William Parker :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Music flows out of bassist, composer and bandleader William Parker like a river. Parker, who turns 70 on January 10, 2022, released some of his most powerful work in 2021, including the 10-CD box set, Migration of Silence Into and Out of The Tone World – [Volumes 1–10]. Migration of Silence was issued on Parker’s Centering Records imprint, via the AUM Fidelity label, with whom he has worked closely since the late 1990s. While Parker has recorded and performed with some legendary musicians (e.g. Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Peter Brötzmann) his own voluminous discography, and his manifold compositions, will be his lasting legacy.

There are few musical formations that Parker has not tried. From solo, to duo, to trio, to small ensembles, to large ensembles, Parker is constantly moving, evolving and changing, following the flow of the music. Many of his group names are highly evocative and poetic — In Order To Survive, Little Huey Creative Orchestra, By Any Means, Raining On The Moon. Struggle, perseverance and the beauty of the quotidian are just a few of the recurring themes in his music.

With such a vast discography (770 credits on Discogs) there’s no way to sum up his oeuvre in a few paragraphs. To accompany this interview, I compiled a two hour, introductory mix of William Parker’s music for dublab. For the uninitiated, in addition the mix and previously mentioned Migration of Silence, I can wholeheartedly recommend Mayan Space Station, a stand-alone album that Parker released on AUM Fidelity in 2021. A sick, bass + guitar + drums trio shred-fest, the album made many critics’ year end best of lists, including my own. Another personal favorite is I Plan To Stay A Believer: The Inside Songs Of Curtis Mayfield, from 2010. Few tribute albums match the force of Parker’s striking Free Jazz interpretations of classic Mayfield tunes (including some from Superfly) featuring poet Amiri Baraka. My brief sketch only skims the vast ocean of music that has poured out of Parker since he began recording in the mid-1970s. Hopefully this interview, and accompanying mix, will spark further interest and research into a singularly remarkable artist. | d mittleman

Aquarium Drunkard: You were born in 1952, in the Bronx, and you’re going to be turning 70 on January 10, 2022. So an early happy birthday for that. But back in the early days of when you were growing up, what are the first sounds that you recall hearing?

William Parker: Well, what I recall very vividly, is the nightly excursions of listening to Duke Ellington. When my father got home from work, I was about six or seven, maybe seven, eight, my father would immediately put on Duke Ellington, live at Newport 1957. He would play the whole thing, but particularly when it got to “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” is when we took off. With dancing to the music and feeling it, and that becomes more vivid as I get older. Listening to those sounds and listening to Paul Gonsalves’ twenty-seven chorus solo, and the band just really popping, and raising the roof, as they say, and it was live, so you can feel the audience. So that is really what I recall the most.

Every Saturday was music listening day, where myself and my brother would listen to music. We listened to Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges. It was mostly stuff my father listened to, but as a result of listening to the things he listened to, we expanded and began to get records of our own. And I think the first records we got were the MJQ. We got some of the Ornette Coleman records on Atlantic. We didn’t get John Coltrane, I didn’t hit John Coltrane up until later on. So it was mostly Ornette Coleman and then later on Sonny Rollins, and the Impulse! Records, a lot of the Verve Records.

I was into arrangements. Lalo Schifrin wrote a lot for Verve and then some Mercury things with Quincy Jones. Particularly, as things went on, I began listening to soundtracks, movie soundtracks, and I remember Quincy Jones had one called “Pawnbroker” and another called “Mirage” and one called “The Deadly Affair,” which I liked a lot, and also Lalo Schifrin. Oliver Nelson was beginning to get into film writing; but also the music John Barry did, most notably James Bond. In high school I began listening to a Ennio Morricone’s music, so I was listening to this music at the same time I was discovering jazz.

