The latest installation of our book-conversation series brings us into the orbit of acclaimed jazz musician William Parker. Poetry, history and music all inform Parker's wide-ranging and open-hearted approach. Let the spirits speak...
OGR No 9: William Parker
He's been hailed by The Village Voice as, “the most consistently brilliant free jazz bassist of all time.” Internationally-renowned for prodigious skills on that instrument, he also plays shakuhachi, double reeds, tuba, donso ngoni, and gembri and his sounds and compositions can be found on hundreds of albums. I've been listening to him for years and have only gotten to a fraction of his recorded output. He's published six books, including two important, lengthy volumes of interviews with fellow musicians of the creative improvised music world. He's a deep thinker and teacher and a living line from past jazz giants to tomorrow's players who will take the music in unforeseen directions. He has big ears, big talent, and big passion. He is William Parker.
WDV: What’s an exciting and engaging book about jazz for readers who aren’t regular jazz listeners?
WP: Black Music by Amiri Baraka and As Serious As Your Life by Valerie Wilmer. These books are special because they are conduits for the music to the audience and they tell the story from the viewpoint of the musicians who made the music.
Fortunately both are still in print all these years later.
Which music critic have you learned the most from?
Amiri Baraka, who was more a catalyst and midwife than critic. I have not learned anything from a music critic, although Nat Hentoff was very enthusiastic about and an advocate for the music. I used to take a black marker and cross out the parts I disagreed with, I was really only interested in the words of the musicians. It is the role of the music writer to be a bridge between the music and the listener and you got the sense Nat spoke to musicians about their music before writing anything. Nat was ok, he fit in. In his liner notes for Impulse, John Coltrane’s Expression specifically, he helped listeners approach the music.
Amiri Baraka was remarkable. Can you tell me about your relationship with him? Did you talk books and writers with him?
When I worked with Amiri, either with his band or when we did the Curtis Mayfield Project, it was a good creative collaboration. I played music and he enthusiastically read his work. We didn’t really talk about things too much, but he told me the time Martin Luther King came to his house in Newark and how he and King were coming closer to agreeing on some things. He talked about Malcolm X, in glowing terms and we spoke a lot about a mutual friend of ours, Carl Lumbard, also known as Pelikan, a musician and philosopher who was Amiri’s mentor. In the Air Force Carl schooled and hipped Amiri to all the latest post-bebop sounds. As a side note Pelikan also introduced Cecil Taylor to Eric Dolphy.
What’s a topic you’ve suddenly taken an interest in reading about in the past year which didn’t grab you before?
Right now I am studying the Jewish Holocaust, 1938-1945. I’m writing a composition called “Silhouettes In The Dust” and it is very hard to write a composition/improvisation about it. It is a very serious subject and the world may be on its last legs, who knows. Part of us have been anesthetized to tragedy and pain. But let’s hope we still have open hearts to beauty.
What books have you reread the most?
Portions or parts of many books, but David Budbill’s writings are an integral part of my support system. Judevine is maybe his major work, a fictional but autobiographical book of prose and stories about the people who live on Judevine Mountain in Northern Vermont. It shows you how interesting so-called “average” people are and you learn that no one is average, we are all unique. No one is average.
Which musicians are most deserving of a first-rate biography?
There are so many musicians whose story if shared with the world could inspire people. But documenting history can be a dangerous slope. It is difficult to write about a person in one volume, the most we can get is a glimpse. It is always a matter of who was asked, how their memory is, and how well they knew the person. So we need more than one angle, then the reader can make their own judgement from all the stories. They are still writing about Miles Davis and if you read all the books you come up with your own conclusions. But if you love Miles Davis and his music has changed your life, he is inside you and the music is inside you, and in a way that’s all that counts.
Black music is full of interesting people and they all have a story, but because so much creative music is lesser known than say Miles Davis’, people often think the lives are less worthy of being documented. All the writers of black creative music have historically been white and Black America has let down black creative music for the most part. The idea is for the musician to control as much of his or her destiny as possible. The world doesn’t know about so many of these musicians, how they think, how they put their music together, what their influences are. All this is ultimately answered by listening to the music. Most important is not knowing how a musician thinks, but if the music can save lives and heal the soul.
But to answer your question I think a perfect subject would be Daniel Carter. Daniel is one of the most brilliant musicians who has ever played music. He is now one of the major exponents of total improvisation music, creating from silence and opening the window for the spontaneous muses to fill his horns with sound. As a youth he studied with the first clarinetist of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Later he played in Army bands, studied with Jimmy Giuffre, and played with Keith Jarrett. Daniel is a deep thinker on all subjects and a very interesting person all around.
Also Charles Gayle, Milford Graves, and Cooper Moore, to name a few more.
How do you find what you want to read next, who/what are your go-to reliable sources, and where do you get your books?
I order books from Amazon or Mast Books, which is two blocks from my home. Most of the books I order are put on hold until needed. Most of my inspiration comes from divine encounters and reactions to present day evil: American right wing politics, imperialism, war, and inhuman conduct.
Is there a correlation between reading and producing improvised music, meaning an expanded worldview creates a broader base point for more profound expression?
I don’t see a correlation between reading and the performance of music, but reading books can set off one’s imagination. There is more of a connection to me in the creative thrust of writing words and writing with sound, but producing sound is ultimately its own unique process. The spirits speak to us when they want to, sometimes through books or other music, but often out of nowhere. They are inside of us and can be helped to surface through reading, listening, and doing. Doing something or doing nothing...they may be the same thing.
What are the most eye-opening books you’ve read?
Kenneth Patchen’s The Journal of Albion Moonlight and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. The Journal of Albion Moonlight is a heavy political statement wrapped inside what I would call a tone poem—colorful characters dancing across situations that are looking for beauty and humanity in the world. It is also a warning for civilization, that we be more human.
Howard Zinn was basically telling us not to believe all that what we read, that American history taught in school was as they say “his-story” and not the whole truth. His words and views agreed with all the things we used to hear in the barbershop about Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and beyond.
What are a few books all seniors in high school should have to read before entering the adult world?
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Wallace and Hiroshima by John Hersey. For me the role of literature is to create revolutionaries. Wounded Knee tells a story of America and the slow genocide of the indigenous people of this land and I think it can enhance any student’s sense of compassion.
Hiroshima is a voice that should change any student open to it. The idea is to stimulate concern for life. This is important as it’s the key: thou shall not kill. Human beings must never forget how important that concept is.
Yes to literature creating revolutionaries. With that in mind which books have been most revolutionary in your life?
The compassionate teachings of Buddha and Book of the Hopi by Frank Waters. Both of these books taught me how to live, to believe in the spirit world, and the rules for how to teach people in all the compassionate teachings.
What area of creative improvised music hasn’t been properly documented in book form?
The form of total improvisation has not been appreciated or written about except by the musicians themselves, like Wadada Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton, and Bill Dixon. It’s not words they write, it is their being, their work—that is the book. Listening to the music may be more important than reading about it. Listening is the key. As was said before, the spirit (the change) comes when and how it wants.
Who are your heroic writers?
James Baldwin, Jonas Mekas, June Jordan, Thomas Merton, Julius Lester, Amiri Baraka, Kenneth Patchen, and Langston Hughes. Actually anyone that is a channel for a higher voice is a heroic writer. Some write words, others write with color, some write with sound.
That’s multiple times Amiri Baraka has been mentioned in this interview. If you’ve not read him dear reader, do, he’ll make you better. Thanks William!
William Parker in performance. Photo by Susan O'Connor.