On November 17, 2014, legendary bassist William Parker invited me to his apartment on the Lower East Side to talk about his musical philosophy. I had approached him about an interview after a gig he did in Brooklyn the previous month, introducing myself as a writer who focuses on “young and emerging artists.” He had responded with a wry grin that that still applied to him. Jokes aside, Mr. Parker is an artist who now, in his early sixties, still possesses a rare energy and a fresh curiosity with his creative process. Rising in the 1970s as a member of the Cecil Taylor Unit and other groundbreaking ensembles, Mr. Parker gained greater attention in the 1990s as one of the principle inspirations behind the vibrant Downtown scene. In the two and a half decades since, he has been an incredibly prolific recording artist and has been a profound influence on the next generation of artists.
When I arrived at Mr. Parker’s apartment, he was watching a video of a Duke Ellington performance. Behind where he sat on an old sofa, he had numerous instruments–some of which he had crafted himself–hanging on display. A copy of the recently released Frank Lowe Quartet vinyl pressing (Triple Point Records, 2014), one of the earliest surviving recordings to feature Parker’s playing, stood propped up in front of his fireplace. Down the hall, he had a closet spilling over with his recordings, many of which he generously shared with me. Our icebreaker was a brief discussion of history, the Darren Wilson verdict (which had broken just days before), and the fragile and volatile state of humanity. Once we turned to music, I shut up and let him do most of the talking.
Cisco Bradley: What is your musical philosophy?
William Parker: Well, there is a lot to it. Like when you’re trying to say well, I wanna be a poet and I wanna put words together and put them in the right combination so that when you read them, they will have a magical effect on you and change your life.
Or, you’re a visual artist. And, you will put certain colors and images on a canvass and when you look at it, something magical will happen and it will change your life.
Well, if you’re a musician, you will transform sound into tone. And, people will hear this music, these tones, these sounds, and, again, it will transform your life. And, you’re in the midst of all this confusion but you still do it because you highly believe in it. And, you do it because it just has to be done. And, it is, in its way, transforming and keeping the world balanced in a way.
If you stop making these sounds, if you stop putting those words together, if you stop painting, you will see the world really go off its orbit, if you think it’s off its orbit now.
So, I think what’s keeping the world from imploding is art. So, it must continue no matter what. Despite all odds, it really is important that it continues.
Cisco Bradley: Do you feel like this is always been part of your approach to music or did it sort of come to you at a certain point?
William Parker: Well, there have been a few things that really heavily influenced me.
Answering the question… Well, first of all, “Why are we here?” and, then more than that, “Why am I here?”. You know, “What am I supposed to be doing?”
And, growing up as a child, you just kind of follow the ropes. My parents didn’t have a real Christmas tree. We had a silver Christmas tree, which is kept in a box, and some of my relatives had one that was green and they put it together every Christmas. And, my mother had a Hanukkah Menorah that she put in the window. She’d plug it in. And, then we would eat fish on Friday because she said oh, it’s Friday, you’re supposed to eat fish. So, you just follow along when you’re in your environment.
You know, my environment was kind of… I grew up in the projects and it was really not conducive at all to the poetic life, at the same time, it was really a post card for poetics. Because in the Bronx, you had the sky and you always notice the sky. You had the sunlight coming through those trees. And, this was without any education. As a kid, you notice these things, when you’re trying to collect bottles.
‘Cause the work men across the street… There was another project being built across the street – the Webster houses. And, so you just go in there. And, they’d leave from their lunch. They’d leave bottles and you take the bottles and you get 2 cents or 5 cents from the store if you collect bottles. And, so we’d do that and get money.
But, in between this concrete, you know, what I eventually call concrete mountains, was light. And, I noticed the light. You know, we didn’t go to the country every weekend. We didn’t go like oh, we have a country house. But, I noticed the light. And, I noticed that the light reaches people wherever they are. And, somehow, if you are fortunate enough, you turn and look over your shoulder and you realize it’s there. I don’t know why some people notice it and some people don’t.
We came from all different backgrounds. I mean, my father, when he came home from work, and I’ve been saying this in interviews recently, he would play Duke Ellington, the band we just saw [referring to a TV clip that Mr. Parker had been watching just prior to the interview]. And, he played Live at Newport and other records … and, we danced to it. And, then every Saturday was music. Every Saturday was listen to music day ‘cause he was off from work and he put on Ben Webster, Willis “Gatortail” Jackson, Coleman Hawkins… Certain musicians that he liked. Johnny Hodges, he loved.
We listened to what was on the radio. But, I didn’t particularly like… You know, you had the Chubby Checker in The Twist and things like that. But, also, at 4 o’clock on the radio, you had jazz. You had jazz in the morning. And, so we were aware of jazz. Nowadays, parents listened to hip hop. It’s been that for a long time so that’s their music and so they’re not listening to jazz. But, my parents listened to jazz and then the people in the neighborhood, some of them listened to jazz too.
