“Well see, now the point of it is…the credo, the aesthetic is: we play music to save the world, we play music to give, we play music to uplift the soul and the spirit of people and we do not fail….thats the way we do it, uh huh, uh huh…so thats the mantra always” – William Parker
“all these things about decisions, what to do, when to do it, will be resolved when you get deeper and deeper and deeper into music, into yourself, into the inner world of secrets, the inner world of confrontation that show you the voicings of the real chords that make things come to life” – William Parker
In conversation with Mike Bjella
William Parker plays the bass and many other instruments from around the world. When around William the universe seems to settle in. I studied with William a few years ago and we never exchanged many words. We would make music and part ways. Years later, I sat down with William at Casa Del Popolo.
Mike Bjella: Last time I saw you, it was at the L’OFF festival in Montreal with Marianne Trudel and Hamid Drake. When improvising, I hear many musicians trying to create an aesthetic – consciously perhaps..and with you and many of your cohort, there seems to be no attempt to create an aesthetic…something just emerges through the process..there is sometimes little cohesion, and that is the allure for me.
William Parker: Well, probably In the 70′s when I was playing a lot with Ensemble Muntu, there was a point where the idea was to play and build energy until you were kind of lost in the music. And one afternoon we were playing at Ali’s Ali, Rasheed Ali’s club, and I hadn’t really broken through to really find my voice, where I was helping to take the flow of music…I was kind of following that flow and I guess to some extent I was helping to create it but I wasn’t aware of it. And what happened was I broke through with an arco solo…I found a voice on the instrument through that…
I also got to the point where I stepped into another world inside the music and was really lost in it and I got the idea of trusting, not trying to make something happen, but to know that I was inside the elements that helped to make things happen, and I had to trust the elements and just let things flow…but I was never trying to make something happen, just a lot of energy and a lot of spirit and it was just overtaking me. and after 20, 30 years of doing that, in the 90′s, it got the point of just following, relaxing, following the flow of the music. Not trying to regulate impulses but follow impulses without thinking, relying on intuitive movement rather than planned or controlling the music…also listening in an intuitive way, because listening was so important but it wasn’t so much hearing what you were listening to in a normal way, but hearing in a very intuitive way.
So you were turning corners but you didn’t know which way to go except that intuitively you were told, go this way, go that way. But I didn’t really see clearly nor did I really want to know clearly where I was going because I didn’t want to get to the wrong place. I wanted to be at the mercy of the flow of the music.
So I don’t try to plan anything except I know in my heart that the music has gotta take off and elevate to reach it’s highest point of flow and I wanted to just relax and learn how to do that. So after all those years, you learn to be yourself but not be aware of what you are doing at the same time you are doing it, like we do this and then this, from this rhythm to that rhythm…you don’t wanna get there, cause then you become a cliche, it becomes planned, not intuitive..but if you stay open it can always reach a point where you don’t know where it’s gonna happen next but your not afraid to go there.
MB: So, you’re ceding control.
MB: Is that a purely musical practice or does it coordinate with other aspects of life?
WP: Well, I like to use maps, I like to have a sense of where I’m going, when I’m going to get there. It’s only really done in creativity, in music or writing, composing, putting music together and getting a sense of – how do you put music together that works every time? You are aware of what you are doing and at the same time it is a mystery. And thats how I approach the whole idea of composing, putting music together…today we did a combo of written sketches and open sketches…later on I wait till the impulses come in and I edit like a film maker edits ’till I feel it is really in the zone where it is vibrating at it’s highest rate and then it is ready to go, to get off the shelf and go where it goes.
MB: Sometimes there seems to be this underlying intention to let go, you know, and it is a fragile mechanism, you try to hard to let go and it’s not there anymore.
WP: Well see, now the point of it is…the credo, the aesthetic is: we play music to save the world, we play music to give, we play music to uplift the soul and the spirit of people and we do not fail….thats the way we do it, uh huh, u huh…so thats the mantra always, but we don’t’ say were gonna do this before we play, we just know it inside, you know. And you trust the unknown and your able to do it. If you don’t trust the unknown and try to control it, something might be lost in the translation there.
MB: Are there certain musicians that awakened you to this mysterious giving element?
WP: In the middle of playing music, you find out who can go with you and who can’t. You know, I played with a lot of musicians but as far as going to the deepest place, I’ve gone there with Milford Graves, Rasheed Ali, Charles Gayle, William Hooker, Other Dimensions in Music, my own bands, Cecil Taylor, Kid Jordan, Peter Brötzmann…with certain people the music travels… space waves as they say..and go to the deepest part, but you have to play with musicians who when they get there, they are not afraid. You cannot be afraid. If you are afraid, the spirit runs away. David Ware has an album called ‘Surrender’ and that is part of it. Thats another person I should mention, David S. Ware…when he was alive, we went there a lot. And you can go there with anyone, it’s just a matter of letting go and surrendering to the moment. Not trying to control the sunrise or even worship the sunrise but letting it be and become part of it.
MB: I read you book, “Who Owns Music” and I’ve been playing music and writing words simultaneously and I find that for me..there is a base element to creation, and then there are these different streams of the mind maybe or rather of the soul…one towards music, another towards words…I wondered if there is a differentiation for you?
WP: You know, I’ve put more time into music and it’s a separate thing. When I get called to write linear notes, I do it, but right now…mentally it’s not in the forefront until i’m doing it, whereas music is always in the forefront even when I’m doing writing. But when writing comes up or I’m writing a new Idea or article about something, it’s right there, and it’s an extension of the music, thats where it came from. I used to write plays and poetry before I started writing music, because I knew how to write, not how to play music. But I always wrote because I thought I had something to say and when I have something to say I write.
