Sep 7, 2007

Downtown Music I: William Parker

Over the next few months, I will focus on a series of posts about 21st century New York culture, starting with some thoughts here on New York’s downtown music scene. To begin with, I’ll restrict myself to improvised music from downtown New York – a scene that, though vital and creative, may well be geographically disappearing or at least shifting with the closure of downtown clubs and steadily increasing Manhattan rents. I have begun my music research here by focusing on a mainstay of New York’s downtown improvised music scene, William Parker. Given he has such a long and distinguished career and appears on literally hundreds of recordings, I will restrict myself to a particular timeframe, the mid-1990s to the present, which marks roughly the time Parker began making albums as a leader. Downtown music, which I’m not going to attempt to define too closely here, is above all characterized by its eclecticism and DIY attitude, though Parker’s music comes more specifically out of an African-American tradition of largely improvised music that now seems broader in scope than the word “jazz” implies.

This, and following posts on New York downtown music, are written partially as a response to recent intense listening and concert-going on my part but also partially as a result of reading what appears at this time to be the only book covering this type of music in any serious detail, Phil Freeman’s, New York is Now: The New Wave of Free Jazz (Brooklyn, NY: The Telegraph Company, 2001). A combination of interview material, album and concert reviews, Freeman’s book is unfortunate for a number of reasons – while he writes with great passion and enthusiasm, Freeman’s range is very narrow in scope (“jazz” only) and the music is poorly contextualized and completely depoliticized. Indeed, the written material about this type of music is almost exclusively album reviews, liner notes, interviews (many listed below in the further links) and the John Zorn-edited Arcana books which comprise writings by musicians. So perhaps this series might represent the beginning of further positioning of New York improvised music beyond reviews and interviews. Before I start, I want to acknowledge up front the problem of utilizing the slow technology of words in response to contemporary improvised music – there’s an inherent futility in writing about such an ephemeral and spontaneous artform – so I won’t be translating particular albums or tracks into words (besides, there are plenty of reviews around) but instead attempting to contextualize the music and suggest some ways of thinking through it.

William Parker: Introduction

A New York native, William Parker began playing bass in the New York loft scene in the early 1970s, playing with older musicians including Don Cherry, Sunny Murray, Bill Dixon, Billy Bang and Frank Lowe. His first official recording released was an album with Frank Lowe (Black Beings, ESP, 1973). According to various interviews, Parker studied with bassists including Richard Davis, Wilbur Ware and Jimmy Garrison during the 1970s. He was a member of the Cecil Taylor Unit from 1980 until the mid-1990s, and during the mid-1980s also played with German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and connected with the European free improvisation scene. From 1989 Parker played with the David S. Ware Quartet, recording a series of albums for independent labels and even a couple for the major label, Columbia Jazz. The David S. Ware Quartet, one of the most vital forces in 1990s improvised music, consisted of David S. Ware on tenor sax, Matthew Shipp on piano, William Parker on bass and a series of drummers including Marc Edwards, Whit Dickey, Susie Ibarra and Guilliermo E. Brown. Though this group seems to be disbanded with their celebrated last album released recently (Renunciation, a live recording from the 2006 Vision Festival), they may still play together for one-off events.

Parker finally emerged as a leader, with his own various projects from the 1990s to the present. During this time, he stepped out of a sideman role to become heir to Charles Mingus’ legacy of the bassist-composer-band leader. Parker’s most prominent and long-standing projects since 1990 are: Other Dimensions in Music (active since the early 1980s, though they didn’t officially record until 1988), featuring Roy Campbell Jr (trumpet), Daniel Carter (saxes), William Parker (bass), Rashid Bakr (drums); In Order to Survive quartet (1993-2000), featuring Rob Brown (alto sax), Cooper-Moore (piano), William Parker (bass) and Susie Ibarra (drums); the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra (active since 1995), a big band combo featuring a host of players varying from a dozen to over twenty; and the William Parker Quartet (active since 2000), featuring Rob Brown (alto sax), Lewis Barnes (trumpet), William Parker (bass) and Hamid Drake (drums). Although these are Parker’s major projects since 1990, Parker has also lead various other groups and appeared on numerous recordings as a sideman (for a full sessionography see links below). Most notable is the variety of music he has played, from free to straight-ahead jazz to a hip hop album (Anti-Pop Consortium vs. Matthew Shipp, 2003), albums with DJ Spooky and even his own Curtis Mayfield tribute band.

Both Parker and David S. Ware were part of the generation of New York musicians who came of age in the 1970s “loft scene” when clubs closed (or at least closed to avant-garde music), resulting in musicians starting their own clubs in lofts, private homes or hired venues such as churches. Like Parker, Ware was also a Cecil Taylor alumni briefly in the mid-1970s. They followed the “breakthrough” generation of New York’s free jazz of the 1960s, of whom Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp are the best known exponents. The 1970s “loft jazz” generation are often overlooked in jazz histories, where they are overshadowed by accolades showered upon the 60s free jazz “masters”. It is important to note too, the revolutionary fervor of 60s free jazz died down somewhat in the 1970s with, on the one hand, the ascendancy of rock music and the other, the closure of many of the New York clubs and spaces, either physically, or conceptually closing to avant-garde music. Though, as LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) wrote in Black Music, there was a downtown loft scene even in the 1960s (see the essay “New York Loft and Coffee Shop Jazz”, 1963, featuring Don Cherry, Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, et al). So, rather than a completely new phenomenon, the 1970s loft jazz scene may also be seen as a continuation from the previous decade of musicians creating their own venues and developing their own audiences.

