William Parker, my DownBeat feature from 1998

Howard Mandel c 1998/published by DownBeat, July 1998, under headline Beneath the Underdog (the editor’s reference to Charles Mingus’s autobiography):

There’s an anchor for New York’s downtown free jazz and improv “wild bunch”: his name is William Parker. The steadfast bassist has a huge, deep-rooted sound and concept, tied to more than 25 years of hard-won experience in the noble if often misunderstood, under-appreciated and underestimated world of the avant garde–a term he uses without pause.

“If jazz is the underdog, avant garde jazz is beneath the underdog,” says Parker, who lives in Manhattan’s East Village, just a couple of blocks from where the great bassist Charles Mingus, who coined that phrase, spent his career. Parker resembles Mingus as a driving, rhythmic soloist and provocatively challenging support player, a strong-willed composer and barnstorming bandleader (and also as a writer–he’s a published poet). But unlike the stormy Mingus, Parker is low-keyed, mild-mannered and comfortable with his life, though interested, above all else, with pressing on.

“The thing about the avant garde is: even the top people are on the bottom,” he understands without rancor. “They don’t have major contracts, so there’s no lineage of good business. If the top guy’s starving, what’s for you? To starve also, or go a different way.”

Parker’s chosen the way of the working man. His indefatigable energy and upbeat spirit infuse more than 80 albums with throbbing plucked rushes of notes and unique singing/sawing bowed passages. Since 1972 he’s collaborated with star international iconoclasts like Derek Bailey, Cecil Taylor and John Zorn as well as in underground circuits with such worthy lesser-knowns as cornetist Roy Campbell Jr., tenor saxophonist Charles Gayle, reedsman Daniel Carter and the late drummer Denis Charles. Now that Sony Jazz has signed the David S. Ware Quartet, to which Parker contributes mightily, the bassist’s profile may further rise–but credit also his recent album releases, including Sunrise In the Tone World (Aum Fidelity; two CDs of his Little Huey Creative Music Ensemble), and his dynamic second solo album,William Parker (No More Records).

Parker was, of course, everywhere in the Third Annual Vision festival, organized in part by his wife, dancer-choreographer Patricia Nicholson, at the lower east side Orenzanz Art Center for a mid-May week. He played bass for the Ware Quartet (with painist Matthew Shipp and drummer Susie Ibarra); the Untempered Ensemble; a quartet with Gayle, drummer Milford Graves and New Orleans’ saxist Kidd Jordan; his standing collaborative Other Dimensions of Music, with Campbell, Carter and drummer Rashid Bakr; the Jemeel Moondoc Quintet; drummers Assif Tsahar and Susie Ibarra with fellow bassist Peter Kowald; bassoonist Karen Borca’s Quartet/Trio, trumpeter Raphé Malik, and the Jimmy Lyons Big Band. He conducted Little Huey, too.

It’s been like this, he says, ever since he ventured to Harlem from his childhood home in the Bronx to study with Jazzmobile’s Richard Davis, Milt Hinton, Art Davis (and later, Jimmy Garrison and Wilbur Ware). “When I bought my bass, I was walking home and got a gig. If I’d gotten a flute, no one would have known.”

He’d become interested in bass in high school, absorbing his father’s Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Willis Jackson records, especially aware of bassists such as John Lamb on Ellington’s “The African Flower,” Percy Heath, Jimmy Garrison with Coltrane, Mingus and Charlie Haden. “Back when stereo was coming in, one day I bought all the Ornette Coleman records on Atlantic for 99 cents each. That’s when the fire really was lit, because I liked that music. So before I even started I knew the kind of music that I wanted to get involved with. I also knew that to do what I wanted to do. I had to get a bass, learn the bass, play the bass. I just felt a kinship to the low notes.

“From the start, I was playing with comedians, folk singers, poets. It was mostly on-the-job training. I had a very good feel; if I didn’t know something, I could get by until I did know it. It was just like now. It hasn’t really changed, except I travel more.

“There’s no big adjustment for me to play with different people,” he comments. “it’s just about responding to other peoples’ sounds. I find out how what I’m doing will fit in with what they’re doing, and enhance it.

“That’s the thing about all improvisation–knowing what to do at any particular second in the music. That’s my role in any band, minute by minute: to help navigate the music so it doesn’t have dead spots. I do that by either by playing a melody, playing rhythmically, playing harder, faster, slower, or using silence, more sound, less sound–whatever I have to use. Knowing when one music segment has faded away, or is about to, is important, too. Dead spots in the music occur when it’s trying to find its way to the next musical link, and then continue. At each link, I’m trying to keep the music afloat.”

“And all the experience is been very, very good. Because when you’re playing avant garde–say you’re playing pointillistially and you hit a note. That note has to have a foundation underneath it, so it’s not just like a drop or a point with no stem. It has to have a stem, see, but the stem is invisible.

“And that stem or that sound, you develop that by playing.

It’s a combination of things. Like the way an older guy, just by the way he plays, has a maturity of sound, a deepness, that’s not so much tone but something you can sense and feel. It also has to do with rhythm, and being sure the music isn’t dry. No matter how sparse or abstract it is, that it still has this finger-snapping, Aretha Franklin, blues/swing thing happenening underneath it. Even if you don’t hear it, you know it’s happening.

