Pete Gershon talks with contemporary music's best kept secret:
William Parker


This interview originally appeared in Soundboard, now know as Signal To Noise
William Parker is considered by many to be the greatest bassist ever to have played avant-garde jazz. A core member of the Cecil Taylor Unit in the 80's, Parker has played with such talents as Bill Dixon, Jemeel Moondoc, Charles Gayle, and Roscoe Mitchell. Still criminally underappreciated after more than three decades of ground-breaking music, Parker is prolific as ever, currently serving as the invisible hand behind the groups of David Ware, Matthew Shipp and Assif Tsahar in addition to his own provocative combos.

Pete Gershon: You're a native of New York, William?

William Parker: I was born in the Bronx, New York.

PG: How did you get started playing this music?

WP: I guess as a child, through my father. In the house, we had a lot of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, so I guess through osmosis, through being around it, somehow the music just got caught inside me. Later on, I continued to listen toit on my own, expanding out to include the MJQ, John Coltrane's music, Ornette Coleman's music. When I was in high school I realized the music had a value. That, really, what it was all about was that music and art could heal people, and sort of uplift and enlighten people - And I thought that I could participate in that process, so I decided to become a musician. You see, it was only after I decided I could participate and make a statement like that that I decided to become a musician and jump into the area of free music or avant-garde music. I thought that was my calling, so to speak, and I began to study the bass.

PG: That's a very sophisticated kind of conception to have, especially as a high-schooler. Can you elaborate on your role as a musician and some of the techniques you use to realize your goals?

WP: Well, the music really changed my life, you see. I began to hear things differently and see things differently; to see beauty in things. My eyes just opened up, and I was able to see what was beautiful in things I didn't notice before, in people and clouds... in a lot of things related to nature. I listened to the bassist Jimmy Garrison, and what put it all together for me, was listening to Coltrane's A Love Supreme, because I was also into religion at the time, and dealing with the spiritual aspects of music. People's lives change by being closer to a higher source -- awakening the higher source inside them. In that way, you can operate on all your cylinders, so to speak. When you're just walkin' down the street doin' nothing, you might just be operating on one cylinder. When you start playing this music and acheive this sort of enlightened state, you may find yourself not only operating on all six cylinders, but be operating on cylinders you didn't even know you had!

So what I did then was, I related the bass to that concept. I visualized each string of the bass as a band of light, and I saw the bow of the bass as a prism and when I bowed the bass, it was like sending light through a prism. As white light, it would get broken up into different color bands. I looked at each sound. each harmonic as a different color band, and each color band could do a different thing. So I wasn't just studying scales, I studied a method of relating these ideas of vision, color and sound, and what sound could do, like mantras and trance chants, you know, so this was my guide and my underlying aesthetic, that each sound had to have a reason and each sound had to do a specific thing.

I also looked at the bass like a drum set, rather than just a stringed instrument. The G string which is the highest string, I looked at as a ride cymbal. My D string, I looked at as a snare. My low E string, I looked at like a gong, and my A string I looked at as a bass drum. So I developed that concept of the bass as a drum set, because I was very much influenced by drummers and the way they played, and the concept of the rhythm, sound, and melody you could get happening at once by playing the drum set. I was also looking at this concept of sound by which you were playing, but you weren't thinking of notes. This wasn't a note concept where you could play B and C and C# if you wanted, but of just sound, where you're not thinking of notes, only of sound, sound vibrating. The more I studied, I realized we were dealing with the vibration of sound and understood how vibrating sound changes properties. Like when you boil water into steam -- that's how sound works. You have to just vibrate it enough so that it changes property and people perceive it in different way. That's why Coltrane had a functional tone. It's almost like when you call somebody up, and you're upset, just hearing the sound of their voice saying, "Oh, hello, William!' can automatically calm you down. It's the same with music. Your tone can be functional; one tone and you're already doing something. So I was studying all these things, which are extentions that go way beyond what they teach in music school. Music school teaches in a more "practical" way, so to speak. They don't communicate any of the supernatural qualities of music.

PG: I've heard about a time when your bass rose off the stage on its own.

WP: Yeah, people like to ask me about that! That happened in 1978 at Rashied Ali's place, Ali's Alley. One afternoon I was playing there with Jemeel Moondoc and the Ensemble Muntu. What happened was that on that particular afternoon, I was breaking through into a new area of playing an area of continuous sound. And we were really playing, really into it, and I closed my eyes and it... it was just time for the bass to lift up, basically the same way a sax player will lift up, or go up with the saxophone. Well I was doing the same thing with the bass, and it sort of called out, and it happened. Also at that time, you know a lot of musicians close their eyes and play, and I was seeing different colors in my head at that time. And at that point I came across the discovery of the tone world. What I mean by that is that every time you play music, or do something beautiful, or uplift yourself, you can go into this corridor of light. If you play the right tones, there's a door there at the end, and inside are all the secrets of life. Every time you play, if your eyes are closed and you're into it, if you play the right tone combinations, you're allowed to go into the room and take a secret of life out, and it's yours to keep. Then the music comes back down, and you leave the room and you come back to your normal state. This is something we call genius. This is where we get inspiration, it's passed down to us. We have to somehow get to thestate where the music flows through us.

