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The Radical Jazz of William Parker

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    Posted: 21 Mar 2021 at 8:54am

A new biography of bassist and composer William Parker stresses free jazz's transformative capacities – and details how his music gave expression to radical black, working-class and anti-imperialist politics.


William Parker is, as Duke Ellington would say, beyond category. In a just world, the jazz bassist, composer and poet would be widely recognised as a major artist of our time, a musical visionary akin to Charles Mingus or Don Cherry. For all its avant-garde associations, Parker’s music is full of melody and groove. No matter how out he gets, the pull of the funk remains strong.

Coming from the ‘Black revolutionary spiritual school of jazz’, Parker believes that ‘it is the role of the artist to incite political, social, and spiritual revolution… to light the fire of human compassion.’ His radicalism may have kept him outside the mainstream, but it has resulted in a stunning body of work.

Cisco Bradley’s Universal Tonality: The Life and Music of William Parker is the first biography of the man pianist Matthew Shipp calls ‘the walking embodiment of the spirit of free jazz.’ At 69, Parker has much great work ahead of him, but with the recent release of a masterful 10 CD box set of new music, this is an ideal time to reflect on his achievements.

An academic historian and editor of the Jazz Right Now blog, Bradley draws on extensive interviews with Parker and his associates, taking us from his childhood in the South Bronx, through his formative years in the 1970s Loft Scene, to his advent as a bandleader in the 1990s and beyond. Bradley also traces Parker’s ancestry from West Africa to New York via the Carolinas, providing a deep historical context for his discussion of the cultural influences and material conditions which shaped Parker.

Born in 1952, Parker grew up in a South Bronx destabilised by the building of Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway, which split neighbourhoods and destroyed the local economy. The area, writes Bradley, became ‘the face of African American urban poverty and the system of structural violence that maintained it.’

Despite their poverty, Parker’s parents Mary Louise and Thomas made sure any spare income went on the children. William and his older brother Thomas grew up around music. Duke Ellington was a fixture on the family turntable, and in their teens, the boys would spend their pocket money on modern jazz LPs from labels like Verve and Atlantic. They were encouraged to take up musical instruments—Thomas Sr’s dream was for them to play in the Duke Ellington Orchestra—with Thomas learning the saxophone and William trying out trumpet, trombone, and later cello.

While Parker did well at school, he was alienated by a racist education system that told Black students ‘you aren’t ever going to be anything in life.’ Overcoming his shyness and the anxiety of poverty, Parker achieved self-realisation, Bradley writes, through ‘a threefold process of self-respect, spirituality and an autodidactic hunger for art and knowledge.’ In turn, the Black Power and Black Arts movements instilled a sense of newfound pride in the teenage Parker.

Ellis Haizlip’s groundbreaking television programme Soul!—the subject of a new documentary—had a profound influence on Parker, exposing him to a Black public sphere in which artists such as Sonia Sanchez, James Baldwin and Curtis Mayfield could speak about culture, society and politics. The show introduced Parker to the poet Amiri Baraka and he became a keen collector of small press publications by poets like Larry Neal, Nikki Giovanni and Kenneth Patchen.

Poetry led Parker to the experimental theatre of Jerzy Grotowski, whose emphasis on enacting change upon an audience compelled him to see the act of live musical creation as a transformative act for performer and audience alike. Cinema was also crucial, opening him up to a world beyond the projects. From reading Jonas Mekas in Village Voice, Parker discovered the experimental cinema of Stan Brakhage, whose revolutionary concepts about perception allowed Parker to rethink existing ways of seeing and hearing. In another life, Parker might have become a filmmaker, but as Bradley notes, his creativity was not bound into genres or disciplines. One inspired the other.

Parker came to avant-garde jazz via Ornette Coleman. In rejecting chord structures and freeing up time, the new music represented, as the critic Addison Gayle Jr. put it, ‘an insurrection against European musical bondage.’ The new music was an expression of Black identity, revolutionary in form and intent. To Parker, avant-garde jazz brought ‘some heavy light within the confusion of my life’ and set him on his path: ‘I began to think about what I was going to do and how I might bring this enlightenment to people.’ Parker recognised that art was not for art’s sake, but built connections between people and could be ‘a fierce cry for justice.’

For Parker, political change went hand in hand with spiritual transformation. He had heard the call of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and shared the saxophonist Albert Ayler’s belief that ‘music is the healing force of the universe.’ He developed a practice of nonviolence, part of what he saw as a lifelong training in compassion.

Growing up, Parker would stand with a broomstick in his hands and play along to records. When he finally acquired his first bass in 1969, it already felt quite natural. At Jazzmobile, a Harlem-based community music organisation, Parker took free lessons from the great bassist Richard Davis, but he ultimately chose to leave formal education and learn on the bandstand instead, gigging with folk singers, dancers, poets, and even a ventriloquist. He found a home for his own music at the Third World, a Black cultural centre in the Bronx.

As Bradley notes, Parker turned to avant-garde jazz at the very moment some would say it was coming undone. With the deaths of Coltrane and Ayler, the music had lost two of its major forces. Finding themselves out of favour with promoters and record labels, the musicians went underground. This was the era of the Loft Scene, when artist-run spaces popped up across post-industrial Lower Manhattan: Studio Rivbea, Ali’s Alley, Environ, Firehouse Theatre. Arising directly from the Black Arts movement, the Loft Scene centred on a desire for cultural autonomy and sovereignty from the music industry.