“Maybe it comes from playing a vamp with a band you don’t like all night long,” Parker speculates, “or from playing a B flat blues all night long. It may came from nothing to do with what you want to play, but when you get a chance to play what you want to play, you have a foundation, and you can hear it and make it swing, without being explicit.

“I’m always in the back,” he goes on, “trying to do something different so that every piece doesn’t sound the same, every concert doesn’t sound the same. There are lots of ways to make things different–a little turn, a little twist. Things just happen. In the middle of a set you start playing things you never played before. I’m not saying they’ve never been played before, but things just get different. There are so many ways of approaching the instrument; every time you think ‘Well, I’ve about exhausted this,’ lo and behold!–there’s something else.

“You play something, and you never forget it. It may be something very simple, something you’d never think of when you’re practicing, just the way you move your hand, shift it from left to right, slightly, but get a different sound. Moving your bow so slightly, you get a different sound, and that’s like discovering a new word, a new pattern in your vocabularly.

“You keep these things, and as you play your vocabulary gets wider and wider–in fact, so wide you forget things you’ve played way in the past. But they’ll come back later. That’s the eternal thing about music: it’s always flowing, and you never know what’s going to happen. If it’s got improvisation in it or has some other way to open up, you never know where it’s going to go or what wonderous thing is behind this door you’re going to open every time you play.”

That desire to open the door, again and again, seems to define Parker and his colleagues, but he identifies another quest: the search for one’s self in sound.

“What makes a musician? That’s something people have been trying to find out,” he asserts. “What makes a Charlie Parker, a John Coltrane? You can have the records, transcribe the solos, eat what John Coltrane ate, wear John Coltrane’s suit, use the same reeds, but then you say, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t sound anything like John Coltrane,’ and you realize the reason you don’t is that you’re not supposed to. It’s like a lion trying to be a bird, complaining he can’t fly. He’s not supposed to fly.

“The problem for people looking for their own sound is they’re always looking outside. Your sound is like your nose. If you look over there for your nose, you’ll never find it. It’s right there between your eyes. And those awkward little things about it that sound awful to you? That’s the embryo of your own sound.

“That’s one of the secrets, finding your own thing, and one of the secrets of how to make things happen is ‘Don’t try.’ Don’t try so hard–it just has to happen. You have to find what area of music the sound vibrates best for you. Coleman Hawkins could hit one note, make one sound, and whew!–where all these other people could hit all these other notes, and nothing magical happened. And that’s the idea: you want something magical to happen every time you play.”

To play, one needs a stage, and a significant portion of Parker’s time has found him erecting one. “The first Sound Unity festival was in ’84, and we had another big one in ’88,” he recalls. “That was musicians doing it for ourselves. But even before that, Billy Bang and I and some other people used to do a Lower East Side Music festival. We also had the Improvisers Collective fest before starting the Vision fest, in ’96. We’ve always done what we need to to survive.”

He shrugs off special status as an avant garde arts community organizer or activist, though he is one. “It’s natural, these activities,” he says, including workshops for young children and senior citizens in the sweep. “They bring the human being part and the musician part together so when you step off the bandstand you’ve got a whole creative life, not just when you play. You do things that connect with creativity, with the music, with any segment of the community; you try to inspire people in all kinds of different ways. Whether you like them or not, whether you disagree with them, you have to attempt to put your best foot forward in all your communications.

“See, music really has no parameters,” he advises. “Music is what you want it to be. If you want to put barriers on your music, that’s as far as you’re going to go, to grow. But most of the people I’ve met in the avant garde like everything. They appreciate Bird to Stravinsky to Tito Puente to folk music–they’re very open.

“I’ve learned that almost all the musics in the world do have parameters. If you play Indian classical music and go outside the parameter, it’s something else. If you play a waltz and take it somewhere else, it’s not a waltz. But so-called free music, when it’s happening, has a basis, and I can play anthing I want to play. Any time signature, rhythms from Brazil, China, Korea, or a blues, a samba–anything within this music, and it works. There are very few musics in the world where you can play, anything!” he enthuses.

But not just anything. “When I play,” Parker adds earnestly, “I’m trying to be thoughtful not only about what I’m doing, but about the whole concept.”

Parker’s got much more to say: about how to compose for big bands of ruggged, if not rag-tag, improvisers; about how the avant garde should be welcomed into jazz’s “big house”; about the necessity of musicians taking responsibility for themselves. He’s earned his knowledge in the thick of the scene; his wisdom is eminently clear and practical, evident in his actions and his art.

“I have a very large range of things I draw on,” Parker mentions, “including my early interests in painting and drawing, in playwriting, in science fiction. But I’m basically a one-five guy, that’s my root. I’m not really a ‘new music bass player’–though I play ‘new music’– not in my feeling. The thing about bass,” he rests assured, “is you’ve got to use the bottom. If not, you’re playing something else.”


Parker uses Tomastic Spiral Core strings, with a very high setting. “I have them high off of the fingerboard, for sound and touch purposes,” he says. “People think I’m playing very hard, but what I’m doing is getting up off the string. I apply pressure, then lift off. And because the strings are high, there’s resistance, and bounce. I get my tone from my left hand, that’s depressing, then with my right hand–no matter how it looks or how loud it sounds–it’s really about hitting the pitch and getting off of it quick. It’s a different kind of technique.”



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