But, we just had a cast of outlandish characters and who would push things to the limit. You know, pushing things to being told oh, you don’t cross to the street to go to the Patterson project. If you go to the Patterson project, you’ll get beat up. You know, things like that. But, you could go out all day and play. Like, nowadays, the kids need… They have to have … Well, you drive them to soccer, then they drive them to basketball. It’s gotta be all organized with coaches and … I never did that. I never joined the Little League. You know, we’d just go out all day and we had great games and played all kinds of sports in the park. And, it was wonderful.
But, what was a lifeline to me was the music. Because, at the time, say 1962, I was 10 years old… 12 years old… ’64, the records were changing from mono records to stereo records. So, we had mono records for one track and then stereo was new, it was two tracks. And, so you could get all the mono records for 99 cents.
So, Saturday, we were able to go to Hearn’s department store. My father would give us five bucks and say, you know, get me something and get you something. We knew what he wanted so we would get the latest Duke Ellington, the Far East Suite, the Soul Call. And, we listened to that. But, then we began noticing all these Atlantic Records. You know Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. And, they had paintings on the cover. Well, we didn’t know what it sounded like but we began to buy these records and then read the liner notes and look at the artwork. And, slowly, things began to twinkle.
And, then in school, we went to the museums. I mean, in my neighborhood, junior high school ‘65, they took us on trips to the museums. They took us to outdoor places like the zoo or whatever. But, I began to get really critical of education.
You know, for some reason, especially in high school, I hit upon Thomas Dewey and reading about the idea of Pavlovian theories of getting information and then passing it back. If you pass it back right, you get a cup of tea. If you don’t, you get some bitter salt in your water… salty water. But, it was the idea that school was just about giving information back and giving the right answer. It really wasn’t about opening up yourself to be yourself to see what you wanted to be. And, so I wrote an essay about education during that time.
But, also, during that time, I began listening to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Albert Ayler and, I began to put things together about why the music was being played. And, why was the music being played? It was being played because music was a healing force. And, once I got that idea then it was that’s the reason for music. And, that gave me an open… a license to say oh, I wanna do that.
Also, at the same time, I was beginning to do these spiritual studies because we read about John Coltrane. He was into Buddhism. You know, he read the Bhagavad Gita. And, so I was open to it. I had an aunt who was a Jehovah Witness. And, when she would come over, Aunt Elvira, when she would come over to our house, mysteriously, everybody’d disappear. ‘Cause that was her job. Her job was if she saw somebody, she’s gonna teach… So, she had the yellow book, Paradise Lost and Gained, and another book. And, so I was too polite to say well, I gotta go play baseball when I didn’t. So, I wasn’t mean to her. I had this private Bible instruction. But, for some reason, as in everything I had studied, I could have like a filter. I never took anything literally but I never kind of threw it out either.
You know, when it said, you know, back in biblical days, you know, people lived thousands of years. Somehow, things that went in this ear would come out with just the nutrients of whatever was around the reading. So, does that mean that people lived to be a thousand? I didn’t really care. It didn’t interest me, you know? If there was anything in any kind of reading that kinda would help me out, I’d take that in.
You know, when I stopped studying with her, I began… And, it was all growing up. A lot of things happened during this high school period. I began to study the New Testament and get a real strong conviction of an understanding of what it was all about.
And, one day, when I was at Claremont Park in the Bronx, it was raining everywhere except where I was. And, it was weird because it was raining all over the place but where I was, there was no rain. And, I took that as a sign that I was on the right track.
And, I haven’t told many people this but, you know, I can tell you now ‘cause that’s what happened. And, it wasn’t like I was on something, it was not raining. It was like a rainbow there and something was blocking the rain where I didn’t get wet.
So, I really just got confirmation that I wanted to play music. I was sick of school and…
Cisco Bradley: You were in high school at this time?
William Parker: Yeah. And, the thing is that everything I did… everybody I met was the right person to meet. I had several teachers in school. I had Mr. Slotkin who was my English teacher. And, his assignments, which I had, would have been doing his… I was doing his assignments, maybe, 20 years after I got out of high school. I was still doing his assignments. His assignment was to define virtue, to define justice, to define truth, to define love.
And, everybody else would just run around in the classroom. ‘Cause he said… He didn’t say this but, he passed everybody ‘cause he’s like, I can’t fail you. And, so they said we didn’t have to do any work. I mean, he really changed my life because then I began to read about Plato. And, then I read, Socrates as written down by Plato, Dialogues of Plato.
And, there was one in particular called Ion which is about whether divination can be taught or whether it’s a virtue … it’s a gift.
And, the poet, Ion, comes back from his poetry festival and Socrates and the guys are just sitting there, you know, eating some barbecue, or whatever they do. And, he says, well, yeah, I just came back and I smoked reciting Homer. So, he said, I’m the greatest guy of reciting Homer in the world. You know, I’m like five feet tall but when I recite Homer, I’m like 10 feet tall. So, Socrates… he says well, if you are so great, how come you… what about the other poets? He named some other poets. He says, no, when I recite them, I don’t do so good. Ah, he says, okay. And, then he said well, how can you recite Homer so well and not recite the other poets so well? So, they’re doing this as they usual in these dialogues.
