Universal Tonality: The Life and Music of William Parker
(Duke University Press, 2021)
The Music of William Parker: Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World, Volumes 1–10
(Centering Records/Aum Fidelity, 2021)
Regular readers of these pages will be familiar with William Parker through, at the very least, the late Steve Dalachinsky's “Outtakes” columns. Steve's presence in the world of creative and free jazz in New York City meant he was constantly in the presence of Parker—the musician (primarily a bass player), composer, bandleader, and poet has been at the center of the scene for approaching 50 years. The unofficial "Mayor of the East Village" is arguably the Mayor of Free Jazz; as a collaborator and bandleader, he is the literal connection between Cecil Taylor, Matthew Shipp, Cooper-Moore, Susie Ibarra, Leena Conquest, Amiri Baraka, and many, many others.
Now he's the subject of a monograph, an unusual situation for any musician, even more so considering the marginal nature of creative and free jazz in American society as a whole and even in the political economy of culture in particular. But Bradley, who teaches at Pratt, publishes the Jazz Right Now site and has written for the Rail, has had the good fortune of finding a publisher for this study, and the even better fortune of having the coincident issue of Parker's latest release, a 10-CD box of all new music that is newly available (delayed from an original release date in the fall of 2020). Where a gallery or museum may put up a show of new and recent works by a major artist, complete with glossy catalogue, now fans and scholars of creative jazz can dig into an enormous amount of new music from one of the genre's major voices, complete with an in-depth study of the man and his work.
As an artistic biographer, Bradley has to confront two questions: how did this figure become what he is, and why is he important? Any answer to the former always has a bit of mystery to it; there's only so much about circumstances, epiphanies, passions (or obsessions), and praxis that can be explained without having some kind of enlightening experience and focussed practice oneself. How does a kid, born in the South Bronx at just the right time, 1952, surrounded by that area's near complete social and cultural collapse, pick up the bass and end up, in his early 20s, on stage at Carnegie Hall with Cecil Taylor?
The common story in jazz history is one of mentorship and education, usually a high school with a good band program and a teacher hip to the music. In a school district that set vocational school as the aspirational limit for Black kids, there was no jazz program. As a kid, he and his other brother enjoyed their dad's records (Parker's father was a fan of jazz and rhythm and blues, with a special fondness for Duke Ellington), and he often sent his sons on record buying errands and let them make their own choices, one of which was Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz. But nothing in his youth pushed him toward music. He was interested in sports and was a talented football player; he studied trumpet half-heartedly; there was no money in the family and the neighborhood was burning down around.
What Parker did have was the kind of internal resources to step away from these forces and set his own path. As Bradley—who worked directly with Parker and primary source material—describes it, Parker chose his own path, giving up football and deciding to follow the musical life. He bought a bass at a pawnshop, and “played it a little.” It broke, so he paid $100, over time, for a cheap, student bass, started playing along to records, and took free lessons from Jazzmobile. It's the kind of drive and determination that seems to come right out of clichéd American capitalist success stories. But as Bradley illuminates, it was something much simpler and also more profound. Parker was called to beauty, and music and the bass was something beautiful to him.
And there was so much more: the accident of Parker's birth meant that he was a curious teenager during the rise of the Black Arts Movement. The associated development of Black cultural programming on New York area television and radio introduced him to Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Curtis Mayfield, and other artists at the vanguard of music, poetry, and politics. He had already heard Free Jazz, and now he was hearing Albert Ayler and reading Gil Scott-Heron. New York City also meant avant-garde theater and foreign films (inexpensive and present in the late ’60s and early ’70s in a way hard to conceive of now). Parker practiced yoga, explored Eastern religions, and played the bass.
His big break came in 1974, when he started playing with Taylor, with whom he was an integral partner for around 20 years. Along with drummer Tony Oxley, the three made up The Feel Trio, Taylor's greatest ensemble. It was at a Feel Trio gig at Condon's on 14th Street, around 1990, where I first encountered Parker. The speed-of-light responses between the musicians were astonishing, made even more uncanny by Parker's imperturbable calm; a young Japanese tourist was so caught in the spirit of the music that he knocked over the table he was sitting at, Parker and the band just played on.
Bradley's book is invaluable for tracking Parker's progressive musical associations and projects, including his Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra big band, his gorgeous Raining on the Moon group, with Conquest singing, and his project dedicated to the music of Mayfield. That last may seem odd in the world of free jazz, but the genre has an expansive reach, in no small part due to Parker's endeavors.
The bassist may be a free player (though not exclusively so) in terms of improvisation, but his aesthetic demeanor, his sound and musical style, includes the lyrical colors he heard from his dad's Duke Ellington records and the pulse and even danceability of Mayfield and rhythm and blues. Parker is a soulful musician, not only in the communicative sense but in the soul music sense; he knows and relishes the pleasures of the body in music. His free playing, and his organization of others as a bandleader and composer, is always rooted in the earth, no matter how abstract the heights.
Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World is full of those roots. There is a disc of a cappella vocal music, one of free flute ensemble playing, and a volume centered around his writing for string quartet—the music balances form and freedom. But the bulk of the music is full of pulse, rhythmic interplay, even bass riffs and some backbeats.
The set is also full of Parker's poetry—all the sung words are his. Bradley gives generous space to this aspect of Parker's art, which is more than fair as the bassist has been writing poetry and working on vocal music—he's an excellent melodic craftsman—for decades. But as a whole, the poetry is of lesser quality than the music. In an odd way, the vocal music shows how fine a musician Parker truly is, as his settings elevate the words to a level they cannot reach on the page—all the albums with Conquest are marvelous.
Bradley is not in a position to pass critical judgment on either the poetry or the music, and that's not his brief. And the existence of the book and the new box set are misleading in that they are two substantial objects, mutual companions, that, being static, imply some finality. But Parker, like all dynamic artists, is a work in progress and he continues to work and to expand. The music was recorded through the first half of 2019, so Migrations is a time machine, light from a distant star that shows us its past but not its present. We don't know what Parker has been writing since.
And truth be told, the very best album in the box is Harlem Speaks, which is also one of the best jazz albums I've heard in the last several years. The disc is blessed with vocalist Fay Victor and her typical blunt elegance, humor, and intelligence. With drummer Hamid Drake—he and Parker make the jazz equivalent of the Sly Dunbar/Robbie Shakespeare reggae rhythm section—the music is full of verve and sharp play. The album also features the best lyrics of Migrations, maybe the best poetry Parker has written, words full of memories and fantasies of Black culture in Harlem from the time Parker was growing up, and even from before he was born. As both songs and poetry, the writing is excellent, not descriptive or prescriptive, like so much of Parker's words, but evocative, expansive, and full of soul, like all of his music.