I also began to study films. You know Jean-Luc Godard, particularly the film “Alphaville,” which at that time was shown on TV a lot. And I was able to borrow the screenplays; Ingmar Bergman movies began to creep in. And then I sort of crossed the bridge into independent cinema, to the movies of Bruce Bailey, Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, and got hip to all of these things through reading books. And later on, Jonas Mekas’ Film Journal. I was just sort of floating on things and moving through like on a river, and I didn’t know anything about anything, I was just just going with things. And I was feeling tingles, you know. I was going to the library and just walked down the aisle and then I stopped, and there would be Kenneth Patchen. And I didn’t know who Kenneth Patchen was, but something said, “Pick up his book.” Then later on, I found out that Kenneth Patchen read with [Charles] Mingus. There was a connection there and I really got into Kenneth Patchen.

So that’s how all my information came to me, through a sort of kinetic involvement with other people, in the sense that, there’s someone’s music you like, and they liked Charlie Parker, even though I’d never really listened to Charlie Parker, but I heard Ornette Coleman was connected with Charlie Parker. So, down the line, I listened to Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk. I definitely heard Albert Ayler deeply before before I heard Sonny Rollins deeply. I heard Cecil Taylor before I heard Monk. So my tradition was sort of newer people to the tradition of jazz, but for me, they were inspiring me. And then I said, “Well, who inspired Cecil Taylor?” So he would talk about Monk, he would talk about Bud Powell. He would talk about Horace Silver, he would talk about how much he loved Fats Waller’s playing, and how great a musician Fats Waller was. So I say, “Well, if Cecil liked these people then I have to check them out,” because if what he was influenced by defined himself, then I should not dismiss it. If I can, I should listen to it.

AD: When you started playing, you set upon the bass. How did you come to choose that as your main instrument?

William Parker: Well, you know, I always liked the bass. There was a particular bassist I liked called John Lamb. He was in Duke Ellington’s orchestra. I don’t know if he’s written about in the books or noted with the great bass players, but I thought he was a great bass player. He was on a record called “Soul Call,” and “The Far East Suite.” During that period when Ellington is releasing a lot of his suites, he was on a number of them. So I liked him. I liked Percy Heath, playing with the MJQ. I liked Richard Davis, playing on things with big bands, and George Duvivier. So I just tended to like the bass. When I was in junior high school, I played the cello, but I always was sort of looking at and liking the bass. And then I saw this movie called “Shoot the Piano Player,” by François Truffaut with Charles Aznavour. There’s a scene in there where Pierre Michelot, the bass player, picks up his bass and walks across the screen. So I just thought the bass was a cool instrument. So I just gravitated towards it. Previously, my father got me a trumpet, a trombone, and then a cello, but the bass is what really got me.

I listened a lot to [John Coltrane’s] A Love Supreme, to [bassist] Jimmy Garrison. But I think I’d heard a record by Charles Mingus called “Nostalgia in Times Square,” and I said, “Wow, this guy’s really good.” And then later on, I saw a film about [Mingus’] eviction. And then I heard Jimmy Garrison, and I began to see that the bass was more than what I was hearing. Even though I loved what I was hearing. And then I saw people reading about Scott LaFaro , but I didn’t really listen to Scott LaFaro because I didn’t really listen to Bill Evans. I mean, eventually, later on they came across my radar. I listened to everybody. Everybody that was on a record, from Reggie Workman to Milt Hinton, to Steve Swallow. I thought all the bass players were good, I thought this is fantastic. All of the players were great. And then the avant-garde, you know, Henry Grimes, Sirone, Alan Silva, Lewis Worrell.

AD: A couple of the bassists you mentioned were people that you actually took classes with or studied with in some fashion.

William Parker: Yeah, I studied with Richard Davis first; at the Jazzmobile workshop up in Harlem. I also studied with Milt Hinton up there, and with a bass player named Art Davis. From there, I went to study with Jimmy Garrison. He was living on Western Avenue. So I took lessons with him. And at that point, I met Wilbur Ware. I was playing duets with bass and drums with Billy Higgins out at his house in Brooklyn. And the first time I went out there Wilbur was there and piano player Chris Anderson and Clifford Jordan. So we all played and then I got a connection with Wilbur. Wilbur was living on 11th Street, between B and C, down the block from a place I used to go to called the Firehouse, which was run by saxophone player Alan Glover, we called him Juice. That was around the time when the loft scene started. You had the Firehouse, Studio Rivbea, 24 Bond Street, the Ladies’ Fort on Bond Street. You had Studio We, 193 Eldridge Street. Warren Smith had a place, you had a place down Broadway called Environ, which was run by John Fisher, when it was in the back of the loft that the Brubeck family had. There were a lot of places in that time between ‘72 and ‘80. That eight year period, rents were very cheap and that was the pre-Ronald Reagan period. And when Ronald Reagan came in rents and the dynamic of New York began to slowly change.