They’re talking about it and then they talk about kineticism and magnetic rings and how the forces, the magnetic force, comes through the rings and it comes out the person. And, that if possible, that when… Only, he’s got a connection with Homer but without anybody else. And, that that was his gift and that was coming from divination, not through something he had learned.
Because, it’s like saying well, you know, it’s like the post office worker who used to be hired by the Los Angeles Lakers to teach Shaquille O’Neal how to shoot free throws. The guy delivered the mail and he could shoot free throws all day long and never miss. He couldn’t dribble. He couldn’t run down the court. He can just shoot free throws all day.
And, then the guy said, “Well, do you practice shooting free throws?” He says, “No, I don’t practice. Just give me the ball…[shooting motion] Give me the ball… [shooting motion] Give me the ball [shooting motion].” “Well, how do you do it?” “It’ a gift.”
It was a gift. And, then they talked about, you know, “Well, can someone else learn how to do that?” He says, “Well, yeah, you can learn how to do it but it’s not a gift.” You see? So, then it dawned on me about having a gift and really finding…
When I was beginning to put together my methods of aesthetics of the music, is that as a student of life, you have to find your gift. You have to find that what you have that you don’t have to work for and then work on that and what’s around that. And, once you find that, it just open doors of creativity. And, then from one thing went to another.
Then, at the same time, I was studying cinema. You know, studying French cinema. Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson, Claude Chabrol, and Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish cinema. But, from there, I went over to the independent cinema and began to read a very important voice for me, Jonas Mekas, who came out with a book called Movie Journal, which was the idea that I got my idea of doing something called Sound Journal later on, which became Who Owns Music?
Then I got into, particularly, into this filmmaker Stan Brakhage. And, he was talking about the same thing in his way. And, Kenneth Patchen was talking about the same thing in his way. So, everybody I picked was sort of picked to enhance the same sentiment. You know, of finding your voice and getting inside and having the music flow through you as he spoke about when he’s editing the films. He doesn’t think about it. He goes into a trance. And, then Cecil Taylor is talking about he goes into a trance when he plays.
So, I begin to put things together about, at least, understanding how the magic works. But, at the same time, didn’t wanna get too close to the magic. Didn’t wanna get that close so I could like figure it out to own it. ‘Cause I said, you don’t own magic. And, I didn’t wanna figure … ‘cause I was afraid. I wanted it to be somewhat still a mystery to me. I didn’t wanna like have … I was always like that. Well, I have all the answers and this is the way you do it and this is how you do it and you do this. Then I found out…
This is the most important lesson I found out. That if I come up with a formula and say I’m gonna give you the formula and then you put the formula together and you say… And, then the next thing I know, you’re knocking on my door and saying, “William, why’d you give me that formula for? It didn’t work.” And, then I say, “It didn’t work, did it huh? Let me try it.” So, then I put the formula together and it works perfectly for me. And, then I figured out why it didn’t work. Because you’re not me.
Everyone has got to have their own formula, you see. And, I can say well, the formula needs ingredients, maybe, for the formula. But, as far as how much to put in, how much to leave out, and how many X factors to add to the formula, that’s up to you.
Because, we all have our own musical DNA. And, my musical DNA will not work with you and yours will not work with me. So, it just gave me the idea that everybody could succeed if they found their formula. If they found their way to be themselves. And, that you could never catch up with it to own it. You could never catch up with it to say I’ve learned everything because it is always changing. It’s constantly changing. So, then I said well, I’m gonna step out into the arena as a bass player.
And, my last year in high school, then I began. I got a bass and I began to play and study with different people and practice, practice, practice until I could feel a little comfortable with the bass. And, then you have to do your on-the-job training.
Cisco Bradley: This would have been around 1971?
William Parker: Yes, ’70… ’71. ‘Cause that record I made was ’74. So, I think I came out on the scene in late ’72… ’73, is when I began coming downtown from the Bronx to the Village.
And, again, I always ran into the right people, you know? In 1973, I ran into Andrew Hill. I ran into Billy Higgins. So, I knew them. I would play with Billy Higgins at least two times a week at his house. Go out there and play duos with him. Clifford Jordan, Chris Anderson, I met Wilbur Ware. Rashid Ali, I played with him at Hilly’s on the Bowery, before it was CBGBs. It was a jazz club. We played there every Monday, I think.
And, Rashid was very open to me and just took me. You know, said, “Come on. Come down and play in the band.” In 1975, I met Don Cherry. Played with him at the Five Spot for a week. In 1974, I met Cecil Taylor and ’73… ’74 I played with him at Carnegie Hall. And, so just one thing led to another.
And, then what I was getting how everybody put their music together and … Whereas if I just got hired by Miles Davis’ or something like that and you say well, I’m working with Miles Davis, then all you know is how Miles Davis put his music together. You didn’t work with Don Cherry. You didn’t work with Bill Dixon. You didn’t work with Roscoe Mitchell or Milford Graves or Rashid Ali, you know, Beaver Harris.
