William Parker: Back to bass licks

My friend’s feelings about bassist William Parker’s upcoming gigs at the Joy of Jazz festival were mixed: “I hope he doesn’t do any of that weird stuff,” he said. “Just the tuneful things, like Corn Meal Dance …”

Since Parker is travelling with the ensemble that created the 2007 album Corn Meal Dance – vocalist Leena Conquest, pianist Eri Yamamoto, altoist Rob Brown, trumpeter Lewis Barnes and drummer Hamid Drake – my friend might get at least part of his wish. But to get the message of Parker’s music, and the tradition he comes out of, we really need to drop a bunch of stereotypes about music genres and the ostensible walls between them.

Parker was born in the Bronx in 1952, and studied informally with Jimmy Garrison, Richard Davis, Wilbur Ware and more. “I didn’t trust schools,” he wrote in his 2007 essay collection Who Owns Music, “because at an early age I began to hear voices. I never heard a voice coming out of school that said anything I could relate to. The voices I heard were from the streets and the oral histories of the people.”

In the 1970s, Parker joined up with Chicago-born reedman Jemeel Moondoc in the improvising collective Ensemble Muntu, and it was there that his distinctive approach really emerged. “The idea was to play and build energy until you were kind of lost in the music – and what happened was I broke through with an arco solo. I found a voice on the instrument. I also got to the point where I stepped into another world inside the music and was really lost in it. I got the idea of trusting, not trying to make something happen.”

Although arco (bowed) bass has come to be associated most strongly with Parker’s personal sound, his tonal palette is far bigger. He can be sonorous and lyrical on the instrument or add textures from the grating and percussive to a rolling hiss like ocean waves, or a growl like the purring of a very big cat. He can also make what he affectionately dubs the “bass fiddle” sound just like its classical string-quartet counterpart when required, and adapt idioms for it from the doson n’goni (Malian hunter’s lute), which he also plays.

Parker came to international attention most strongly through his work with pianist Cecil Taylor’s touring Feel Trio in the 1990s (he began working with Taylor in the 1980s), but his career as both leader and ensemble player began two decades before that. As well as Moondoc and Taylor, he has worked with Fred Anderson, David S Ware, Matthew Shipp, Charles Gayle, Derek Bailey and many more.

His 40-plus albums as leader – and four times that in total – range from intense, small-group improvisation to revisionings of historic soul music (I Plan to Stay a Believer: the Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield, 2007), the spiritual world of the African-American churches (Uncle Joe’s Spirit House, 2010) and, most recently, orchestral arrangements in this year’s four-album For Those Who Are, Still (Aum Fidelity).

Since the 1970s, he has been not only a player, but also a teacher, art-maker, writer and music organiser. With his partner, dancer-choreographer Patricia Nicholson Parker, he has since 1996 organised the annual Vision Festival of experimental arts in New York.

It is not surprising that such a combination of achievements has made Parker something of a poster figure for experimental jazz, constantly burdened with labels such as “avant-gardist” and “free player”. (I confess to using them myself as convenient shorthand.) But unless we sometimes pause to unpack the labels, we do the musicians we burden with them a disservice.

The term avant-garde has been used since the early years of the 20th century to signify artistic works that disregard current conventions and implicitly or explicitly question the established order. In jazz, it has become synonymous with free jazz: improvisation that extends or rejects predetermined harmonic, temporal and thematic structures. It has not always been a term of praise; pianist Matthew Shipp has spoken of the “utter hatred” music so labeled sometimes experiences.


As George Lewis has noted in his history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, A Power Stronger than Itself, the black avant-garde has often been written out of jazz history both by the jazz essentialists of the Lincoln Centre faction and by white critics who see avant-gardism as the property of their own social class. As with many genre labels, these prejudices and exclusions have aided its conversion into just another co-opted, commodified brand for global capitalism to market. Besides, the idea is a century out of date. These days, everything from hip-hop to film soundtrack is wearing avant-garde musical clothes.

And that’s the key point about Parker and his music. It is not constrained by labels or boundaries. Nothing he plays is deliberately “weird” or “tuneful”; it is simply the music that suits the message and the moment: “If you say ‘black music’ you are talking about everything from field hollers to space music,” he says. “It’s in that range that the music has existed. So you have all that to draw upon plus whatever variation of these things you yourself have been working on.”

It was that expansive range of inspirations, no doubt, that provided some of the common ground for Parker’s collaborations with the late South African saxophonist Zim Ngqawana in the Collective Quartet.

Melody is never absent from Parker’s inspiration, even when only a fragment or a skeleton of it is expressed in what, on first listening, is an abstract context. Parker told interviewer Mike Bjella: “Albert Ayler and Don Cherry taught me that melody is a very important part of the healing process. A happy melody is something that you could go off singing. If you heard a melody you like, when you are feeling in a particular way and you want to alter your mood, you can hum a melody. That’s why melody is important: it is something you can reuse and put into your life at another point.”

Whether the Sandton Convention Centre will provide the most conducive environment for Parker’s music is moot. The vibe of the area is rampant consumerism; the building itself shares that zeitgeist, though slightly fraying at the edges. Last year, too many halls had intrusive, noisy bars at their rears. But if enough open-minded listeners pack the seats, we can tune out the noise in favour of the music.

As for what that music will be, it may be best to let Parker predict, in this extract from his poem Music Is:

“Music is dance and the dancer. It is poetry and the poet. Music is all children. Music is hot cornbread. Music is the kindness one finds in a crayon drawing. Music is wood touching word. Imagine a doorbell made of light. Imagine the house that we would enter if we rang that bell.

“Music is the rhythm of butterflies. Music is hungry stomachs being filled. Music is justice. Music is blue water, blue whales, and blue cornmeal.”

William Parker plays the Diphala stage at the Sandton Convention Centre on Friday September 25 and the Conga Stage on Saturday September 26

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.
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