William Parker has established himself as a free-leaning bassist and bandleader. He’s become a Lower East Side community fixture as the organizer of the Sound Unity and Vision Festivals (the latter takes place May 24 to June 8 in New York City). But he’s also distinguished himself as a prolific composer, churning out ever-fresh material for his big band, the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, and for his quartet, In Order to Survive.
In mid-March, Parker departed from playing his original compositions for the first time when he presented “The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield” at the Banlieues Bleues Festival, a five-week jazz extravaganza held in the northern suburbs of Paris. Parker arranged both obscure and well-known Mayfield for the concert, including the blaxploitation film soundtrack classics “Superfly” and “Pusherman.”
At the show, a giddy French audience received Parker’s septet. The group strung together tunes into a kind of Soul Preacher Tribute Suite, with vampy percussion from Hamid Drake and pianist Dave Burrell, and horn accents from trumpeter Lewis Barnes and saxophonist Darryl Foster. Poet Amiri Baraka and singer/dancer Leena Conquest interpreted Mayfield’s lyrics. In addition to that concert, Parker was selected to lead an “Action Musicale,” a festival program for which he conducted workshops at suburban high schools, and then headed up a performance with an 80-voice youth choir, a djembe ensemble and local amateur horn group. A couple of days before the performances, Parker spoke at his Paris hotel about Mayfield, the festival workshop and concerts and jazz in France.
JazzTimes: You must have grown up hearing Mayfield. What were some of your early impressions of him?
It was in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and we were still feeling the civil rights movement. At the same time, we-meaning some of the people in the community where I lived in Bronx, N.Y.-were listening to Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler and Curtis Mayfield, along with all the Motown music that came out. Curtis’ songs were catchy but meaningful; they had a hominess and could speak to you on a one-to-one basis about the issues of the day. For certain times, me and my brothers would put on certain music. On Sunday, we’d play Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage; on Fridays we’d play Ornette Coleman At the “Golden Circle”; in the mornings our record was Members Don’t Get Weary by Max Roach. But we’d listen to Curtis Mayfield all the time in between. He was always there, as our living soundtrack, in a way, especially since we heard him on the radio on WLIB.