FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004

FMP CD 105

Peter Kowald


In order to survive

A small homage to a big sound: William Parker and his bass. And his group(s).

We shall see as to whether I can remember everything correctly. Anyway, we had first met in Judy Sneed's house at Thomkins Square (where, a long time ago, his namesake, Charlie Parker, had lived), during rehearsals of the Marilyn Crispell Quartet, with Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre and the late Dennis Charles, oh yes, Dennis. William invited me for dinner at his place, in the flat on 1st Avenue, 9th Street, directly above the fish-shop, whose grill outlet ended just in front of the living room window of the Parker family, Patricia who everybody then called Patsy, and Miriam, she must have been about 5 at that time. Then there was a concert of the quartet in the Carnegie Recital Hall, there I heard William play for the first time.

Not very much later, on the occasion of his exhibition at Sonnabend, we had played together as a trio with his piano and Billy Bang's violin, Penck – he had sold well at Sonnabend's and had his pockets 'full of money', so to speak – invited two bunches of musicians to a private session at midnight: they rented the "Air"-studio on 10th Street, Henry Threadgill and Fred Hopkins took care of the drinks. Frank Wright, Dennis Charles, Billy Bang, Jeanne Lee, singer Marty Mabin who came with David Schnitter and, yes, William was there, and then, at some point, we played the first bass duo together. Derek Bailey was also in town but when I phoned him for the late session he said: can't you do it earlier, can't we do it tomorrow morning? And, in fact, it did go until 6 in the morning and there were, maybe, 10 people in the audience, Franz Erhard Walther was there, I think also ter Hell and Sibylle Kretschmer and Djong Yun.

In 1983, there was a long car trip together with William from Berlin to Amsterdam airport, and the wonderfully crazy Penck had just promised us 50.000,- DM to finance a musical event of our choice in New York: and William and I thought about what we could do with it. In the end, in May '84, the Sound Unity Festival took place, where, in a small basketball hall – the baskets were simply unscrewed – on 2nd Avenue 119 musicians played over 5 days, the complete Lower East Side scene and a few more. Ebba Jahn has documented those days in her film "Rising Tones Cross". I had a New York grant for a few months and finally stayed for almost a year, my small flat above the Parker's (also above the fish shop) became part of the festival office just like William's and Patsy's kitchen, where, in those days, also Sana and her 4 children lived, a flat in New York is not easy to find, especially when there isn't much money about. So, at every festival discussion, papers quickly got sticky with honey and maple syrup but that never disturbed the high spirits during the preparations, often you would see William with a whole bunch of children on his knee, arm or shoulder, making phone calls in his arm-chair.

In those years, there were also the occasional visits to Wuppertal, I remember a beautiful concert with 2 basses and Patricia's dancing at a party in Lüntenbeck, or on William's days off, in between two European tours, in the attic in Luisenstraße, where nobody would disturb him and he would listen to stacks of records: " this must be paradise!", from time to time he would come to Cafe du Congo for a herb tea.

But, back to New York (William is a real New Yorker, born and bred): the move to 6th Street to a flat of their own, through a kind of a modernisation programme set up by the town, where several families could restore a broken-down house together. In the case of the Parkers, all that was left was a front wall, and through the window openings you could see the sky: the back wall and the floors were simply not there and I can still see William on a long ladder with hammer and chisel, and definitely not in a bad mood. Now there's an apartment with a large room with a wooden floor (for Patricia to dance) and a play room for the 12 year old son Isaiah and a former cloak-room converted into the organisation's office by the bass player.

And here on the wall – amongst others – photos of Wilbur Ware and Jimmy Garrison. William Parker's bass (specially the old one) is the most difficult instrument to play that I ever put my hands on: because of the distance above the finger board, pressing down the strings requires such an effort – and it's not as if I'm not used to exerting myself – that, in the beginning, I could hardly get any sound out of it, let alone any runs or things like that. It may be that Wilbur Ware's huge sound, his way of turning things upside down, and Jimmy Garrison's flow in William Parker's early years were important points of departure for his way of playing. William is, anyway, the loudest bass player I know, and this puts him in the tradition of the music called Jazz, in this century: Pops Foster in his autobiography (in the early days, in New Orleans, at the beginning of the century) says that a bass player, obviously, has to be responsible for the continuous rhythm, as well as for the basic harmonic structure, but the most important thing was that you had to play loud! But William, with all the free elements which make up his music together with partners such as Cecil Taylor, Rashied Ali or Peter Brötzmann to name but a few, represents this tradition in as far as his bass is the basis for everything else and acts as a focus for the group around him literally. Recently I listened to a trio with saxophone player Charles Gayle and drummer Milford Graves where, in the course of the very busy and lengthy process of playing, both of them were improvising on the piano four-handed before they went back to their instruments after quite a long time. William's bass had held everything together: a continuous force allowing associations from all possible worlds through its complexity, memories of Africa at the same time, yes, that's what it was!

"In Order to Survive" is New York. A series of activities presided over the years in the Lower East Side in order to keep the music alive, like the Shuttle Theatre in the eighties with Sandro ("in order to survive we have to ..."), a basement in 5th Street with a sheer staircase below a big metal trap-door, yes and Felice, Martin and Doug were taking care of the door, those were the days ... Or the Vision Festival in the nineties where Patricia took over all the organising, a festival which is so 'right' in this town because it doesn't put dollars first like all the others, and in the end still pays the musicians more than many of the others. Then there are all the different groups in which William over the years brought together, again and again, whole scenes of musicians with different backgrounds, like in the "Little Huey Orchestra" (in which, a couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of taking over the bass part because William had to do the directing), or, like here, "In Order to Survive": the inventive Cooper Moore who you could listen to many years ago on a sidewalk on Broadway on a home-made, 2 metre long Monochord from which he extracted a rich spectrum of overtones. And Susie Ibarra who, with a delicate force, drummed herself into the hearts of her by now numerous fans in a short time. And Assif Tsahar and Rob Brown, two of the younger saxophone players, carrying on the lines of tradition left to us by Coltrane and Dolphy (to put it quite simply).

Among further survival activities are small publications, self-produced, texts about music like the proposed book about/by bass players, poems, contributions for which, at the moment, no publisher can be found. So that this music can survive in an environment which still doesn't acknowledge it as America's great cultural achievement in this century (or now, at the most, the new conservatives). But "The music called Jazz is less than a hundred years old – too young to repeat itself", William Parker says. I say, "In order to survive – into the next century."

Translation: Isabel Seeberg & Paul Lytton

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