See, I base this idea on the fact that music existed before man, as a seperate entity. Man didn't invent music, he discovered music, or what I call the "sound stream". When we play music, what we're doing is throwing lines into the sound stream, and then we try to get the sound stream to come back through us as music. Those musicians who are really good at it can do it more consistently. They know exactly what area they want to throw their lines into, and actually know how to keep the flow of sound from being blocked. You know, we get into this thing about composing as opposed to improvisation, but the thing is, improvisation is composition. Simple as that. But there's this idea, you know, if it's not written out on paper, it's not a composition. It's sort of an in-house prejudice, devised by people trying to get grants, or trying to make some distinction between classical music and jazz music. But every time you play, you're making a composition. A composition is an organization of tones, whether its pre-set, or done spontaneously. Beacuse even when you play spontaneously, you're still relying on something you know.

PG: You're trying to acheive a kind of egoless state where you're essentially a vehicle for the music to come through.

WP:Right, it has to get to the point where it's flowing and has a life of its own, where you're subservient to it. You're not the one making it go; it's going somewhere and you're saying, "Take me along with you!" Because certainly the music is deeper than us. And it's taking us someplace we've never been. We can't take it anyplace new, because music is older than us, and wiser than us, it's deeper than us, so whay should we try and lead IT?

PG:Your music is so fully oriented towards making an emotional bond with the listener, I wonder how things change for you when you record in the studio?

WP: The studio's a totally different thing. I think whenever you listen to something recorded in the studio, it's like eating food with the plastic still on it. Studios are unnatural for me, actually. I think ideally, if you were going to record in a studio, you'd rehearse there every day, and then, at the end of the week, possibly turn on some mics. It should be done the way rock albums are done, but the budgets for jazz recordings usually only allow for one or two days, while a rock group could take a month or much more. I mean, people make great CDs, and of course something comes out that's beautiful, but imagine what it would be like if these same guys had a chance to relax in the studio.

PG:What's your view of the health of the new music scene?

WP: Well, I was just talking to some people yesterday about how, as you leave New York and you're listening to our jazz station, WKCR, and you start to lose it about half-way down the New Jersey Turnpike. Then you might pick up some jazz on the Temple station but you lose that too as you travel south past Philadelphia, and then you don't hear any more jazz. You don't hear any more of the records that you're on. Except for pockets here and there, you know, someone will have a little Sunday night show, or something on after midnight, or certain die-hards who love the music and will put it up on the internet. Except for these pockets, you're not getting very much publicity. If you divide the amount of publicity into the number of people in the US, you see that you're really getting the short end of the stick. You can't win a Grammy, because they won't even consider an album that's sold fewer than 5000 copies. You can't even get nominated. I mean imagine what it would do if there was a Grammy for avant-garde jazz. Once a year, an artist like that could go on TV and play for millions of people!

I think we have to realize we can only go so far. Once you realize you have the need to play this music, it's not about how far you can go, it's not about who's listening, ok? It's about the fact that your position in the universe is such that, if you DON'T play, something will go off its axis. Something will go off. Look at the guys who are 25, and up-and-coming, at places like the Knitting Factory. And then look at all the guys who are 65, still playing at the Knitting Factory. Guys like Cecil Taylor, Henry Threadgill. When Cecil was in his 20's, he played in little places on Bleecker Street. Now, he plays at the Knitting Factory. Where have you gone? Where has the music gone? Basically,what I'm saying is, the jazz elevator can't go too far up. And in a sense, it takes away the frustration about not making it. Because you ARE making it, just as far as it can be made with this music. No, the real frustration comes from the fact that this music's not even in the textbooks. It's not taught in the schools. It's not acknowledged. I would say there are people out there waiting to play this music, who don't even know it exists. They have no idea you can approach a drum set in a different way, that you can play a saxophone in a different way, that you don't just have to play a 12-bar solo. You look at jazz books, and they tell you, "to play a good jazz solo, don't be too emotional. Don't repeat yourself. Don't play a particular kind of note. Don't play too many choruses." If vou followed their rules, you wouldn't have any Charlie Parker, have any John Coltrane. You wouldn't have any jazz.

There is a conservatism that's flooding the country, but there are pockets — like what's going on in Amherst. Michael Ehlers doesn't have fifty thousand dollars, so he's just doing a one-day festival with 4 or 5 groups. But those 4 or 5 groups will shake the universe on that particular day! And I am sure that if those groups didn't play on that day, the world would be worse off for it. And that's how we have to look at it — that everything you do is the most important thing you could do in life, whether it's playing for one person or ten thousand. Or even if you're just walking down the street, and a little kid says "Hey! What's that on your back?' If I say, It's a bass," and stop and spend fifteen minutes talking to the kid about music, at that time, its as if it's the most important thing I could possibly do. Life is short, and we cant expect too much except to try and get close to whatever is beautiful about life. It's not about making money, nobody even expects that anymore! It didn't work!

Just the idea that the layman has about the music is wrong. There's nothing "out" about this music. If you analyze it, you find that it has rhythm, harmony, melody. It has extended techniques. It's influenced by music from all over the world, you know? The cell of sound is smaller. The rhythm isn't constant, it's more like the idea of a pulse, where you take a longer rhythm and break it up, varying smaller and longer cells. Sometimes you're playing a chant that builds to a fever pitch. You deal with dances, the feeling of the blues. But it's not about playing anything you want to play. It's not even about wanting to play! It's about having to do it, and training yourself how to go along with sound and a flow of ideas.