Everybody I worked with had a different philosophy. And, so I was lucky because I got to see how everybody put their music together. And, so I could say well, it’s possible to do this. There’s many, many possibilities. You know, it’s possible that you don’t need to notate everything. It’s possible that you can notate everything exactly. It’s possible that you can create your own notation. So, the possibilities were limitless.
And, it all really just helped me formulate what I wanted to do, which is I know was gonna play music. How I was gonna do it? I didn’t know for sure. And, then, you know, travelling, meeting people.
Sort of sculpting out shapes from this big blocks of granite, which could be called mystery blocks, and then trying to find what would work. And, then you find that okay, man, that so sounded good on Monday. And, then you played it on Tuesday, it doesn’t work. And, then you find out that in the moment means in the moment! It’s like you take the food off when it’s hot. You eat it ‘cause if not, it’s a leftover and it’ll change formula. It’ll change the way it is. It’ll cool down.
So, you have to be able to play in the moment, which I have students from time to time and I’m trying to tell them you have to learn to play in the moment. Not play what you learned or what you wanted to… what you hear at the moment but, play in the present moment, where the minute before the composition is not… Well, it’s really just coming now. And, that’s very hard to do because we’re so happy we learn something. Oh, boy, I learned something. I wanna play this.
But, the thing is that you have to be able to take what you learned and immediately forget about it. Immediately swallow, internalize it, and then go to something else. Not so much attached to “I learn how to this and I know if I do this, this will happen” because it won’t happen when you do that! Unless you step into the world of shaman which is another thing. And, even then, the idea is that, you know, a shaman is not a musician. A shaman uses sound to heal. So, you might shake a rattle, you might blow into a flute, or you might have a certain drum beat to do certain things. And, then that would became the idea okay, when I play this and I play it, every time I play it I know it’s gonna be different.
But, that’s the area that responds to certain organs in your body that you might want to hear. Because, the thing is that when an organ is ailing, you wanna get blood to it ‘cause blood has nutrients that heal. So, it’s the same with music.
You begin to find out like when I play this, eventually, whether it happens now or five minutes from now, something gets cooking. It’s always different but, it’s in this area where it makes this happen. It’s a formula.
You play [making sound] bop, bop… babop bop bop… boooop. Yeah, everybody gets happy. Art Blakey, whatever it is. When you play that melody, everybody’s always jumping. The room starts to dance! And, so you say, we played it last night. But, the result of it, of course, is different. But, it’s the same formula. You play this rhythm, this happens. If you play that rhythm, that happens. You begin to have a catalogue and have a… what you call it… a vocabulary of things that will do certain things.
And, then the last thing I did was, and this came to me, is I began to, and I might have said this at that night at the solo concert again, is to look at the bass differently as a band of light. Each string was a band of light and the harmonics was created by the bow were like when you send light to a prism. The bow is the prism, the strings are light. When you bow, you see these colors. And, in those colors are the inklings, the beginning of magic.
So I always believe that. And, it wasn’t until I began to go out to Milford Graves’ house. Now, Milford Graves is an innovative drummer from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s. And, he keeps playing today. And, he’s an acupuncturist, an herbalist. But, the last ten years or so, he’s been doing heart research. And, what he’s been doing is putting electronics stethoscopes on your heart and then taping your heartbeat. But, not just [making sound] bum bum… bum bum. The reason he has to put so many because there’s a lot of other things going on. It’s not bum bum… It’s like, you know… And, you don’t know this until you…
I went back to his house after he had taken my heartbeat and he said, “I wanna play something, William”. So, he played it for me and it sounded just like my bass playing. I said, “That’s not my heartbeat. That’s me playing the bass.” He said “No. That’s your heartbeat.” And, then I said, “Wow. Wow. Does it really? It connects between this?”
Because we don’t listen to it. You never know unless you did that. And, so I began to think about it. You put a chromatic tuner onto your liver and say what pitch is your liver and what pitch is your heart? What pitch is this organ?
So, that means if you play that pitch, you’re stimulating the liver, you see. You’re stimulating your ears. You’re stimulating whatever pitch is close to that pitch.
And, they do this with the heart. I mean, they put electricity, you know, to your heartbeat to try to correct arrhythmias in your heart. And, I always thought… I said when I first started playing, my tonic is D. It’s around D… D-flat. And, lo and behold, it was. And, I said, “Wow. Oh, I just felt it!” But, if you do it, yeah, my heart beats in D-flat.
Cisco Bradley: Very interesting.
William Parker: It speaks in D.
And, do I want to find out more about this? Not really.
You know, because, again, you run into somebody on the subway and they kinda pat you in your shoulder and say “Oh, hi”. And, they say “Are you William Parker?” You say “Yeah.” “Man, like, 15 years ago you came to my… No. 20 years ago you came to my school, man, and there was only about five of us in the audience, man. But, your music changed my life.”
Now, if I had gotten onto the next train, I wouldn’t have met this guy. So, you don’t know the effect of what one does has on to people who listen to the music.