AD: Were you also collecting records at this time?

William Parker: Oh, yeah, we had our little method of buying records, you could get mono records for 99 cents. You know, all the ESP records, they were selling for 49 cents. And Sam Goody’s record store; I don’t know if Sam Goody still exists, but you’d get records for 49 cents, 99 cents. I got a huge record collection. I was living in the Bronx, and I moved my collection over to a place in West Bronx. We were rehearsing there every day; we would listen to the music, rehearse and listen to music. The records of that particular selection got lost in a fire. But it was always important to collect records because that was your lifeline to music. And there was always some record you didn’t hear. Today there’s still records I was meaning to buy, but just never got to buy.

AD: Speaking of records, one of your first appearances was with Frank Lowe, on ESP-Disk’, the “Black Beings” record. What are your memories of that record? For me, that’s still one of my favorites on ESP, even though it’s a later one, but it still stands up, I think.

William Parker: Oh, yeah. That was one of the last records ESP recorded. Because Bernard Stollman was changing, not direction, but he was making some things happen in the record company. We recorded that at Ornette Coleman’s Artists House. I had known Frank Lowe because we would play jam sessions at a drummer’s house called Rashid Sinan, who lived on 11th Street. Charles Brackeen was around, Andrew Hill was around, so we were always playing. And so I met Frank. And then he invited me to play the two nights at the Artists House. He said Joseph Jarman was coming in from Chicago to play with us. And we had Raymond Lee Ching, who for years people thought was Leroy Jenkins, but it wasn’t, it was Raymond Lee Ching on violin. He called himself the Wizard on it. It was a great concert. We played for two nights. I mean, if I had known that they were recording, I would have gotten closer to the mic. You never know what’s going to happen. But that was my first record.

AD: Not long after that you began to work with Ensemble Muntu?

William Parker: That was a group led and started by Jemeel Moondoc, he passed away, the alto player from Chicago. I met Jemeel in 1974. I was playing down in Studio Rivbea, I think with Charles Brackeen or it could have been Charles Tyler. And Jemeel had come in with Arthur Williams, a trumpet player, who played with Milford Graves a lot, and went to Japan with Cecil Taylor. So it was Jemeel, Arthur Williams, at first Rashid Sinan and then later Rashid Bakr [on drums] and a piano player Mark Hennen. We played mostly Jemeel’s music. Later on, Roy Campbell joined us, and we played some of Roy’s tunes. It was a really great group. It was my training ground. I think in 1981, I joined Cecil Taylor’s Unit. But Muntu was my creative training ground for a lot of stuff, because we rehearsed almost every single day.

AD: You mentioned Cecil Taylor. How did you connect with him?

William Parker: I had played with Cecil in 1974 at Carnegie Hall. I was in a big band that Cecil led, and we worked for George Wein opposite the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. So I met Cecil at that time. And then when I was playing at the Five Spot with Don Cherry, a year later, Cecil came down and we talked. And I guess in 1980, I did a gig at the Tin Palace and Cecil was there every night. And then afterwards, that engagement in December 1980, Cecil’s manager Jim Silverman called up and said, “Cecil would like you to join the Unit. We have a gig in Washington, DC, are you available?” So that’s when I began playing with Cecil, December 1980, till about 1990, ‘91.

AD: You’ve been very interested yourself in doing interviews. You’ve published three “Conversations” books. When did you start the practice of interviewing other musicians?

