Interview | William Parker: ‘Melody as magic’

William Parker discussed his new organ quintet. Courtesy

by Luke Stewart
Editorial board

William Parker is the most iconic bassist of New York City’s downtown scene, and one of today’s most important jazz musicians.

Growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s and ’60s, he was exposed to the city’s rich jazz culture first-hand through studies with an array of notable bassists, from Jimmy Garrison to Milt Hinton to Wilbur Ware. In the 1970s he became the regular bassist in Cecil Taylor’s group, gaining entrée to the thriving experimental scene. In the 1980s, he formed the formidable collective group Other Dimensions in Music, which included notable members of New York’s avant-garde scene, such as Matthew Shipp, Roy Campbell Jr. and Daniel Carter. He also co-founded and continues to organize the Vision Festival, one of the premier showcases of improvised music in the world.

In 2010, Parker made a very special recording with an organ quartet in dedication to his uncle, Joseph Edwards. Entitled Uncle Joe’s Spirit House, the project marked a new type of exploration for the bassist. The drummer on the album is Gerald Cleaver, who is known as one of the most versatile musicians on the New York scene. In Parker’s words, Cleaver can play “any style, any kind of rhythm or nuance in the music, and still have a very original concept.” The saxophonist is Darryl Foster, a veteran in R&B, having performed with Sam and Dave, among others. He was also with Parker for the bassist’s “Inside Sounds of Curtis Mayfield” project. On organ is Cooper-Moore, widely renowned as a leader on jazz’s avant-garde as well as a skilled builder of unique instruments.

At Bohemian Caverns on Sunday, Parker will hold the organ quartet’s world premiere, performing live with the group for the first time. In anticipation of that show, Parker took some time to discuss his life and music with CapitalBop. This interview was previously broadcast Wednesday evening on WPFW.

CapitalBop: How did you apply the structure of the “organ quartet” to your own musical concept?

William Parker: I became aware of the idea of an organ quartet listening to Gene Ammons and Jack McDuff, and listening to Jimmy Smith and his trios. It was a sound I heard when I was a kid. My father was very much into Jug [Ammons]. Then later on, I heard a different kind of organ with Larry Young and Sun Ra. It has always been the idea of club music – where you have a backbeat, a jumping groove, interlaced with a romantic ballad. But that is kind of a template for what it could be. We didn’t really follow a template with this. We just got the idea of what it could sound like. Obviously when you assemble a group, you have a template for what it could be, but you have to find your own place in the painting. If something already happened in history, then you say, “What can we do?” You really don’t know until you do it and put it together. We’re trying to get the music to find its own level in the history as it is unfolding now.

William Parker. Courtesy

I didn’t really have a sound I was looking for, except that I knew we wanted a groove, we wanted something that has melody, something that has chants or songs that can be repeated, hymns, something that people can go home humming. Also, [we wanted] many unknown factors where we wouldn’t limit the range of how far we can go. It’s very important to stay open to crossing barriers with the mesh of the organ sound.

We didn’t really use a classic Hammond organ. We used a keyboard and a module that had an organ sound. We were supposed to record with a Hammond organ, but the studio we were at that particular day could not find the chords for the Hammond organ, so we used a keyboard. It is a modulated sound similar to the space organ sound that Sun Ra might have gotten from his organ.

CB: Is this one of Cooper-Moore’s inventions?

WP: Yeah. He worked on getting the organ sound he liked. He used to play Hammond organ when he went down to Virginia … where he is from. He had to do some organ work to support his family when he was down there. So [in this group] he is playing what he remembered from that experience, and his interpretation of that sound to what he needs to do on his keyboard. So he has a module and samples to play out of two different amplifiers to create the sound.

CB: What is the significance of the name Spirit House? Were you or your Uncle influenced by the church?

WP: There are images. I was familiar with the church as a child, I was taken there by my mother and attended certain events. I cannot say that I was raised up in it, but I was there. And we were familiar with the feeling of the church organ, the hymn, the way people dressed and handled themselves. Familiar with after church, the supper; familiar with the South. That was one layer of the reflection. The other layer of the reflection was Joseph Edwards, my uncle who was married to my mother’s sister, Carrie Lee Edwards. [My uncle] was a postal worker and raised four children with his wife. He [went to church], but that’s not who he was. He was always thinking about progressive things. He loved music. At one point he was a boxer. And he is still alive today. He’s 93 years old, still living in the Bronx, still thinking on his feet. So the whole concept of the record was sort of a tribute to him and his wife and the family having lived this long and survived in America.

“Music is like people. It is a living thing and has a living personality. So I am not really prejudiced to any particular kind of music.”

The thing about the Black Church [is] it’s not just one thing. It’s the church [itself], it’s the farm and field workers, it’s the people who migrated up to New York, it’s the Civil Rights Movement, it’s going through trials and tribulations with your family, it’s your children asking for things you can’t give them, it’s going through struggle and trying to move from one place to another. All these things are experiences that are in the music. The other thing about the music is that if you say “Black Music” you are talking about everything from field hollers to space music. Its in that range that the music has existed. So you have all that to draw upon plus whatever variation of these things you yourself have been working on.

