I first put William Parker on the cover of Jazziz magazine in 1999, when I was editor-in-chief. I’ve since written about Parker—who is best known as a bassist, but whose sincerity is nicely depicted in Jack Vartoogian’s photo, above, of Parker playing a double-reeded horn—in many contexts, including the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.
I returned to the pages of Jazziz for a long and, I think, meaty interview with Parker (you can find it here on pag 38; if you can’t access it, feel free to contact me for a file version).
Below are some excerpts, beginning with a section about the Vision Festival, which Parker helped found 20 years ago.
For those who don’t know your community, how do you define the Vision Festival’s aesthetic?
The aesthetic isn’t so easy to define. Nobody does fully notated pieces, though that’s not to say that they couldn’t or that I don’t compose a lot for my larger pieces. There is improvisation in each band, which sometimes comes out of jazz, sometimes blues or world music or European music or just what I call the X-factor.
You know, people were complaining at some point: You don’t present this, you don’t present that. I tell them the Vision Festival was started to present the music of the musicians who are part of the Vision community — to play music that has roots in the 1960s, in free improvisation, in music that follows the tones and the mantras of civil rights, spirituality, and that honors the idea of political content in art and poetry. If you don’t fit that, it doesn’t mean you can’t play the Vision Festival. But that is the main thrust.
Some critics have pigeonholed the Vision Festival as throwback or anachronism, which I think is a false and lazy claim. But when you say “’60s-based,” do you feed that characterization?
Well, Ornette Coleman recorded Free Jazz in 1960. And people heard that. I heard that. If I was inspired by it, if we were inspired by Albert Ayler — well, you are the generation you are. You can’t be penalized for when you were born. It’s not like oil-based paint or water-based paint. This is ’60s-based. That’s an idea, a stance, a spiritual feeling. And another thing: The ’60s is the decade no one wants to come back. That’s because everything was happening. People were experimenting, removing barriers. Everything was beginning to get free. That scared some people or pissed them off. It still does. But it inspired a whole lot of people. So what we do is based on that.
So the Vision Festival extends a political impulse that is a half-century old?
It is in itself a political statement just because of the fact that we’ve been able to survive for 20 years. A lot of people probably wanted it to stop or just to go away, which it almost did. And if you go for more than one night, you can feel how the vibe is different. Just walking through, waiting to get in, you have a clump of musicians talking and you get a certain vibration. You’re walking through, and Kidd Jordan and other musicians are just talking. You get a glow that you just don’t get anywhere else. And for this one week or whatever it is, you know you can come there and you can get a kind of enlightenment you cannot get anywhere else.
Twenty years ago, your festival seemed to reflect a physical community that you lived and worked in. But has development and gentrification changed all that?
The physical reality doesn’t exist the way it once did. Decades ago, I could sit in a chair in front of my building and Butch [Morris] lived down there. Don Cherry would come rolling down the street. Frank Lowe, Andrew Hill, you name them. This is where I met all these guys. Then in the ’80s what happened was the rents began to rise, Reagan was elected, things began to change. Soon, a lot of our spaces were gone, and musicians couldn’t live in the Lower East Side anymore.
Do you feel as though you are now confined to a reservation with diminished opportunity or, worse, that you’re being forced off the reservation?
You’ve got a lot of different little levels of this whole thing. Maybe three months ago, I was lying on the couch and I dozed off. When I woke up, everything made sense to me. This is how I saw it: Every musician is assigned a list of people they’re supposed to reach. Might be 40, might be 3,000 or three million. And that’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s not supposed to be like Taylor Swift, though she has her assignment, too. My assignment is to reach those people who are reaching out to me. And that’s all there is to success and to feeling whole. It’s not about a bigger audience or even a bigger community. It’s about those who want to hear your music, those who might come over to your music. That’s maybe narrower than we think, but it might be wider than we think.
When I’m riding on the subway and someone says, “Are you William Parker?” and then they say, “Man, I never thought I’d see you again. I just want to tell you that you played at my school 25 years ago. You played this solo. That thing changed my life.” Now, you can’t top that. Suppose I’d have never run into that guy.
I may be on the reservation, but the sky is so beautiful.