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William Parker Keeps Refining His Approach to the Bass—and Music

Our 2021 Critics’ Poll winner for Artist of the Year sits down with fellow bassist Melvin Gibbs for an in-depth interview

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William Parker
William Parker (photo: Anna Yatskevich)

The musical avant-garde is an area where creative people who have earned wisdom through a lifetime of experience can flourish. Wadada Leo Smith, who last year at age 80 released six sets of records comprising 20 albums in all, and Henry Threadgill, who won the Pulitzer Prize at age 72 and has released four albums since then, are two of those creative people. William Parker, voted Artist of the Year in the JazzTimes 2021 Critics’ Poll, is another. 

Last year, Parker—who turned 70 in January—dropped an opus, Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World. This 10-album set includes music for solo piano, solo voice, sound collage, string quartets, flute ensembles, and vocal-fronted ensembles. He also released two trio albums, Mayan Space Station and Painters Winter. And he played on JazzTimes2021 Album of the Year, James Brandon Lewis’ Jesup Wagon.

Parker’s music is truly and fully grounded in the idea that music exists to make the world a better place. He believes that musicians should make themselves the best possible vessel for that energy of betterment. He doesn’t aspire to sainthood. But he does aspire to be a catalyst for human change. He’s a living example of why free jazz exists. We use the word “free” because that’s what we want to be. We say “jazz” because we need to meet the problematic aspects of the world (which here include the use of the word “jazz,” which I did not use when I interviewed him) face to face, where they are, and engage with them for the purpose of change. 

William Parker grew up in what was then, 50-plus years ago, considered the United States of America’s worst ghetto, the South Bronx. Today it is still the poorest Congressional district in the country. The fact that the poorest neighborhood in the country is located in America’s financial capital, New York City, is precisely the kind of reality that inspired the birth of Great Black Music (which is the term we used to describe Parker’s music). Another truth, that people who are recognized as some of the most creative people on the planet were—and continue to be—forced to find a way to flourish in situations constructed to devalue them, fuels the evolution of this music. Parker uses his wisdom to address those realities by creating music that seeks to invoke and evoke the best aspects of human nature. 

“If you start off wrong, and you do it your whole life, it transforms into right, you know what I mean?”

MELVIN GIBBS: In the early days, you’d walk from the Bronx down to the Lower East Side [a distance of about nine-and-a-half miles], carrying your bass on your back, to play. How long did it take? 

WILLIAM PARKER: Well, I would start out maybe like eight, nine in the morning, and I’d be downtown by 11 o’clock.

Tim Berne said something to me a couple of months back that has popped into my head damn near every day since. He said, “You have your own sound when you start off playing, even when you sound like shit. Then you start shedding, learning how to play, you start copying people, and your voice goes away. How do you get your own sound? You just have to stop trying to be somebody else.” I look at you and how you started off, doing your own thing, and it seems like you did a good job of resisting getting boxed in. Can you talk a little about that?

Well, the idea is that the awkwardness of your first steps is the embryo of your individuality. You have these shadows of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington … all these guys that came before you. But you got to realize that when you’re born … and this is something Dr. Dre said. He said that his mother told him, “You were born somebody, you don’t have to become somebody.” That’s how they became Miles Davis, became Duke Ellington—by believing in oneself. Pedagogy, this rote way of teaching music, is to have a method that says this is right, and this is wrong. But if you start off wrong, and you do it your whole life, it transforms into right, you know what I mean? That’s the way you do it. It’s like your musical DNA. You know, you blink your eyes in a certain way, you move your shoulders in a certain way. And that’s how you play. I think that we have to always keep that in mind. We have to maintain and develop our individuality because it is there.

I want to ask you about working with children, because you do that, and about children’s reaction to the music. Because people think that Great Black Music—I’ll use that term today—is difficult music. But you teach it to kids. So what’s your way? What has been your experience introducing kids to these parts of themselves that you’re talking about?

You see, it’s really that the music is connected to the earth, to the soil, to nature. There are universal kinds of commonalities that kids can relate to, and ask where the music is coming from.

Like, take kids laughing. You can take a kid from any place in the world … a kid from Japan, a kid from Russia, a kid from Jamaica, a kid from Alabama, or up north in the Arctic. You take those babies laughing. Well, which baby is which? They sound the same. You know, if you have kids playing, they always play the same games. And that’s how you relate music to them, that it’s really not a big deal. It’s just music. And if they heard the music a lot, the same way they hear other kinds of music, it would just fit into the continuum. But it seems like today we put a separation in the music. What they call avant-garde, or new music, has been pulled out of the equation, because maybe because there’s no economic system with it. But the kids? They’ll dig the music if you don’t make a big deal about it. 

That’s a beautiful segue into the concept of universal tonality. Pretend I’m a kid and tell me what universal tonality is.