It was a period of great experimentation, as musicians combined free blowing with melody and groove, explored unconventional instrumentation, and embraced modern classical and non-Western influences. Parker immersed himself in the scene, meeting lifelong collaborators like multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter.

Parker’s sheer dedication to the music in the face of poverty is remarkable. Unable to afford the Subway fare, Parker would lug his bass several miles from the South Bronx to the Lower East Side, composing music in his head as he walked. Due to a lack of funds, his early groups largely went unrecorded, but he began to make appearances on other people’s records, beginning with Frank Lowe’s fervent classic Black Beings in 1973.

While building a community of like-minded young musicians around him—trumpeter Malik Baraka, violinist Billy Bang, saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc—Parker explored collaborations with dancers, including his wife Patricia Nicholson, whom he met in 1973 and has provided support and inspiration ever since. He took up opportunities to play with masters like Don Cherry, but his big break came with pianist Cecil Taylor, who hired him in 1980.

One of the most important artists of the twentieth century, Taylor taught Parker that ‘the dimensions and depths of sound have no limit.’ Taylor introduced Parker to an international community of improvisers, leading him to forge strong bonds with musicians like saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and trumpeter Toshinori Kondo. On his travels, Parker began collecting musical instruments—kora, gimbri, shakuhachi, and double reeds—incorporating them into his own music.

The 1980s were a difficult time for jazz musicians, with deep cuts to federal arts funding and record industry indifference. While European tours brought in some extra income, Parker and Nicholson struggled to get by, surviving on food stamps and other social services. In 1988, thanks to a community homesteader organisation, they were able to buy their own apartment in a formerly abandoned building on the Lower East Side for $250. As part of the deal, Parker worked 18 hours a week on restoring the building. Over time, he and Nicholson fashioned it into a home for their family, where they live to this day.

The economics of avant-garde jazz align with its cultural politics. While Parker might not use Marxist terms, he comes out of a Black radical tradition that is explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. In a speech Parker gave to a New York community association in 1984, he states, ‘we cannot separate the starving child from the starving musician, both things are caused by the same things, capitalism, racism and the putting of military spending ahead of human rights.’ Recognising that ‘the situation of the artist is a reflection of American’s whole attitude towards life and creativity’, Parker sought to place music at the centre of the community.

This statement was the beginning of Parker’s formulation of ‘a context’ for his music. As he wrote in his journal, ‘Black improvised music has had to fight for its life since the first slaves were brought here in 1619. The fight for survival goes on today and will continue to go on until America is transformed.’ In order to combat ‘America’s anti-life policies,’ Parker continued, ‘we have to be radical in every area of our lives.’ These words are manifested in the moral and material support Parker and Nicholson have provided to the jazz community through initiatives such as Arts For Art and the Vision Festival, and personal acts of generosity and kindness.

‘In order to survive’ became Parker’s motto and the name of his main small group of the 1990s. Their music reflected Parker’s commitment to social justice and solidarity with the oppressed. The title track of their masterpiece The Peach Orchard drew inspiration from the history of the Navajo people – just one of many Parker compositions to explore Native American culture. Embracing influences from around the world, he developed his concept of universal tonality, whereby musicians from diverse traditions can come together and improvise on a profound level.

Parker’s other main project of the 1990s was the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra. The character of Little Huey was central to the music, representing ‘every child who had been told to “shut up and sit down” when they asked a question.’ Little Huey was a genuine community orchestra, bringing together longstanding collaborators with new faces. Little Huey also introduced Parker’s concept of the tone world, a spiritual sanctuary that can be reached only through music and the expression of the self. By entering the tone world, musicians could change the world around them.

With these groups, Parker led a new wave of musicians taking free jazz into the twenty-first century. Bradley goes on to explore Parker’s key musical relationships, giving special attention to drummer Hamid Drake, with whom the bassist forms the premier rhythm section in free jazz. His chapter on Parker’s Curtis Mayfield and Duke Ellington tribute projects ties together many of the cultural, political and socio-economic concerns discussed here. Parker has no interest in replicating these great composers’ music note for note. Instead he opens it up through improvisation, finding the ‘inside song’ in the process.

Parker’s glorious Mayfield project is in many ways a perfect encapsulation of his work, encompassing uplifting song, radical poetry, infectious grooves, and wild improvisation. The presence of Amiri Baraka underlines Mayfield’s connection to the Black radical tradition, and brings Parker into collaboration with one of his formative influences. Essence of Ellington is both a reminder of Sir Duke’s radicalism, and a tribute to Parker’s late father. Parker’s catalogue is full of such tributes, creating a context for his work, and a sense of continuity, from ancient to future. An instant classic of jazz biography, Universal Tonality is a genuinely inspirational read, testament to the transformative power of art.

Universal Tonality: The Life and Music of William Parker is out now on Duke University Press.

Migrations of Silence Into and Out Of The Tone World is out now on Aum Fidelity

from https://tribunemag.co.uk



Edited by snobb - 21 Mar 2021 at 8:55am
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