William Parker: That started 2003, but I was always inspired by the book that Arthur Taylor wrote called Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews. I think I read that when I was in high school. That book inspired me; we must tell our own story, and control our narrative wherever possible. And when musicians talk to musicians, they speak differently. There’s certain insights that you have that you wouldn’t necessarily have when you speak to a writer. When you talk to a musician, you can get inside them. We were lucky enough that RogueArt was interested in publishing the interviews, and there are three volumes out now, 35 interviews in each book, and we’re working on volume four to be released in June [2022]. The first two volumes have a CD with parts of the interviews.

I just think it’s important to document our history because our music is not taught in the colleges. I mean, if you look at the college curriculum in most colleges, it goes from, you know, from Ragtime or old jazz, to Duke Ellington, to bebop, and then it goes to Miles Davis, then Miles Davis fusion and then when it comes to avant-garde you might have, you know, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, maybe a thing on Sun Ra or the Art Ensemble [of Chicago], but that’s it. There’s really no documentation of the New York scene particularly. People like Billy Bang, who’s passed away, or Roy Campbell, William Hooker, Charles Gayle, Raphe Malik. Jimmy Lyons, who was a great, great alto player, is not mentioned with the great alto saxophone players.

To make a little stab to put a dent in that problem, I think that every musician should write their own book and document themselves, and put out as much as they can put out about their history and their band mates’ history and the period of music they came from. I mean, Fred Anderson – a great, great musician. But when you mention great tenor players, he’s left out because they not only don’t know what he did, people don’t care. Everything we’ve done has been kind of under the radar, it’s been underground. This is underground music, and the music, in reality, is in no way underground. It should be right up front and listed as part of black music in black history and in black curriculum. This music is created by black progenitors and they should be mentioned. Along with Duke Ellington you should mention Sun Ra. How can you not? That band still exists. I don’t know if Duke Ellington’s band still exists or if Count Basie’s orchestra still exists, but Sun Ra’s band still exists with some of the original members, particularly Marshall Allen; he’s 97 and he still leads the band.

AD: You’ve played with Marshall Allen. I saw you in a trio with him and Alan Silva in 1999. When I interviewed Alan Silva, he argued that Albert Ayler could have been as big as someone like Jimi Hendrix, because Silva was playing to huge concerts in Europe, 3000-4000 people. Silva said he never had a problem playing avant-garde music for a large, diverse audience.

William Parker: Oh, no, you never do. I mean, when Henry Rollins would play and we’d open up for Henry Rollins, or open up for Thurston Moore, audiences loved it. We were doing acoustically what Sonic Youth was doing electrically, as far as the energy; the music was different, but they were vibrating and creating sound with electricity, and we were acoustic. Charles Gayle, Rashied Ali and myself, we had this group called By Any Means; that group would just go shoosh! Right, right, straight up to the stratosphere all the time. So yeah, I mean, if the music had been allowed to get a fair shot at airplay and surviving; but the way this music is, it’s like people have been locked into periods and they’re locked into certain people or heroes,. Take the drummer Milford Graves; all the drummers talk about Tony Williams. But it was Milford Graves who was doing innovations, you know, but they got Tony Williams on the brain, because Milford didn’t record for Columbia, we didn’t record for Columbia or we weren’t pushed out there. There was always this thing on the head of the music that made it kind of like a stigma.

AD: From the beginning, you’ve been composing your own music. I gather from reading your liner notes that one aspect of your compositions is “Universal Tonality.” Could you describe this concept?

William Parker: It’s basically that if we’re all vibing on the same plane, no matter what country we come from, we know that you can come from Japan or Russia, and you don’t have to speak Japanese and speak Russian when you play music. Music is one of the universal languages; it’s about sound. And you can go anywhere in the world and listen, and play music as long as you don’t have a box – that what I play is music, what they play is not.

