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Q&A: WILLIAM PARKER

Highlights from Issue 16: The End of the New York Hype

William Parker / Photograph by WILLIAM PARKER

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Friday, May 20, 2005

With the release this month of his spectacular new album Sound Unity (Aum Fidelity) bassist William Parker proves why he's one of America's top jazz players. Recorded live in Vancouver and Montreal, Parker is accompanied by Hamid Drake (drums), Rob Brown (alto sax) and Lewis Barnes (trumpet).

In celebration of this release, we're offering an extensive excerpt of Parker's interview with Stop Smiling from Issue 16: The End of the New York Hype. Here, Parker discusses his refusal to fight in Viet Nam, the influence of Ornette Coleman and Modern art on his life and music, and how Beatlemania destoryed jazz.

Interview by JC Gabel

Stop Smiling: Where did you grow up?

William Parker: I basically grew up in the projects up in the Bronx. I followed the program that was set out for us, which was to go to schools that were not very good and to eventually either drop out or end up getting a civil service job. At an early age, my father had different plans for us, me and my brother. He was sort of grooming us to play in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. So I guess when I was 10 years old, I got my first musical instrument, which was a trumpet. When I was 12 or 13, I got a trombone, and then I switched to cello. When I was 18, I decided to switch to string bass. Through listening to my father's records at the time, I got an introduction to music that, through osmosis, was really seeping into me. It later blossomed in a serious way. If it were not for that, I probably would have led a more or less routine life. Through music, I got interested in poetry and writing and plays and the civil rights movement and American history. All of those things helped shape my awareness of the environment I was living in, which again was an environment not really conducive to succeeding. Our role was to play basketball and then – at that time, I could have gone to Viet Nam, but again I decided to be a conscientious objector. I had a trial and they asked me two questions. “Do you want to go to Viet Nam?” I said, “No,” and then they said, “Why don't you want to go to Viet Nam?” I said, “Because I don't believe in killing people.” Actually, they asked me three questions. The third question was, “Are you afraid to die?” And I said, “No.” Then, a week after that, I got a letter in the mail. I was accepted as a conscientious objector and I didn't go into the Army. And I was very lucky because I wouldn't have fit in. A lot of people signed up and they thought it was an alternative to high school or college… to join the Army, but a lot of people didn't come back or they came back really out of it because of that.

SS: Were your folks jazz aficionados?

WP: No. Just my father was really into jazz. My mother was into gospel music. My father was into Duke Ellington. There's a slight similarity between my father and Duke Ellington. He based a lot of the way he dressed off of the Ellington band. He was into Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins records. What happened was – that was when stereo records were just coming into play, so the monaural records were so cheap. You could get them for, like, 99 cents, 79 cents, and you'd get stereo records for $3.49, which was the regular price at that time. He'd send us down to the store every Saturday and say, “Get me two [records] and get your self something.” At that time, we'd look for Duke Ellington or Ben Webster, but then we saw all these records on Atlantic Records, by, like, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, and we had no idea what this music sounded like, but we really dug the covers. They were different. The thing about the neighborhood was that you just didn't want to get Converse All Stars. You had to have a certain sneaker. You had to have a certain pair of dungarees. You had to have a leather coat, but there was a point where the more I got into the music – that stuff was not important. What was important was to be different. We saw this record, you know, Ornette Coleman, this is a strange looking guy: This Is Our Music. We started buying these records and listening to them and that was some very hip stuff. Nobody told us, “Well, it's avant-garde.” Or, “It's free and you're not supposed to like it.” We just put it on and began to listen to it.

SS: So, aesthetically, at first, the records drew you in?

WP: Well, you know with [the breakthrough Ornette Coleman record] Free Jazz you had a Jackson Pollack painting on the cover – I'm not sure the name of it [“White Light”]. That was my introduction into Modern art. I had studied a little bit of art on my own, but seeing these paintings, I started looking. Who is this guy Jackson Pollack? Then I began to investigate Modern art. It was all connected with the music – the poetry, the films. At the time, I was very interested in the films, which was called independent cinema at the time. People like Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, and Bruce Bailey. It was just a very fruitful period of learning and doing cross exchanges with the different disciplines.

SS: It all shaped your worldview then? As far as what your tastes are and what your into?

WP: Oh yeah, definitely. You'd listen to John Coltrane and John Coltrane would talk about the Baghavad-Gita, so you'd go out and buy the Baghavad-Gita. You wanted to see, “What did John Coltrane read? What kind of food did he eat? What influenced Ornette Coleman to get these sounds? What kind of poetry did Cecil Taylor listen to?” Because what influenced them would give you some sort of insight on what their aesthetic was. Then I got to the point where I thought I could make a contribution to this type of music. So you stop listening, and you go forth and you start playing. There was a period where I had to stop listening so much and just play. Where was my voice in this realm of sound?

SS: What is the status of the New York loft scene for jazz musicians?

WP: Long gone. You had the theatre-artist program. You would be hired 9-to-5 to play as a musician. It was a theater company called the Theatre of the Forgotten. We would play in prisons, we used to play music for senior citizens homes, and we would write music for the shows, plays, and we'd work with puppets. I learned how to work in many disciplines during the Carter presidency. Then Ronald Reagan got in office and all the funding stopped. Basically, since then, it's been dog-eat-dog here in New York. Also at that time, we had fewer musical styles. You used to be able to go into any record store: you'd have rock, jazz, classical, blues, early R&B, and folk music, and that was about it. Now you go into a record store and there are so many different categories of music. And there are new categories that are being thought up all the time; I can't even keep up with it. I'm really a reclusive type of person. I think there were two points that took acoustical jazz for a loop. One was, of course, the Beatles. Your post-Beatle period is very different than your pre-Beatle period. The Beatles were just the beginning of the “rock industry,” where you generate billions of dollars through rock stars. It just went on from there. You see it in music stores. Pre-Beatles, you could walk into a music store and buy a stand-up bass; post-Beatles, all you had were electric guitars. Beatle dolls. Beatle suits. Beatle everything: a Saturday morning Beatle cartoon show. [The record companies were thinking,] if I can make millions of dollars selling rock records, why should I sell jazz, where we might only make a small amount of money?

Miles Davis [for instance], saved Columbia Records several times with hits. But you know that rock music eclipsed everything. Then you had MTV, the second point, where not only could you now hear the music, you could look at the videos. [Henceforth,] the lack of choice started to seep in all around our society, meaning our choices wee diminished as to what we could chose to listen to. You can witness this by driving around in America today. You listen to the radio now and you don't hear anything connected to what I do. When I turn the TV on, I don't hear anything connected with what I do.

SS: That could that be because five companies now own everything.

WP: [laughs] So it's not even like people think your music doesn't sell. We don't know how many could have sold. How many people have actually heard what we do? We've never had equal opportunity to reach the public. Like, every Kenny G record they play, if they played just as many Matthew Shipp records, maybe his sales would go up. But, again, it's an unfair playing field where [the record companies] don't even want to invest the time with us, because there are spiritual and political undertones that come with this music. It's just not candy in a sense. It makes you think. A lot of it makes you think. But they would rather not have people think, because somewhere down the line they know someone is being bamboozled…


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