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William Parker: The Shaman

William Parker
William Parker

One night in 1999, William Parker stood at the entrance of the East Village’s St. Nicholas of Myra. His wife, dancer Patricia Parker, emerged from the basement of the church where that year’s celebrated avant-garde Vision Festival was held, and she was not happy.

The husband/musician bore the brunt of the wife/festival producer’s frustration as she informed him that he might have to play the whole gig himself if some of the other musicians didn’t show their faces soon. Nonchalantly, he assured her that he can play all five sets himself and still be able to come back the next day for more.

Parker fans don’t dispute this boast, and sometimes during the Vision Festival’s early years it actually seemed like the bassist was playing the entire night, either as a regular member of groups led by pianist Matthew Shipp and saxophonist David S. Ware, part of several special encounters with Kidd Jordan or Milford Graves, or leading a few groups of his own. Even away from the Vision Festival, which celebrates its 10th year this June, Parker spends a lot of time on stage. Since emerging in the ’70s, he’s considered an ironman of jazz for his seemingly endless string of performances, projects and recordings. More significant, he’s generally regarded as one of avant-garde jazz’s greatest bassists.

Though he can swing like crazy, Parker isn’t a traditional rhythmic backbone; he’s more of an engine that pushes other musicians through the shifting eddies of improvisation. His stylistic touchstones include energy music, bebop, African rhythms, Far Eastern textures and ideas that seem to come out of the same cosmos traveled by Sun Ra. His arco playing conjures an orchestra of sounds, and his pizzicato work gallops and punctuates.

But the man who is the very heart and soul of the New York avant-garde jazz scene is more than a just a bassist: he’s a grassroots activist, philosopher and a father figure to countless up-and-coming musicians.

Parker and Matthew Shipp held a master’s class at New York City’s Blue Note club in late 2004 for two dozen musicians looking for insight and enlightenment. They played for a half hour and then fielded questions from the audience. Soon, someone asked about getting your own sound.

“Looking for your sound is like looking for your nose,” Parker answered. “It’s right there on your face-you were born with your sound. However bad you sound, no one sounds like you.” Those were encouraging words for the aspiring players, but Parker wasn’t playing the conventional student-teacher game that day. Again and again he reiterated the importance of learning how to play one’s instrument; at the same time he encouraged students to disregard the accepted ways of learning established musical value systems pounded into them by textbooks, fake books and teachers.

“I met a lot of teachers who didn’t know anything,” the 53-year-old bassist told the audience, “and they were the greatest teachers I had because they found the knowledge between the cracks, the rays of light between the rays.”

While Shipp and Parker’s musical chemistry is something both regard as very special, they are a classic version of Mutt and Jeff offstage: Shipp speaks more in technical and concrete terms, while Parker typically makes analogies and tells stories, many of which are funny. For example, on that day Parker talked about studying under Wilbur Ware, telling how lessons involved trips to the deli to get beer for the teacher.

William Parker started playing along with his father’s record collection at the age of five-but not on bass: Little William would blow through the end of a toy gun and pretend to play trumpet. He and his older brother, Thomas, would have these familial jam sessions in the Bronx’s Claremont Housing Project.

Parker’s brother eventually took up saxophone-no doubt inspired by Paul Gonsalves as their father loved to play “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” from 1956’s Ellington at Newport. Meanwhile, Parker got a trumpet and took lessons through the mail. At 19 he switched instruments-even scoring a gig on the way home from buying his first bass.

Even then Parker was focused wholly on music. One time he went to a Jazzmobile class at a school in the Bronx. His teacher put him in the bathroom with his bass and the chart for “Ain’t Misbehavin'” at 11 a.m. At 7:30 p.m. Parker got a knock on the door and the janitor was closing up the school for the night because everyone had gone home. “It was a very intense period of music, 24 hours a day,” Parker recalls over dinner a week after the Blue Note class. “I was trying to get to the bottom of how to get from A to Z.”

Parker emerged during the Manhattan loft movement of the ’70s, working with already established players like Ed Blackwell, Don Cherry, Bill Dixon, Milford Graves, Billy Higgins and Sunny Murray. Much of the ’80s was spent playing with Cecil Taylor and, later, David S. Ware as well as Jemeel Moondoc’s Muntu and the leaderless Other Dimensions in Music, an amazing all-improv outfit that is still around. Since 1989 Matthew Shipp has used Parker on bass exclusively, regardless of the lineup.

Yet it wasn’t until 1994 that Parker officially stepped out as a leader with the In Order to Survive quartet. “Things were getting serious in America, with politics in particular,” Parker says of his decision to lead a band. “So I decided to get a message: ‘In order to survive, we must keep hope alive.'”

The formation of the bassist’s Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra followed the quartet in a matter of months, and is still going strong, but In Order to Survive has been replaced by the William Parker Quartet. The quartet features drummer Hamid Drake, reedist Rob Brown and trumpeter Lewis Barnes, and their O’Neal’s Porch (Centering, 2000) and Raining on the Moon (Thirsty Ear, 2002), with vocalist Leena Conquest singing Parker’s lyrics, were revelations for many who assumed that Parker only worked in avant-garde settings. While still deep, Parker’s quartet albums are downright catchy. (A forthcoming live double-disc release on Aum Fidelity further bears this out.)