And this came about when I was doing a concert at the Museum of Natural History in Philadelphia. And it was a concert organized by drummer Harold Smith. And he brought a bunch of didgeridoo players in, he brought some Cherokee Indian, indigenous people from South Carolina. And then we were playing on stage, I think Joe McPhee was there and Andrew Cyrille. But nobody said anything. Nobody said, “Okay, when we stop you start.” So everybody just stayed, had their autonomy. And they did what they did. The dancers would come in and dance at the right time, and go out at the right time. The flute players would come in and play, go in and come out. The didgeridoo players would come in. And at the end, it was like we were really just vibing and it was working. That got me interested in the idea that if you take a master musician from any country in the world, and you put them in a room together, and you have a lit candle, you say when I blow out the candle, the music’s going to start. You blow it out. The music starts. When I light the candle again, it’s going to stop. You can do it. You don’t have to really, like, work at anything or try to control the music. Because it all is sound, it’s all coming from the same place. If you’re open to that, it can work. You can be in 12 different keys, you can play soft against loud, loud against soft, melodic against non melodic music and it should work. And they agree that we’re all here for a common cause, so you drop your personality, you drop your ego. And the goal is to communicate through sound and music and vibration. So that’s kind of what universal tonality is: to bring different elements together, and play together without losing your individuality. You can have Israelis and Palestinians, you know, Russians and Americans in the same room, and they can play together and they can live together.

AD: At the end of January 2021, you released Migration of Silence Into and Out of The Tone World – [Volumes 1–10], a 10-CD boxset of 10 different albums. It was a monumental musical statement. Could you talk about that? Because it must have taken several years to write all those pieces?

William Parker: Well, we did it, you know, one [album] at a time. And I think they were done within two years, and in the studio every so often. And what I do is, I commission myself. I always wanted to do something called a great Italian directors suite, which is on that record. I wrote a piece for Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, because these guys are my heroes. So I wanted to write a piece for them. And so when I got through with that, then the next thing was we’re talking about Mexico, we’re talking about the kids on the border. So we write some pieces for that and put that together. At the time we were doing the recording, Cecil Taylor passed away. So we had “Blue Limelight,” which is a piece that came to me the day after Cecil passed.

How do you write all that music? Every Sunday, a different math, a different music. So once you begin to write and get the music out there, you can put out 10 CDs, 20 CDs, 30 CDs, with every day, you’re writing awesome music, I wrote three pieces of music this morning, you know, before breakfast, and I’m not bragging, but that’s when it just came out. You know, three nice tunes and I’ll go back and clean them up later on today. And so once you untap the keg, it just never stops. So it was pretty easy to do. And next thing you know, wow, we have 10 CDs. So if we put out one CD a year, that’s 10 years. Let’s put them all out at the same time.

AD: In 2021, besides the 10-CD Migration of Silence, you also released the stand alone trio album Mayan Space Station. It was one of my favorites of 2021. Among other things. I really liked how your bass sounds on that record. I’m not a technical person, so I can’t explain technically what you did, but the bass sound on it is just massive, and whatever you did, it just seemed to really work well. Could you discuss that album?

William Parker: Well, that’s our engineer, Jim Clouse who recorded that record. And, you know, we played, and it was a good session. My idea was, if you check my discography, which is kind of big, but I had a clarinet trio with Perry Robinson and Walter Perkins, a violin trio with Billy Bang, a saxophone trio with Daniel Carter and Hamid Drake, and a piano record  with Eri Yamamoto. I haven’t put out a trumpet trio yet or trombone trio, they are to come. But now it was time for guitar. And I played with Eva Mendoza through the drummer William Hooker, I liked her playing and I thought we could we could all join in and really put something together.

AD: You talked about how you used to collect records. Do you still collect records? For instance, have you heard the new John Coltrane album, A Love Supreme- Live In Seattle?

William Parker: Yeah, I mean, I’ll get it. I just bought two box sets last week, one with Muhal Richard Abrams’ music from Black Saint Records and one of Jimmy Lyons. So when I go down to Downtown Music Gallery, I’ll always pick something up. And sometimes when I travel. So I am continually buying CDs. Some of them I never play and I never open up. I’ve got so many unopened CDs. But I figured when I retire, I’ll have something to do. But it doesn’t look like I’m retiring right now.

AD: It doesn’t seem that retirement is a word in your vocabulary.

William Parker: Yeah, it doesn’t seem that way.

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