Okay. Universal tonality is kind of what I just said, about the laughing, the crying, being able to play with each other. If you have a ball and you put it into a room and you have all kinds of kids from all over the place, they’ll all find a way to play with that ball without anybody necessarily directing them. That’s kind of what universal tonality is. The tonality that we’re trying to reach is the ecstasy of that joy when the music is vibrating, humming. The tonality, the buzz, the hum, is the Hallelujah that we all want to go to. ’Cause it’s only in that state can we really change. No matter what your politics are, once you get hooked by the music, you’ve changed. I mean [exhales], cats be like, … they can’t get enough of it. It’s like falling in love with love.

You were a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. Would you describe yourself as a pacifist? I don’t know if that’s the correct terminology. How would you describe yourself, and can you talk about how that informs your music?

I’m a warrior for change. I consider myself a revolutionary-minded person. Why we play the music is to heal people, to change people, to knock down these old stale structures of capitalism. Rabid capitalism, imperialism, oppression, all of that’s got to go. War is about having to exercise imperialism, having to take over somebody’s country, steal somebody’s land, steal somebody’s gold and diamonds. That’s what war’s about, taking from people, not adding to people’s lives. So I just felt that I was not gonna go over there and kill anybody. My nature, my temperament, didn’t do it. 

Billy Bang [violinist and longtime colleague of Parker’s, 1947-2011] volunteered. Most people who volunteer don’t know what they will get themselves into. His whole life was spent trying to do a recovery from being in Vietnam. I was just lucky to be given the strength to say I don’t want to go. Because if I didn’t have the strength, I might have went, and my whole life would have been, you know, like trying to … [shakes his head]. Every Fourth of July, when Bang heard the fireworks, he’d hide in the closet. It was that deep. And that’s just one case. I know there are many, many cases. I was just lucky that I was able to get the strength to resist because I think pacifism is a strength. When you play music, you play some killer music. But you don’t kill people.

You work a lot with European musicians. Tell me how you bridge Great Black Music and the European scene.

When I played with [English guitarist] Derek Bailey for the first time, he said to me, “You know, William, you’re the only person I know that really plays free jazz.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “Because you don’t try to play like me. You play from your jazz roots. And I can hear that you got jazz roots. Even though we’re doing what we’re doing, playing open music, improvisations, your root is jazz and you don’t hide it.” Someone told me that European drummers got tired of trying to sound like Art Blakey because it wasn’t gonna happen. So they said, “Well, what can we do? I know we can do something. So let’s break it up, and find new ways, a European method of improvisation.” But I didn’t say, “I’m playing with Europeans, so I’m gonna try to find a European way of improvisation.” I said, “I’ve spent enough time trying to find the way I can do things.” So I would never shy away from doing what I did whenever I played any improvisation with European musicians. If you ask any European musicians what was the first music they heard they’ll say, “Louis Armstrong on the radio.” Even though they might be doing advanced extended-technique things, they listened to Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong on the radio when they were kids. So that’s their route too. I never shied away from trying to be who, be what, I am. It wasn’t like, “I’m me, I got to do this.” It was that I’d empty myself. That’s when the music comes out. So, I was able to fit in with these guys. Again, that’s another aspect of universal tonality. It’s that you bring what you do, I do what I do, and we’re running like a train track, parallel, but we’re together by being totally ourselves.

William Parker with Christian McBride (photo: Alan Nahigian)
William Parker having a lowdown discussion with Christian McBride, Angel Orensanz Foundation, December 2012 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

You’ve become the linchpin of a scene in New York. What sort of responsibility do you feel to the community that’s around you?

Well, you know, I’ve been lucky that people come to me when they come into the city. Joe Morris, who teaches at the New England Conservatory, sends a lot of his students down. They call and I answer the phone. I’m not an elitist. I’m still open. You know, sometimes you play in a castle for the queen, but you never forget the shack. I’m always open, to people who have names and people who don’t have names. When people come to the city, they need some kind of hub, something to gravitate towards. We [William and founder/artistic director Patricia Nicholson Parker] have the organization Arts for Arts, which does the Vision Festival and produces concerts, so a lot of people feel, “Okay, I could fit into this community.” I don’t know, is there a Lincoln Center community? I mean, this is a bit deeper than that. Is there a punk rock community? Does punk rock still exist?

A lot of people who make quote-unquote “free music” feel a piano gets in the way, almost like it’s a colonizer. But you play very well with piano players. What’s your feeling about dealing with the piano and the tension that European harmonic conventions can create?

I’ve been lucky enough to play with great piano players: Dave Burrell, Cecil Taylor, Cooper-Moore, Matthew Shipp, among others. We never really use chord changes, most of the time. When somebody plays a standard, you might’ve had chord changes in the old days, but recently I don’t even think about it, because I approach the bass as a drum set. I’ve said this before. The G string is my ride cymbal, the D string is my snare, the A string is my tom-toms, and the E string is my low gong. That’s how I approach it. I also approach it using the idea of taking away the fingerboard on the bass, and using it as a harp, like a kora. You don’t see the kora technique because it’s hard to get rid of the fingerboard. But it’s a mental concept. So it’s always about an African concept of the instrument, not a European concept of the bass. That’s how I address it and that’s how I use it. I never think of chord changes. I never think of notes. I think of sounds, I think of pitches, I think of tones, but not notes.

