to make the world a better place dates to his high school years in the Bronx. Against the societal upheavals of the ’60s, Parker absorbed the mystical poetry of Kenneth Patchen, read about world religions and listened to the soundtracks of French New Wave films and jazz’s “New Thing.”

“Once I found out that music could uplift people and spiritually tap into things and help people get into their optimum self—to better their personalities, better their spirit, better their understanding, better their idea of why we’re here on Earth and why we want to live—that was the musical vision,” Parker said. “As far as what the music sounded like—that came later. ... It’s about uplifting people, getting into their core and inspiring people to be themselves, whatever that is going to be. That came through John Coltrane.”

Coltrane died when he was 40 years old, having made his revolutionary musical statements at a relatively young age. Parker, at 56 years old—when many musicians already have produced the work for which they will be best remembered—is ascendant. A visionary artist at the peak of his powers, full-throttle in a streak of new creative growth, Parker appears to be creating his own “New Thing.”

The bassist has emerged as a major artist relatively late in his career, through a stream of new recordings that marry free improvisation to driving folk forms and memorable melodies. He stands now as one of the most adventurous and prolific bandleaders in jazz, at a point in his career when he can realize almost any project he conceives. And he finally is reaching an audience beyond the commercially restrictive categorization he refers to as the “avant-garde ghetto.”

According to pianist Matthew Shipp, who moved to New York as a young musician wanting to play with Parker and since has worked with him extensively, Parker is a “spiritual beacon” for musicians, and what makes him great is his ability to be himself.

“He bypasses a lot of the blocks that people have in the music,” Shipp said. “He can be himself. You would think that would be the easiest thing for a musician—to be able to be himself—yet that’s the hardest thing, because we all have so much crap put into our minds for so many years that it’s actually hard to be yourself.”

Parker has been a fixture of downtown music since the early ’70s. He studied with Jimmy Garrison, Wilbur Ware and Richard Davis when he was young, made his recording debut with Frank Lowe in 1973, and became the bassist of choice for musicians like Don Cherry and Cecil Taylor, David S. Ware and Shipp. One of his most important functions was, perhaps, to act as a bridge between the first generation avant-garde players, with whom he has worked extensively, and younger musicians who were trying to build upon that foundation and do something new. But as a leader and composer, Parker developed more slowly, releasing his first album in 1981, but not gaining momentum until the ’90s.

“From 1972 up until 1992, I was in training. I was in training to learn how to respond to sound, to learn how to play with many different people in many different situations,” Parker said. “It doesn’t mean that in 1972 I wasn’t writing music. I was doing a lot of different things, but it’s almost like the time came when the stew was ready—the idea that it’s time for you to make another commitment to your music.”

Parker gained increasing attention in the ’90s with his big band, the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, and the quartet In Order to Survive. He also became prominent as an activist and organizer with his wife, dancer Patricia Nicholson, with whom he founded the Improvisers Collective and the Vision Festival. He is modest on the subject of the Vision Festival, which he has anchored as a musician through the years, giving credit to Nicholson as the true organizer.

To some extent, it might also have been Parker’s modesty that kept him from stepping out earlier as a leader.

“What I’m realizing now is that to be a leader you can’t hide your light beneath a blanket,” he said. “If you have something to say, it’s not egotistical to let your light shine.”

That light came through clearly on Parker’s 2001 quartet album, O’Neal’s Porch (AUM Fidelity), which launched a new phase in his career. It featured alto saxophonist Rob Brown and trumpeter Lewis Barnes spinning out sunny melodies, then chasing one another like children in a fun house, with Parker and drummer Hamid Drake creating a constantly changing, infectious dance around them. Going into recording the album, Parker had been hoping to capture a directness that in some ways harkened back to the music of his youth.

“I wanted clarity,” Parker said. “It came to me that what was underneath all this music—even though we were listening to the so-called avant-garde black revolutionary cosmic music, we were also listening to Lee Morgan. We were also listening to Andrew Hill, Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis. If you use the term black mystery music, or black music, you can use everything that existed from field hollers to electronics in your music. You’ve got the right to do all of these things. What you don’t have the right to do is to copy and put out something mundane, to put out something that’s already been said.