And, so I’ve had people come up when I’m playing with David S. Ware and they say, “Yeah, I had cancer, man, and I was listening to your record every day and it helped my cancer. You know, it really helped hold me up.”
And, so we knew that it was vital that people… we would continue to do this work and play the music. But, not ever looking, you know, like well, does anybody really get healed by our music, please let us know. I mean, sometimes it’ll be great to have the testimonies but we don’t want to make it into that. At least not at this point. But, I do know that it affects people in a positive way. And, then so you just continue to play the music. To do what you do. And, you teach people that this is what they’ve got to do. Also, they gotta find their voice. They gotta find their tonic. They have to find where the music or poetry resonates in their bodies. You gotta find it.
And, then once you find that, you can find yourself and, then it’s sort of like auto-didactic. You know, you teach yourself and you find the center of things.
Cisco Bradley: Can we talk about being in the moment?
William Parker: Right.
Cisco Bradley: Do you look at your… the projects that you’ve been working on through your career as sort of all aspects of these…
William Parker: Well, you know, the thing is that at the same time when I was a kid, I read about Michelangelo when I was in the junior high school when I was studying art. And, Leonardo Da Vinci. And, I read about a guy named Henry Mercer who was multi-dimensional. You know, they could do sculpture. They could invent things. They could paint. They could draw.
Before I became a musician, I was writing. So, I was writing plays, I was writing poetry. And, so it always was natural for me to write music. When I first got my bass, I’m just hearing… music goes in my head 24/7. I write it down.
Now, did I ask for that? No. Did I look for that? No. I mean, it just so happens that that’s how it was. Also, was I interested in one kind of music? No. The first music I heard was movie soundtracks. When I was a kid, I used to buy tons. In 1962 when Lawrence of Arabia came out, Maurice Jarre [making sound]. I bought those original soundtracks with Lawrence of Arabia on the cover. I had the soundtrack before I even saw the movie. And, so I went from there to Doctor Zhivago, they were all from Maurice Jarre, to James Bond movies. John Barry to Jerry Goldsmith to Elmer Bernstein to Quincy Jones, Lalo Schifrin. So, soundtracks and being able to write music was also something I was interested in.
Like with the Duke Ellington project. I did the Essence of Ellington. “So, why are you doing the Essence of Ellington?” Well, I said, mainly I’m doing it for my father who was training me by having me listen to Ellington. A year after that, my father came and gave me a trumpet. He said, “You’re gonna play this trumpet.” He gave my brother an alto saxophone.
And, I didn’t realize until years later he was grooming me and my brother to play in Ellington’s Orchestra. We had music lessons and everything. But, it was his dream for us to play in Ellington’s Orchestra. My father died. He never heard me play a note. So, that’s why I did that.
So, you know, I could do things other than improvising if I wanted to. And, as a kid, I said, wow, you know, I really like to write. And, now I’m putting out books and stuff. And, so again, it was just something that I could do.
I didn’t turn back with the ideas that if you hear melody, don’t run away from it. You know, if you hear the infectious rhythm, don’t run away from it. I mean, that was kind of the difference with some of the new improvisers. Is that you never play a melody. You never play a repeated rhythm. Everything is broken all the time. [making sound] This sound, without any dramatic intent outside of what it proposes to be itself. And, my thing is that you never let any melody or any motif just go.
And, so when I went over to Europe in 1982, I began to improvise at FMP with European improvisers. I didn’t stay away from anything. You know, if I wanted to play the blues, I play the blues.
And, I was playing with Derek Bailey and he said, “Oh, I love it. I love it ‘cause you’re the only guy that I play with that’s not afraid to be themselves. Everyone else is trying to play like me. And, I want you, if you’re gonna play with me, play like you.”
It is a common language. You know, the blues is part of ways and he says he used to play standards all the time in nightclubs before he started to play the way he played later on. And, so he said he really enjoyed that. And, of course, it was a different blues. Because, when I play the blues and then, you know, if Blues Boy came and ever listen to me play the blues, they say, “Wow, that’s avant garde, that’s an out blues you’re playing.” But, it was the blues. So, I was not afraid to use anything.
And, all these experiences led to one thing, led to another thing that led to another thing, which has been very fruitful for me.
And, the reason I try to deal with aesthetics is because… well, part of it is the show. What we do, that there’s a reason behind it and, like not that you really have to prove what you do.
You know, if you went to India and they play a different music. And, you say, “Well, why are you playing this raga?” “Well, I just play this raga. I don’t have to prove to you that I’m entitled to play this raga. And, you have no right to come and question me about it.”
I mean, the thing is, nobody owns music. It is wide open. You could use any scale from any place in the world. You can make up your own scale. You could use any rhythm. You can make up your own rhythms because nobody owns music. And, the idea is that you can pop it up.
Who owns music? Nobody. Music is not for sale.
Cisco Bradley: Can you talk about finding the center of things? And, is it possible for you to explain a little bit more about what exactly you mean?