“In avant-garde when I played rhythm, the drummers didn’t always respond,” Parker says. “When I played duets with Billy Higgins or with Denis [Charles], there was a dance. I found that I could play these dances with Hamid. At the same time this melodic material came forward and said, ‘Hey William, what about us?’ Now those ideas can really shine because they have some rhythm underneath them.”

In true iconoclastic fashion, Parker released O’Neal’s Porch, which is arguably his most accessible album to date, on his own Centering label. (Aum Fidelity reissued it in 2002.) The original idea was to bypass regular music outlets and sell in local shops, boutiques and markets around his East Village apartment-none of which dealt in music. Parker’s rationale was to reach those at the dry cleaner or the florist instead of the record store. “I’m signed to the people, because that’s what it’s all about,” Parker says. “But working with them is hard. You can’t pop out of the television set during the Super Bowl and say: ‘Buy this record.’ And the salvation isn’t the people who listen to the music, but [in reaching out to] the people who don’t listen to the music. There’re 10 times as many people who don’t listen to the music. If you tap into them you’ve got it made in the shade.”

To Parker music is more than simply playing to an audience. Like Coltrane, Ayler and others, he looks at music as salvation, as magic, as life. Parker says, “A musician would tell me, ‘I only had two people show up for my concert, and I wasn’t going to play.’ We used to play two or three sets for two people. Imagine how the world would be if we weren’t playing this music. The music is keeping the world balanced. If you play in your room for an hour the world is picking up the vibration. It’s more than just sound played through an instrument.”

While playing at home may be a more personal way of keeping things balanced, Parker continues to keep the world in check in a number of more public ways. There’s no grander example of his altruism than the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra.

The band namesake is basically Parker as a kid growing up in the Bronx. According to Parker, the outside world is telling Huey that he can’t be a poet, that people can’t be what they want to be. “The idea was to get a large orchestra and play for the Little Hueys of the world out there,” he says. “They need to be told it’s OK to be themselves. That’s basically the whole message. It’s OK to be a poet or to sing.”

Parker’s methodology for leading the orchestra, which fluctuates between 14 and 18 members, is a kind of self-conducting. Parker’s standing is such that he’s able to wrangle together his large ensemble without much effort.

“It’s about pure love, a total admiration for William,” says Huey alto saxophonist Charles Waters, “and a willingness to enter into this mystical searching for sound that’s unlike any other group around. William does not tell you really what to do; he shows you through sound. And the group loves the challenge. We never play the same piece-not in my seven years with the band-and sometimes we have pages of scores to play through, sometimes we have just a brief motif.”

Watching and hearing the majestic orchestra play is like watching a town hall debate. Parker is the speaker at his bass podium who calls the meeting to order, but different sections take on different causes. It’s not a debate of right or wrong; the music is a conversation that builds coalitions.

Parker’s latest example of bridge building is Luc’s Lantern (Thirsty Ear), which features a new trio comprising pianist Eri Yamamoto (a friend of Shipp) and drummer Michael Thompson, both younger players whom the bassist has not worked with before. Meant to showcase Parker’s compositional abilities, the moody album is lyrical and deeply indebted to the piano trio tradition of Evans-LaFaro-Motian. Some of the tracks on the album are dedications to pianists living and dead, including Jaki Byard and Bud Powell.

Yamamoto’s fluid free-flowing style shimmers in a way that allows Parker to really dig into different grooves. Ironically, the avant-garde great stays at home on the CD more often than not, leaving Yamamoto and Thompson to take most of the liberties. The temperature does get a little feverish on the breakneck title cut, but the trio brings it right back down on “Jaki,” which is powered by a walking bass line and probing riffs from Yamamoto. An elliptical and elegant tune that is little more than four minutes long, it succinctly sums up the grace and success of this project.

have worked on a panoramic level for many years, and it’s nice to keep that up,” Parker says. “There is always something coming up. Some new project, people are always calling. I like it. Musicians traditionally don’t work, so it would be really dumb of me to complain that I have too much work, which I do, but you try and handle it.”

One day Parker’s recording source material for British electronic experimentalists Spring Heel Jack, the next he’s touring with Peter Brotzmann. Ten days later he’s off doing one of his own projects.

Even with so much on the schedule, it’s hard to believe that Parker has never called for a gig, but he hasn’t. He recently debated doing it to add a date and defray costs for Little Huey’s trip to the Victoriaville Festival this year. But in the end he decided to just buy bus tickets for everyone. The thought of putting his band on a Greyhound bus to make a single, far away gig would seem like a lot to ask of his musicians, but it’s William-for him they’ll do just about anything. He’s like a shaman, and everyone’s cool with that, including Parker himself.

“Shamen don’t even consider themselves musicians, but that’s really what they are about,” Parker says of his aspirations. “Being a great musician is cool, but you have to deal with a whole other level. The great musicians are great, not because they play well, but because their music has a magical power. It has a magic to it that can really change people’s lives.” Originally Published