O’Neal’s Porch was the beginning of a new direction,” Parker continued. “The idea was to use catchy heads that one has heard before, but it’s not exactly what you heard before. People, in their musical memory, will hear it and be able to relate to it because it’s already planted inside them. It’s all coming from the world of folk music and Tin Pan Alley.”

Listeners got it. O’Neal’s Porch landed in the DownBeat Critics Poll and on a lot of critics’ top 10 lists. It won Parker new fans who could embrace jazz that had the energy and mystery of the avant-garde— the songs often had no set chord changes and went where the musicians went—but that also had hummable melodies and infectious rhythms.

“The same elements were always there,” said Rob Brown, who has played with Parker since the mid-’80s. “It’s just that the emphasis has shifted. There’s a lot more tunes that are singable and retain their form, rather than the free style of the ’80s. The free part is still there, it’s just shifted a little bit. There’s more groove, it’s more accessible than it was then.”

The following year, Parker delivered another breakthrough, Raining On The Moon (Thirsty Ear), an album of original songs and lyrics performed by the same quartet with vocalist Leena Conquest. It had no obvious precedent. For those who thought of Parker primarily as a free-jazz bassist and mixer of medicine too strong for more conservative jazz fans, it offered something unimaginable. Parker, with the help of a singer unknown in the jazz world, seemed to reinvent and revitalize the concept of jazz vocals with an inviting collection of songs simultaneously simple and profound, loose and structured.

“I’ve been writing words since I was a teenager,” Parker said. “Before I was writing music, actually. So, we took the quartet and wrote some songs. Our society is dominated by pop music, by music and words put together. We hear it and we always relate to it. But with my version of using words and music together, you have a political message, social message, spiritual message and a musical message all in one.”

As surprising as these albums were, to those following Parker’s career, it seemed like in the wake of O’Neal’s Porch, almost every new release was a surprise—and there were many of them. These included a clarinet trio with Perry Robinson and Walter Perkins; a violin trio with Billy Bang and percussionist Drake; a piano trio with Eri Yamamoto and Michael Thompson; an even more accessible followup to Raining On The Moon with Yamamoto added to the band; an album with a new septet, the Olmec Group, which draws on traditional Latin rhythms; an album with his usual quartet, plus a modified string quartet. In addition, three duet albums with Drake allowed Parker to stretch out on bass and the double reeds, percussion and stringed instruments he has collected from all over the world. There also were three releases from the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, a group that always delivers surprises.

Perhaps the most unusual project for Parker was last year’s The Inside Songs Of Curtis Mayfield (Rai Trade/Radio 3). Parker’s octet for this project featured Conquest singing, as well as poet Amiri Baraka improvising off of Mayfield’s lyrics.

“I wanted to do some of Curtis Mayfield’s songs, because we listened to him coming up,” Parker said. “He was like the backdrop to the Civil Rights Movement. A lot of his songs have to do with black people, have to do with their feelings, with pride. And so, I said I’d like to do some of his music.”

Parker’s newest releases include a sprightly quartet record, Petit Ouiseu (AUM Fidelity), which again features the O’Neal’s Porch lineup, and Double Sunrise Over Neptune (AUM Fidelity), a performance of a large orchestra. Different from Little Huey, this group includes members of the quartet, a second drummer, a string quartet, guitar, banjo, oud, Parker playing double reeds and donso ngoni—a traditional stringed instrument from Mali—and Indian classical vocalist Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay.

As much attention as he has received for his small-group work, some of Parker’s best and most ambitious recordings are the large-ensemble pieces, among them Double Sunrise, 2001’s Raincoat In The River (Eremite) and 2003’s Mass For The Healing Of The World (Black Saint).

Parker’s orchestras are organized in such a way that the musicians are free to add to the compositions.

“The music was put in my hands,” he said. “So, I’m responsible for organizing the concept of the band. That particular concept is to allow every person to be themselves. I keep defining free music as, ‘You are free to use whatever elements exist in this world of sound. You have the freedom to choose.’ If I write something and you can find something better to play, you don’t have to play what I wrote. Do your own thing. To be your strongest self you have to be yourself. You’ve got to become one with the music, let it flow.”

To achieve this, one of the things Parker had to do was to teach his musicians a system of self-conduction.