William Parker: Well, center of things is like being in love. You know, you say this is the right person. Or, like when things are…
Okay. I’ll give you an example. So, if you can imagine this is a key. Like, a key to balafon, right?
Now, when I used to make balafons and the marimbas, what you do is you… ‘Cause the frame is like this [motions with hands]. It starts out wide then it gets small. Now, you have to put this piece over here and the next piece is over here, then it gets smaller.
So, you take some sand and you put the sand in the middle and you tap the sand with the mallets. And, magically, the sand will just pile up right here. That means the frame should go under the hooves and the nodes. And, then the next piece of wood might be over here. So, that goes on the wider piece of the frame so that is the optimal vibrating point of the wood. It’s the center part where everything is resonating.
And, it’s really effortless and you know when it’s happening. It really just shuts your mind when you are really supposed to…. People in the West don’t know how to shut their mind off ‘cause they always want to figure out things. They wanna know things. They wanna bottle things and sell it.
But, you have to shut the mind off and, somehow, it just become what the music is and know that it’s you riding in the middle of everything. And, it’s glowing. You know, it’s like not too hot, not too cold. Just right.
That is the center of things.
And, it lasts… You know, it doesn’t last that long ‘cause things are always going up and down, you know, and even in music.
But, if you really got a good date and you’re playing with people, you could stay at such the whole day. You can still when it drops, like the music drops. That the energy drops. But, then you learn how to scramble easily and then bring things back up. And, that’s what you have to do. You have a recovery system.
It’s like you can imagine a spot, like, this is one landing, here’s another landing. When you improvise, every time you play the right sound, a part of the bridge comes over and you can step on it. Then you play another note, boom, and then another part comes in. And, then you play, bang… uh-oh… So, you go down. But, then you have a recovery system. Recovery system is, bing… bababado bing. And, you start floating back up and you start again.
Or, you have team mates. You have the drummer can play something. The drummer sees you going down, I can say [making sound], you know, play something hip. Or, the saxophone. We all kinda recover from each other and help each other recover.
But, the idea is that when you play the right things, you get to the next landing. And, then the landing is like flow. It’s like you paddle ‘till the wind blows like in a boat. And, then you paddle for a while, here comes the whishhh, and you can rest and float. But, the thing is, no resistance. Let it flow when the wind comes. And, then when the wind goes down, that wind is inspiration.
You say okay, now, let’s play this written melody ‘cause there’s something in that written melody will put you back into a place of inspiration. Let me see now, I better play this lick because I am going down. Nobody is inspired today. So, let’s get inspired. Come on [making sound], you know?
Or, you do certain things and someone does something to get it back on course. And, then, for some reason, you never get on course.
It’s like, you don’t die. You don’t die because, again, you say, “Man, it’s the worst music I played.” And, then somebody says, “Excuse me. I really loved your concert. I really loved what you all played tonight.” And, you were just about to say, “That was the worst we ever played.” And, he says, “Yeah, well, it may be the worst. I don’t wanna hear anything better because that was beautiful and it helped saved my life tonight by playing the worst thing you ever played.”
Again, it’s all relative because when you’re playing it and you just know how it feels and you don’t know really how it affects other people unless they come up and tell you.
And, that happens a lot where people are just… They love it. But, for some reason, you got a disconnect from it. So, you’re not hearing the same way they do, so and so.
You know, it’s one of those things.
Cisco Bradley: So, the centering is also connected to this process of healing that you talked about?
William Parker: Yeah. It’s healing and then… Then, I found out that healing has to do a lot with patience. And, you have to be patient with yourself ‘cause it takes a long time. Especially if you’re dealing with herbs, you know?
And, it’s like antibodies is one thing. You know, you have to take every day… take your herb. And, it takes time. But, your body will turn around and heal itself. It’ll take a little time but it will do that. It will heal itself.
So, the same with music and your relationship with people. All of that just takes time. You have to work on it every day. And, it’ll heal. ‘Cause the body wants to be regulated. It wants to be in the center. ‘Cause that way it works the best.
Cisco Bradley: Some of your projects have been directed specifically towards social or political ills. For example, you addressed a song to the children of Rwanda, for example.
William Parker: Yeah.
Cisco Bradley: So do you see this healing power extending beyond the individual?
William Parker: When I used to play, I used to believe in the saying that, you know, all the kids in India that don’t have any food today, you know, I’m sending this music out to them. And, somehow, they’ll hear it and feel it and feel a little better from it knowing that well, wow, they closed the auditorium doing it. You can’t even hear this music out in the hallway.
But, I said, this is dead. This was the intent. And, I really found out that intent is important because, intent is like where you deal with hope. And, very important to have good intent in your music. And, that’s how the political thing… You know, I have a piece called Criminals in the White House. And, it’s funny because it was a Polish label that released the record. And, then they wanted to change the title of it to Troubles in the White House because they didn’t wanna deal with it.
But, you know you have to have an awareness because, there’s nothing more political than something beautiful. So, even if you write a tune called the Birds on the Lake, you know, and the rainbow, and the snake… Well… And, it’s just like one long beautiful melody. That’s political. ‘Cause anything that changes people’s consciousness is political. If it changes your consciousness, it’s political.
