The phrase “force of nature” has been used to describe numerous jazz musicians, owing to a strong personality, an intense body of work, or perhaps a combination of the two. Such a heading could easily describe William Parker for his fierce approach to the upright bass and the substantial number of musical projects in which he’s participated throughout a five-decade career. A comprehensive discography of recordings as a leader, collaborator, and sideman takes up 11 pages and includes several massive box sets. And that only encompasses performances which have been released.
Universal Tonality: The Life and Music of William Parker presents Parker as a person who doesn’t merely enjoy playing but considers music as “the lifeblood of the human struggle for dignity, compassion, sustenance and liberation.” With sources that include Parker himself, poetry and excerpts from his journals, and insights from friends and peers, Cisco Bradley explains how the artist has maintained his focus. In the process, he discusses free/avant-garde jazz perceptively, helping to clear away hyperbole and misunderstanding.
Born in 1952 and growing up in New York’s South Bronx, Parker ignored disparaging messages that he heard at school about the futures of young Black men and became determined to play music. When he couldn’t afford a 35-cent subway fare, Parker headed to the East Village on foot just to play with kindred spirits, his bass strapped to his back. He learned rudimentary music theory at the free Jazzmobile program, but most of his technique was self-taught, which fit right in with players in New York’s fertile loft scene. By the ’80s, he was a fixture in the bands of pianist Cecil Taylor. More significantly, he got involved in community organizations during that decade, issuing a manifesto that would later become the name of his own band: In Order to Survive.
Bradley lays out the first two sections of Universal Tonality in a biographical manner. He researches Parker’s family back to Africa which, while perhaps a bit tangential, connects his lineage to the humanity that fuels the bassist’s work. When the book delves into Parker’s own projects in the third section, Bradley probes deeply into lyrics, inspirations, and personnel. While informative, and a good point of entry for anyone just discovering Parker’s oeuvre, the list of names, recordings, and tour dates feels like too much detail, especially when other topics are given short shrift.
Surprisingly, only a passing reference is given to the Vision Festival, the longstanding annual set of performances created by Parker’s wife, dancer Patricia Nicholson Parker, in which her husband plays a significant role. Nor is much space devoted to Parker’s tenure in the David S. Ware Quartet—arguably one of the most significant bands to emerge in the ’90s New York jazz scene—or to the assistance Parker gave bassist Henry Grimes when the latter reemerged after decades away from music.
In a way, though, even these oversights are positive, as they indicate the very real challenge of showing how much William Parker has accomplished in a career that continues to move forward.