And you find if you write every day, you always have something to say. Just noticing things and writing that down….. photographing through words and articles of poetry. You look at the sun and you write a poem about how beautiful that sunrise or sunset is. So you are photographing the experiences and sharing it through words.
MB: I’m interested in the mechanism that makes decision or allows decision to be made. In that flow, it feels like I’m not making decision when I’m in there…something else is more coming through me…do you have thoughts on that…free will?
WP: Well, thats when your training comes up. You take up martial arts, boxing, any sport..you train you body to throw a ball, move to the left and right, block a punt, and it’s the same thing with music and art – through creative training, you train your body to respond to impulses which will tell you when to do something creative, how to do it, how not to do it…it’s just a matter of trusting these impulses and doing it…and whatever answer you don’t have, it will come to you through the music, through writing, through living, meeting people…I mean some one can tell you right off what it is, which is one thing, but the other thing…it’s a flow where the work itself where the work itself guides you into it and guides itself in you and out of you and through you all at the same time, leaving you much more whole than you were before you started….
So as far as decisions…how do you know whether to put your left foot before your right foot? Your body lets you know…your ears let you know..just thinking about music, your training your self, when you listen to music. Transcribing solos – but the idea was, sing the solo, don’t transcribe it…be able to hear it and sing it…putting it on paper is one thing, but to hear it, sing it, live…all these things about decisions, what to do, when to do it, will be resolved when you get deeper and deeper and deeper into music, into yourself, into the inner world of secrets, the inner world of confrontation that show you the voicings of the real chords that make things come to life. There are certain voicings that you have to be able to hear. And part of that is knowing when to stop studying, when to stop searching…there is a point when you have to stop searching..you gotta realize that it’s right there. You’ve got it, you’ve found it. And if you keep searching, your gonna loose it.
MB: I was just talking to a friend about the problem of trying to improve…it feels similar.
WP: naw, forget about that, I mean, you’ll improve. You gotta do whats right for you, but I mean, every day Coltrane used to fall asleep with the horn in his mouth. He’d do a gig, practice in between the gig, go home and practice until he fell asleep. I mean….you have to practice…a time and place. I think we have to be able to hear ourselves and know when we are growing and have confidence in the fact that we don’t see any progress, because sometimes when you don’t see any progress, progress has left us already, or it’s gotta come back around…it’s a fleeting thing…guys say, “I sounded good” ….yea, you sounded good six months ago, you should have quit while your ahead…you gotta know when things are balanced. I’f you’ve got an obsessive personality, you’ll never be balanced…Some guys used to come to me from the symphony orchestra and I told them, you know more music than anyone ever knew in the history of music. Leave it alone! There is nothing else you can know except forgetting what you know and playing.
MB: Analysis can paralyze.
WP: Yes, let it go. There is a large imperfection in perfection…and thats what makes it perfect. Nature’s perfection is different…nature’s perfection is a little off. And once you realize that, you know you are right on. Nature’s perfection…off to the left, off to the right, thats how it flows.
MB: I’m curious about the credo you mentioned…is it constantly shifting or is there a truth to it that has weight, holding it in place.
WP: It doesn’t shift although sometimes I make music with people where it is a real struggle to get there…all you can do is do your best every night to get there…and if the rocket ship doesn’t take off, you have to get a motel for the night [laughter] and say, I did a great job, but help didn’t come.
MB: Houston didn’t come through.
I find that the place of finding the flow, collective credo is there much of the times and sometimes when it’s not, there is this desire or longing to be in that flow place. Was that part of your process?
WP: See I wasn’t looking for it, so I didn’t have that problem..I didn’t know what I was looking for…was I trying to get from A to Z, sought music, get something grooving, what ever that was…trying to start, make a statement and finish…I was just going with the natural flow of things.
I find that most people don’t have a clue but they aren’t dissatisfied. You see, the people that are dissatisfied are the ones who are closest to it. The ones who are not dissatisfied have no idea what’s going on. They just think everything is ok and things should go on like they are.
MB: They haven’t tasted the sweets.
WP: Let’s just say you had a sax player like Kenny G. Not Kenny G, we know he’s a different guy but like Kenny G. Lets say Kenny B. Kenny B really thinks that man, he’s happening. He doesn’t question what he does. He gets those cheques, puts the money in the bank and just keeps doing it and doing it. And when you say to Kenny B, “Kenny, man, can I tell you something?” “yes.” “you aint happening, you aint been happening the last 20 years.” And this guy says, “you’re crazy, I wouldn’t be on top if it wasn’t happening.” But it’s not happening. Some people don’t have a clue what planet they are on as far as if what they are doing is happening. You know, when landlords raise your rent, they don’t know whats happening [laughter], they’re just doing that to try to make money.
The bad thing is that a lot of people are not aware of how they impact other people’s lives…and you have to be aware. So the thing is, people really don’t know the difference nowadays. You have american idol and all these shows where people are singing and they have a formula and it is just a formula for making money..nothing to do with music or art, just to be a pop star.
MB: Do you feel an element of creating something that helps people..is that part of the process?
WP: You are always trying to help people through sound, through music…hopefully they will like it, eat it up, feel it, become it, but you don’t really have any control over that, over people understanding what you are doing. They might not ever understand it…all you can do is do it. Those people that understand it probably understood it before you showed it to them. But the hope that maybe you can kind of inspire or bring something out.
MB: It’s happened to me so many times.
WP: Pharaoh Sanders…there was a conference with Pharaoh Sanders and another musician on a panel. One guy was very articulate about his music and Pharaoh just said “I just play what I feel” and every answer was “I just play what I feel, I don’t know about theory and this and that and all that, I just play what I hear and play what I feel”…and that was beautiful. You know we all have a tendency to over intellectualize, over-worry, over state the cause when it’s very simple. Your car stops and the first thing you check is whether it has gas in it.