But, there’s also a thing, that behind every song, there’s a film, there’s an animation idea … there’s a video idea. There’s an idea of telling a story that’s connected to the song.
So, I did Children of Rwanda. I woke up one day in Paris and they were on the news and they said, you know, 800 or 900 people had their throats cut this morning in Rwanda. Hutus and the Tutsis.
And, the thing is, I said, “Wow”. So, the idea now is that the song comes out way later and says, you know, “Please, don’t kill me. Please, don’t cut my throat!” And, then, you know, “I am your brother” you know “I am your sister. Please don’t cut my throat”. And, that’s a sentiment.
And, then afterwards, the people did the cutting, they say, “Wow, it’s my neighbor over there. I just killed their whole family. So, I have to go say I’m sorry” So, they’re trying to say…
I mean, stealing somebody’s bike might be one thing but, cutting people’s throats … I mean, wow. I mean, I can’t even imagine.
‘Cause I’ve seen musicians who have gone to Vietnam spending their whole life trying to get over the saga of Vietnam and what they had to do over there. So, I know it’s difficult. I know it’s hard.
So, politics are always in the mix. Even talking, reading liner notes, references are all about politics trying to become aware of things through the music and what comes around in music.
Cisco Bradley: I mean, you’ve talked a lot about a person finding their own kind of understanding about this stuff. Have you felt like in your life it’s been possible to lead other people along the road towards that discovery? Is that part of being a shaman?
William Parker: I have a lot of students. What I’ve found is that people… Everybody basically just needs love. They need to be saying it’s okay to fly, you know? And, that’s all they needed. Just an okay to fly. That’s all they needed. And, sometimes you do that okay.
People can do things for themselves. They just need they’re their own guru. ‘Cause it has to boil down to that. You gotta find your way to do it. Again, the students say, “Well, okay, I wanna find my sound” and, the idea is like okay, finding your sound is like finding your nose. It’s right there. Just take your finger. Come here. Go like that.
Your sound is the same way. You don’t have to look all over. You don’t have to transcribe 20,000 solos by somebody else. You’re born with it. You just have to not to let anybody teach that out of you. You’re born with it. It’s right there. So, all you have to do is just stick with it. And, it’s right there. You got it.
So, a lot of these things are very simple. It’s like being in a box… a room, and there’s no window here and there’s no window there. And, you’re looking around. It’s dark in there ’cause there’s nothing but dark.
But, then behind you is an open door. There’s no wall behind you. In fact, there’s a, these images came to me the other day, behind you is just grass and sunlight and there’s a nice lake behind you. But, you never look behind you.
You’re just like freaking out because of this. And, then say, take a deep breath and look behind you. Now, turn around and walk out of the box. You see, as simple as that. And, that’s all sometimes people need. They just need a little guidance that they need to turn around and realize.
Just like little kids. They’d be crying all the time for something. They want this mute, this trumpet mute, and you give it to them and they still cry for five minutes. You said, “I thought you wanted the mute. I gave it to you five minutes ago.” And, then they say, “Oh.” Then, they stop crying.
But, because they get fixated on things about somehow there’s strength in, you know weeping, there’s strength in being confused. And, this obsession with trying to find the answers. You gotta be comfortable not knowing things. And, you gotta train yourself to be comfortable with it.
You say, you know, like “Man, I don’t know nothing.” And, the guy says “Well, I need to know this and I need to know that and I need to know that and I need to know….”
As if knowing something is going to all of a sudden get you centered, get you on the right track. You’re more on the track when you don’t know anything. And, that’s kind of the opposite but that’s how it works. That’s how creativity works. It’s always like you’re right there when you’re not. When you’re over here, you’re more on than if you’re in the middle. And, so the center might be to the left. It’s not left of center. It is the center. Because, you have to look at the universe. It’s like okay, that’s the center of the universe. No, it’s not the center. This could be the center. That could be the center.
Just like the tonic. That’s what Ornette Coleman’s talking about in Harmolodics. Is that any note can be the tonic. Any note. It’s just a matter of how you look at it. It’s like saying well, the idea of playing sharp in tune or flat in tune and being in tune.
You say, well, I’m flat but I’m in tune. You know, I’m sharp but I’m in tune.
And, it’s all about which world you come from. And, you can say, “Well, come here. Let me examine you” you say. “Well, why you play sharp all the time?” And, you say, “I come from the sharp people. My grandfather played sharp. My mother played sharp. My auntie played sharp. My uncle played sharp.” And, he says, “Well, why do you play flat all the time?” “It’s all relative. My aunt played flat. My grandfather played flat. My father played flat.”
He’ll say, “Well, come here. Why do you play loud all the time?”
“I come from the loud clan. We all come from musical clans. You have to wake me up at six o’clock in the morning, I’m ready to play loud. If you hire me, I’m gonna play loud. I play louds 24/7.” “So, don’t you ever play soft?” “No.” “Well, why don’t you ever play soft?” “’Cause I’m from the loud clan.”