You play many other instruments besides the one you’re best known for, including the Malian donso ngoni. Why? 

My first attraction to it was when I was listening to a John Coltrane recording. Donald Garrett—he played bass clarinet, and he played bass. And then, when I was playing with Frank Lowe, I met Donald Garrett. He came to my house. Frank brought him over. He was going to do a record for ESP. He borrowed my bass and I went to the session with him. He was doing a record with Suzanne Kali Fasteau [multi-instrumentalist, 1947-2020] at [ethnomusicologist/producer] Verna Gillis’ house in the West Village. They had all these bamboo flutes, and I had started playing bamboo flute; for some reason, I got one for a Christmas present. We were talking about it, and he was talking about the embouchure. So I got really interested in that idea. And then Ponte Music on 46th Street [in Manhattan] had a kora for 100 bucks, and I bought that kora. In 1974, I met Don Cherry, and he was playing the donso ngoni. So I got hooked up. You know, it wasn’t until the ’90s that I finally got a donso ngoni. But I always loved the idea of musical instruments that were non-European. The bass had a tradition in Europe, and I had a connection with Africa that I wanted to hook up. I wanted to play something that was non-European. Africa to the Philippines, any country that was non-European, and any instrument that actually sounded good.

William Parker
William Parker (photo: Anna Yatskevich)

European jazz festivals often include bookstores, and when I’m at one and they do, I always go check them out. I remember seeing your books in those stores and being super-impressed by that. What made you start doing that? Why did you think it was important?

There was a period when I thought that the writers and the overseers of what we call the jazz plantation did not understand what the musicians were doing. So I thought that if those who can explain their music and talk about their philosophy do, then it would be the voice of the musician telling their story. It’d be more truthful. And it could be very inspirational to people to understand what the music is about if they need to understand it. Some people don’t need to know what it’s about. You know, once I was in Guelph [at the Guelph Jazz Festival], and I was sort of being the announcer. Pharoah Sanders was one concert [they presented] and Wadada Leo Smith was another. Both great, both brilliant musicians. When they had the press conference, they would ask Wadada a question and he would answer the question with why this happened, that happened, and that happened. And then they would say, “Pharaoh, what about you?” Then Pharaoh would say, “I just play what I feel.” And that was always his answer. I think it’s important that people who can write, who can explain things, do that—because it helps people. You’re the one that did it, and you might have a bit more of a handle on it than an outsider. If you can write about it, you should.

What do people need to understand when they’re playing with you?

That anything can happen. That the road we wanted to go down could be closed, and we have to take a detour. And sometimes we don’t have a map. Sometimes we don’t have a musical GPS. You’re going to have to find out where we’re going by listening and feeling. We might not get there every time. But we try to move forward, to be open, to respond to sound, respond to the moment, to train ourselves to do that, by being aware. And, you know, you can actually stop playing those chord changes. You don’t have to play that rhythm all the way through. You can play something different. People don’t even know that: “Oh, I can play something different? Wow! Yeah. Somebody’s saying you don’t have to play that.” The methodology is to be open, to let the music flow through you, and not get in the way of it. But then also know when to give it a little push, a little nudge. Basically, have the philosophy that the music is stronger than you. The music is the mountains. The music is the sky. The music is the clouds. The music is nature. It’s stronger than you, and once you activate it, it’s going to guide you home safely. And it’s going to guide you to another planet, if you want to go there.

Pacifism is a strength. When you play music, you play some killer music. But you don’t kill people.

I want to end with a question I lifted from your SCRAPBOOK: Notes and Blueprints that was on a list you put together for a proposed video series. What is your vision for the future?

Well, I hope we get a little closer to accepting the mystery. We used to do “Freddie’s Dead” by Curtis Mayfield, and Amiri Baraka would say, “Death? We don’t even know what it’s for.” We’re trying to get to this idea of heaven, perfection. And I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s something that at least I can’t imagine. I just hope that we accept that. 

So, I just think no future in one way, and in the other way to keep going and doing as much as I can. You know, meet people, communicate with people and keep playing music. And then just keep doing it and doing it and doing it, as LL Cool J said. I don’t know what he was talking about when he was saying that. But whatever we do, we keep doing it.

Bright Moments with William Parker

Melvin Gibbs

Melvin Gibbs is a bass guitarist, composer, and producer whose 40-year career has featured work with Defunkt, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, Eye and I, Sonny Sharrock, John Zorn, Rollins Band, Eddie Palmieri, Femi Kuti, and Arto Lindsay, among many others. He is currently one-third of the trio Harriet Tubman with guitarist Brandon Ross and drummer J.T. Lewis. In the 1980s, he was an original member of the Black Rock Coalition.