If you say I want to make this sound like so-and-so, like “Jimmy Smith”, and then you try to do it, you can’t do it like Jimmy Smith, so you automatically have a mutation of that sound that is more original to you because you couldn’t do it like Jimmy Smith. But Jimmy Smith gave you the possibility that “a sound” could be made and it could work on that particular instrument, and it could be with any instrument. That’s one of the ways we find our sound by starting off using a template of another sound and then realizing that “we just can’t do that.” There are people who imitate that sound, but they don’t ever really find their own sound because they end up sounding more like the person they are trying to imitate than themselves.

CB: Would you categorize your own musical conception as an exemplification of “Black Music”? Is that an overt theme in your music?

WP: I’ve never left anything out in the sense that when I used to go over to Europe and improvise with European improvisers like Derek Bailey, I noticed that … when they reach the idea of melody or rhythm, they alter it. They don’t use a continuous rhythm. They break up the rhythm. They break up the melody, so they have a new concept of melody. Melody is there, rhythm is there, harmony is there, all the elements are there. But they are broken up in a different way because that’s how they were hearing. So I take that concept of being able to break up melodies, break up rhythms, but I also accept melody as a magical thing. This is what Albert Ayler and Don Cherry taught me, that melody is a very important part of the healing process. A happy melody is something that you could go off singing. If you heard a melody you like, when you are feeling in a particular way and you want to alter your mood, you can hum a melody. That’s why melody is important: because it is something you can reuse and put into your life at another point. Also rhythm or any aspect of music.

William Parker. Courtesy

All I do is look at the whole history of music, and not be afraid to use it as I liked, because it always comes out differently than it had done previously. It always works out that you hear something and say, “I like that and I’m gonna use it as a basis for something,” but when you do it, if you’re lucky enough, it will always come out differently – which is actually a gift. You hear Charlie Parker and you use it as a jump-off point to possibilities. You play this way, run over these scales, play those licks, run over these harmonies, but don’t end up sounding anything like Charlie Parker. I remember talking to a saxophonist from Chicago, Fred Anderson, who really loved Charlie Parker, [he] would listen to him everyday. But when you listen to Fred, he doesn’t sound anything like Charlie Parker, although Charlie Parker was a great inspiration to him.

CB: This is similar to the way you incorporate your influences into your own music.

WP: That was the wonderful thing about not being boxed in to playing one type of music. At one point I was playing with the drummer Sunny Murray, then I would play with Rashied Ali and the singer Maxine Sullivan all at the same time. Then I was the house bassist at a club in the Bronx called the Salt and Pepper, where I played bebop. I worked with a guy named Louis McMillan, who is a ventriloquist, and we had a comedy act with a dummy. I was doing all this at the same time. If you followed me during these days, you’d see I was working with poets, with dancers. It just opened me up to realize that it wasn’t so much about the style, it was about the sound, tone. Equal music. It wasn’t about “now I’m going to play bebop, now I’m going to play swing, now I’m going to play Latin, now I’m going to play ‘free’ or some other name for that music.” That really helped me.

Then when I met the European improvisers, Peter Brötzmann, Peter Kowald. They were doing something different. So I was able to go into that world without blinking an eye. Then you come back and you aren’t prejudiced to any kind of music. Then when you are tired and you want to listen to Marvin Gaye, some soul, you can listen to John Cage, you can listen to anything you want to listen to and its fine. But if you put it a box in and say, “Well, bebop is the only music that is valid, if you don’t play bebop I can’t use it,” it’s like saying, “People from Texas are the only people that are valid, if you aren’t from Texas I don’t want anything to do with it.” Because music is like people. It is a living thing and has a living personality. So I am not really prejudiced to any particular kind of music.

Now, as I tell my students, we come out of musical clans. Like the Hopi Indians, they have clans. We as musicians come out of clans too. There are certain musicians who love melody. Johnny Hodges was always connected to the melody, so he was coming out of the melodic family. There are other people who love to play rhythm all the time. They like to play a certain way on the drums. There are people who play fast, there are people play slow. That’s fine, because that’s a preference. But it doesn’t have anything to do with what style you are playing in, just how you play your instrument. There are all kinds of possibilities – and this is wonderful because it doesn’t leave anybody out. No matter what kind of personality you have or your likes in music, there’s always a place for you to be comfortable playing something and finding your voice and sound. 

William Parker’s Organ Quartet performs at Bohemian Caverns this Sunday, Dec. 4, as part of Transparent Productions’ Sundays at 7 at the Caverns series. Tickets are $20 in advance and $20 at the door, and there is no minimum. More information is available here, and tickets can be purchased here.



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  1. Avatar

    sounds like a wonderful bunch of ideas, and it’s a lot of things that as a drummer developing my own sound, it’s a lot of things that I’ve felt but could not have explained that well,. definitely interested to hear some of his music.

    Ian Dylan /
  2. […] by the William Parker Organ Quartet. (You can read our interview with Parker, a legendary bassist, here.) Find details on these performances and many more in this week’s edition of “Weekend in […]

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