If you want this guy and he plays loud and soft. “Come over here.” So, the other guy comes over. He says, “Yeah, I play loud and soft. But, I don’t ever play anything in the middle. If you want something in the middle, get that guy.” “Come over here.” “Now, I play loud, medium, and soft.” “Ahhh, okay. You’re the guy I wanna hire.” “But, I never play with mallets. If you want a guy that play with mallets, get that guy.” And, then he say, “Well, I play with brushes and mallets but I never play with sticks. Alright, get that guy.”
So, you finally get the guy. He plays soft, he plays medium. He plays slow, he plays fast. He uses his brushes, he uses his mallets, and he uses his sticks. And, that’s the drummer for you, you know? Except he’s deaf! You have to find the person who’s in tune with what you hear and how you hear and how flexible you are with what you want to hear.
Say, this guy plays nothing but melodies, you know? “Don’t you ever play anything rhythmic?” “No. I play melodies. That’s what I do. My father played melodies, my mother… It’s in my DNA. I play melodies. But, listen to my melodies. I don’t have to play rhythmic.”
See, that’s the other thing – is saying if you can play one note that can mesmerize people, you don’t have to play anything else. And, so I play this melody. When people hear this melody, oh man, they just [clapping] all night. And, that’s what I do ’cause that’s what I practice all my life, playing that beautiful melody. We used to have a guy in our band that only played b-flat. And, this is a true story. I won’t mention his name.
So, for 15 years he wouldn’t play another key.
Cisco Bradley: Wow.
William Parker: So, then they went out to outer space, to the black hole, and this scientist said that the sound… the note in the black hole was b-flat. And, then after he heard that, he came back, “I told you so. I told you so. I told you so.” So, he was in heaven. So, all joking aside … In this joking aside is the truth.
And, it’s just being comfortable to find out what you could do. I tell people look, you know, some people can do it all. They can play all ranges. But, if you can only play one thing, don’t feel bad. You know, it’s like well, I’m not a complete musician … So, what? What’s the big deal? It’s like, just play with what you think you can play. And, if you really… really wanna play it slow, you can play it slow. ‘Cause if you could play it fast, you could play it slow. If you could play it slow, you could play it fast. If you can play loud, you can play soft.
And, see, that’s kind of the strange thing of what we can and can’t do. It’s like you have an uncle he says, “Well, I only listen to Ben Webster. You say, “Well, I know. But, you listen to Coleman Hawkins?”
“No, I don’t listen to Coleman Hawkins. I only listen to Ben Webster.”
“Well, you listen to Sonny Rollins too?”
“No, I don’t listen to no Sonny Rollins. I listen to Ben Webster.”
“Oh, what about this guy? ‘Cause I’m a Sonny Rollins man. Oh, you listen to Coltrane?” “I’ll listen to Coltrane. Sonny Rollins.” “Well, I know you got to listen to Coleman Hawkins though?” So, in my mind, I’m saying, how can you like Coltrane but not like Sonny Rollins? How can you like Sonny Rollins but not like Ben Webster? How can you like Ben Webster but not like Coleman Hawkins? Because, people are like that. People are peculiar, they’re funny, and they’re finicky like a kid eating food. I’m not… I don’t eat anything green, Daddy. I don’t eat anything green, I don’t want anything red on my plate. But, that’s all it is. It’s the kid coming out. It’s the irrational kid that’s irrational and unreasonable about things that don’t make any sense.
And, people are like that. But, once you know that, you can really deal with them and you can kinda help guide them and point out things so that they don’t feel bad but they feel strengthened by being able to say, “Well, I can play a lot of things now but, my favorite thing is to play this. But, I can play other things.” You know, without thinking about, “Well, you wanna make money? You know, the more things you play, the more money you can make.”
If you got a family and a singer calls you for a gig and you only can play one thing and they say “Well, can you just play a little blues while I’m singing this song?” and you can’t do it, then they gotta get someone else to do it. You lose out on the money.
But, if you truly… truly…. truly believe at what you do then don’t you ever, ever worry about the money. Don’t ever let the money persuade you to keep off your track. You have to think that somehow, somewhere in the realm of the universe, it will all work out. Your kids will get fed and you will be able to follow your dream. Because, if you can’t follow your dream then it’s not worth it. So, I think it’s very important for you to follow your dream no matter what and, with the faith that the kids will get fed, that the rent will get paid. That, somehow, you’ll be able to, you know, exist and do what you’re supposed to do.
Yeah. You gotta have some hope because if not, then don’t even get involved. Like Bill Dixon says, “Don’t even … Yeah, you could quit right now if you’re worrying about making money.”
It’s not about making money. If you want to make money, become a lawyer. You know, become someone else who can make money. This music has got to be about the music first, the money second.
Cisco Bradley: Wonderful. This has been great. Thank you so much for sharing your insights and ideas.
William Parker: You’re welcome.
–Cisco Bradley, January 6, 2015