“They had written material, but the trumpet section could do improvised readings; they could create their own lines and conduct themselves in and out as they wished,” he said. “If you played and rehearsed enough, the idea was to have a big band that worked like a trio. You could trust the trumpets to come in when they wanted to, when they had something to add. The rule was that what you want to add always supersedes the written material. Basically, you get people together like a village; they’ll learn to get along. They’ll learn to do what they’ve got to do.”

What this sounds like can range from a delicate interaction between two instruments or a thunderous orchestral shout that can have you hanging onto your chair. But there is always a pulse that ties it together.

“You got to have snap, crackle and pop,” he said. “You got to have rhythm—Aretha Franklin, James Brown—all that in there, but you can also play music that they call ‘abstract.’ If you listen to the crickets, if you listen to the birds, underneath it is a heartbeat, and that’s got to be in there.”

Double Sunrise, a four-part suite, is one of the most heady and seductive of all of Parker’s large-group works, and nowhere more so than in the second section, “Lights Of Lake George.” The nearly half-hour piece has a simple, repeating bass line laid down as a foundation. The string quartet moves on top of the bass, two drummers keep a constant dance of sound going, soloists improvise, the double reeds raise up the hair on the back of your neck and Bandyopadhyay sings Persian mantras.

Double Sunrise also offers an indication of the direction Parker is headed, a path that can be traced back to his high school epiphany and his time working with Cherry, whose music was similarly folk inflected. The blending of cultures is at the core of Parker’s vision, whether it is hip-hop and pastoral poetry, art forms such as dance and painting or the blending of jazz with music and instruments from around the world, as on Double Sunrise. Parker calls his concept “universal tonality.”

“The vision is still being formulated,” he said. “It’s getting closer now. It has something to do with playing the bass, but also the donso ngoni from Mali, the shakuhachi from Japan, the double reeds from all over the world. Those things, those non-Western, non-piano based musics, have got to be included to get the full portrait of the gift of music. I don’t think I can find my true vision without including all the sounds.

“Like they say, ‘No child left behind.’ I say, ‘No sound left behind.’ That’s part of what will eventually be the vision for me, the vision of universal tonality, universal sound. I say universal meaning—anybody in the world can listen to it and immediately know what’s going on and immediately feel it. No intellectualism. It’s got to have heartbeat and breath. That’s what people relate to.”

“I would assume in some ways he sees himself as a folk musician,” Shipp said. “He’s not going for complexity for the sake of complexity. He is going for a beautiful, elemental statement. He wants to play the blues. Even if he’s not playing the blues, that’s basically what he wants to do in music—some touching, folk, universal statement.”

Parker takes his groups to Europe regularly, and continues an impressive amount of side projects, including the long-running improvised quartet Other Dimensions in Music with trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr., saxophonist Daniel Carter and drummer Rashid Bakr. Parker stresses that improvisation is as important as composition, and much of his discography is made up improvised collaborations.

“You don’t know what’s coming next,” Parker said. “You think you’ve played everything, then you realize that every time you think you’ve played everything, you haven’t even scratched the surface. You never can run out of things to play.”

Parker also has appeared and recorded with hip-hop and rock groups like The Roots, Yo La Tengo and Akron/Family. He has published his poetry and writings on music, and is working on another book, a collection of interviews with other musicians. But most days, on top of practicing and gigging, he is at home writing music.

“This period of working is fruitful,” Parker said. “I don’t know if it’s the same as before, because I was thinking of ideas and writing them down. But when you actually do it, it becomes more vibrant. Now, I’m writing string quartets. I did one in December, and I’m doing another one. Now, I’ll try and write a piano concerto. It’s a challenge. I commission myself to write a piece or to develop something. Once you tap into this thing and dig into it, you find it’s a bottomless pit. It just keeps coming out.”

As hard as he works, Parker only sees himself as the vehicle through which the music is delivered and is careful not to try to control too much.

“I don’t want to get too close to it,” he said. “Every time you do something, even though it’s a composition, when you go to play it, it always takes on a new life. It never fails. And it’s always something you never expected. Not once has something sounded the way I thought it was going to sound. My role is to let it flow, to let it come to life, not try to guide it. Because the wisdom of the music is much wiser that I could ever be. I’m not going to tell it where to go.” DB

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September 2023
Kris Davis
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