William Parker is the Philosopher-King of New York’s improvised music scene, a gentle but towering godfather renowned for his work with everyone from Fred Anderson to John Zorn. His flexible and sensitive presence has left its mark on over 200 albums since 1973, including more than 50 as a leader, two dozen albums with David S. Ware, over a dozen discs each with Matthew Shipp and Cecil Taylor, as well as multiple collaborations with Peter Brötzmann and Jemeel Moondoc. Parker’s acoustic lines, sometimes augmented by his gimbri, percussion, and reeds forays, have laid the foundation for performances of every size, from solo bass situations to his own very large Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra. And though he’s closely tied to free jazz and avant-jazz, Parker’s playing—more soulful, melodic, grounded, and playful than those genres might suggest—organically and deftly sidesteps narrow stylistic categories.
Besides being a bass magus, bandleader, and composer, 66-year-old Parker is a poet and writer, shaped by Albert Ayler’s credo that music is the healing force of the universe. Conversations and Conversations II: Dialogues and Monologues [Rogueart] feature his interviews with other musicians along with short solo bass pieces. Who Owns Music? [Buddy’s Knife], a slim but deeply spiritual and autobiographical manifesto, reveals the multi-dimensional journey that has led to his vast output and his heralded place on the New York creative music scene, which includes his participation in the Vision Festival, created by Patricia Nicholson Parker and now in its 24th year.
The prolific Parker’s recent releases includes the cinematic Lake of Light: Compositions for Aquasonics [Gotta Let It Out], a handful of improvisations for waterphone; Seraphic Light [Aum Fidelity], long-form excellence featuring top-flight collaborators Daniel Carter and Matthew Shipp; Meditation/Resurrection [Aum Fidelity], featuring his flagship ensembles the William Parker Quartet, and In Order To Survive. There’s also Voices Fall from the Sky [Centering], an astonishingly diverse three-CD opus of collaborations with vocalists that’s only the first stage of a planned ten-disc project. Long before such ambitious visions, however, Parker was a boy in the Bronx who switched from trumpet to trombone to cello before falling hard for bass, prompting him to buy his first upright from Bronen’s Music on Webster Avenue.
What was your first gig?
I was coming home from Bronen’s, and a guy stopped me and said, “Oh, you’re a bass player!” I told him I’d just gotten the bass. He said, “Not this Sunday but the next Sunday, come to a jam session—we don’t have a bass player.” I had been going down to the library, listening to these concerts with Karl Berger and Charlie Haden, and Charlie told me that he learned how to play by playing along with records. So that’s what I did that whole week leading up the jam session.
How did it go?
I didn’t know the tunes, but I had a good ear, and I could follow the left hand of the piano player. I didn’t have any chops, though. I played until the two fingers in my right hand were big blood blisters, so I made up an excuse and got out of there. The next week, I went down to the Jazzmobile. They had a program every Saturday from 9 or 10 o’clock to about 5 o’clock. Paul West, the bassist from Dizzy Gillespie’s band, ran the program. Milt Hinton was there—I studied with him—and then Richard Davis was there, and Art Davis came.
Were you learning about the avant-garde, too?
I wanted to play the new black music, but whenever I mentioned Albert Ayler or Archie Shepp, they said, “No, Parker—we don’t do that here. Just learn your fundamentals.” What I needed to hear was, “Learn your fundamentals and you can do anything you want to do.”
Were you gigging a lot?
I was getting on-the-job training by playing with comedians, dancers, folk singers, and with Walter Bishop Sr., Maxine Sullivan, and Dill Jones. I was learning about music and learning that everybody put their music together differently; everybody had a different concept.
And taking lessons, too.
I saw an ad in the Village Voice by Jimmy Garrison, and I went to his house on West End Avenue to take some lessons. We went through the Simandl book. A very good arco player, Jimmy was. Wilbur Ware had a different approach.
Wilbur would play and then hand me the bass. If I played what he played, he’d say, “No. Wrong.” If I played it the way I played it, he’d say, “Right—you got it now.” He would say, “I don’t know anything about music. But I know something about Wilbur.”
You learned from Richard Davis, too.
Richard’s idea was that you played all kinds of music; he played with Joan Baez, in the symphony, with Sarah Vaughan, big bands, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis. He could do anything. At the same time, he highly respected Wilbur Ware. You had all these great bass players finding their way into the music, and that’s what I wanted to do. I found out that you didn’t really have to do too much to find your way—just listen, and the music, as well as the people you meet, will guide you.
You mentioned that you played for years without an amp. Did that help develop your tone?
Yes, but what really made a difference was “the claw,” which I got from Jimmy Garrison. He had a very hard grip. You get your tone from your left hand, and your right hand should be very smooth. Your left hand should be firm.
How did plugging into an amp change things?
Well, I could be heard. Cecil Taylor and his Bosendorfer [piano] were amped and I wasn’t, so I had to pick spots where I could hear myself. I enjoyed it when I got an amp [laughs]. Bass players are always trying to buy amps and pickups, because the ideal solution has not yet been invented.
How did you develop your connection to drummers?
I was at the Firehouse one day, playing a duo with an eight-year-old drummer named Omo, and then I heard this other drum sound. It was Billy Higgins. I began going out to his house in St. Marks, in Brooklyn, two or three times a week to play duos with Billy. That’s where I learned about the dance, how to play melody with time, how to have pulse, tension, relaxation—the dance into the heartbeat of the lifeline in the music: bass and drums, back and forth.
What’s the secret of your mind-meld with Hamid Drake?
I met Hamid in ’89 or ’90, playing with Peter Brötzmann, and right away, we had a great rapport: nothing said, nothing talked about, and it worked. We began to breathe together, breathe in a way we could tell stories, write musical poems, we could say prayers … it’s a mystery to me, but it’s a great mystery, a wonderful mystery.
Any advice for playing with drummers you’ve just met?
It’s about immediately seeing and feeling what’s going on, like a mechanic who listens to your car for a minute and knows what’s wrong. I learned that from playing with [guitarist] Derek Bailey. At first, I thought he wasn’t listening to me, but after a minute, I thought, “He’s listening to me, because he’s listening to himself.” If the drummer listens to himself, he’ll be listening to you. You just have to flow with the flow and get in the same stream. Don’t resist. Don’t think. Just feel. Repeat.
What’s the first thing you impress on new students?
The importance of tone. Your tone is like your voice—it’s the first thing people hear. If I say, “My name is William Parker” in long, beautiful, melodious tones, I’ve already started the healing process. The key is long tones. Tone comes before melody, before rhythm. Even if you don’t have rhythm, harmony, or phrasing down, you can just play long tones, and it’s so beautiful. I recommend that everybody have a beautiful tone, and start from there.
We go over the principles of improvisation, and basically, I spend time trying to get the music school off new students, open them up a little bit. Sometimes it’s just about giving them confidence, showing them that they’re doing things they didn’t think they could do.
Some people say, “You’re just improvising.” That’s like saying, “You’re just doing brain surgery.” It’s a highly skilled art to be able to improvise, to go to heaven every time you play music. That has to be the credo. I try to have the music work on its highest level every time I play.
Basses French 5/8-size, David Gage Czech-Ease, Juzek, flatback Czech
Strings Thomastik Spirocore Medium regular-gauge, preferably used
Bow Tatsuya Nakatani Kobo Bow, with Pop’s Bass Rosin