In a 2005 interview, Parker cited a series of late 1960s recordings as a key to understanding his aesthetics and musical philosophy: Albert Ayler’s Love Cry and Spirits Rejoice, Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Pharaoh Sanders’ Karma, Charles Mingus’ Fables of Faubus and Archie Shepp’s Things Got to Change. Parker states that with these recordings, “you got basically four things—spirituality, politics, the special ideas of space and time, and the tradition of folk and world music.” (“
Everything is Valid”, interview with William Parker by Eyal Hareuveni, All About Jazz, March 2005) These four then, will provide a starting point for an understanding of William Parker’s music. Certainly these ideas are no means restricted to the music of Parker, and by extension might also apply to other musicians of his generation still working in improvised music out of a jazz tradition in New York. I will discuss, in turn, the four ideas Parker presents: the spiritual dimension of music, the political dimension that arose out of Black Nationalism, the reinvention of musical space and time, and finally, the influence of an increasingly eclectic range of folk music.


“The movement is through our souls, the subtle dance of flower petals opening. The muted trumpet blowing dust off a mountain.”
William Parker, Who Owns Music?, Köln: Buddy’s Knife Jazzedition, 2007, p.107.

The 1960s free jazz generation pushed the limits of previous generations of bebop and hard bop outside of conventional rhythmic, harmonic and melodic structures, with musicians also pushing their instruments to the limits in free-form collective improvisations. But importantly, beyond the much-reviewed formal revolution, 60s free jazz represented for many a (re)connection to spirituality. The overtly mystical quality of John Coltrane’s late albums (post-A Love Supreme) or Albert Ayler’s music (Spiritual Unity, etc) continued with Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders and others through the 1970s. In Amiri Baraka’s first book, Blues People (1963), he traced a continuum from early African-American church music and slave music to modern jazz of the 1950s. In the 1960s, he updated this tradition in the essay “The Changing Same (R&B and New Black Music)” (1966). Here, Baraka he connected both the free jazz scene and the R&B scene (exemplified by James Brown) specifically with a spiritual quest: “It is expanding the consciousness of the given that they are interested in, not merely expressing what is already there, or alluded to. They are interested in the unknown. The mystical.” (LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Black Music, New York: Quill, 1967, p.188) Baraka also noted the bleaching process in which much cool “white” jazz of the 1950s and 60s was formalized and cleansed of said spirituality to become more like secular European classical music.

Parker’s musical journey from the 1970s to the present represents a continuation of many of the 60s free jazz ideals, including this spiritual or mystical element. Certainly the work of the David S. Ware Quartet in the 1990s can be seen as a direct descendent of 60s transcendent music. Ware’s raw, powerful tenor tone typically builds from simple melodic themes, which Shipp infuses with gospel-or blues-tinged harmonies, while Parker and drummer Brown provide rhythmic pulsations below as the music swirls in waves of expansive energy. The raw energy of their early albums gives way to a more circumspect or meditative spiritual quest in albums like Surrendered (2000), continuing the spirit of Pharaoh Sanders or Alice Coltrane’s music from the 1970s.

More recently, in interviews, liner notes and a book of his writings about music, Who Owns Music?, Parker stresses the importance of transcendence. He argues that improvisers/composers (he makes no distinction) develop their own entry point into what he terms the “sound stream”, “the eternal space where music lives. The muse-physicians tap into the sound stream to have music flow back through them.” (Parker, Who Owns Music?, Köln: Buddy’s Knife Jazzedition, 2007, p.78) Rather than a romantic creative genius model, Parker suggests that the musician is a conduit for sound – music flows through them (rather than originating “inside”) and the musician draws from the “sound stream” in the creation of cosmic music, creating a “porthole to the tone world” (Who Owns Music?, p.60). By returning to the idea of the musician as “muse-physician”, Parker reinstates an ancient role for the musician in society as a healer, shaman or priest, while at the same time (re)connecting recent New York downtown music to various living folk music (more on this below).

Free improvisation involves pushing music language (rhythm, melody, tempered scale, chords, etc) beyond its limits, into the realm of the unknowable, a realm that we might associate with the spiritual or with magic or the supernatural. Parker’s sound stream here represents the formless, boundless, fluid qualities that are the essence of this beyond which exceeds rational knowledge or systematization. To reach such a space involves an intense experience which corrodes the individual subject, a source of ecstasy which might manifest itself as extreme joy or cries of anguish. Free improvisation is a music of incessant metamorphosis, an interaction between individuals in a space belonging to none of them (nor to the audience). In a materialistic city in which values reside solely in dollars, Parker has worked to create a musical culture that is not based on solely on sales or, as so much New York “high” culture, on snobbery and pretence, but one based on this meeting place beyond the knowable. Finally, Parker’s version of free improvisation is not a “high” musical culture operating in an autonomous realm of pure aesthetics, nor a “pop” musical culture operating in the image-world exemplified by MTV, but, in its transcendent quest, it is music that connects to so many other things in the world.


“Music has always been ‘out of need things arise,’ means no one will give you a gig, so you’ll learn to rent a church or a space. You have no money to fix your bass so you’ll learn how to fix it yourself. You learn how to make things because you can’t afford to buy them. You learn how to do things because it’s survival.” (“Everything is Valid” interview with William Parker by Eyal Hareuveni, All About Jazz, March 2005)

New York’s loft jazz scene shared certain tactical approaches with other downtown artforms in the 1970s. On a basic level, in the absence of institutional, that is either commercial or government support for culture, a culture developed whereby artists produced, distributed and managed their own art. By creating alternative performance spaces in lofts, churches or storefronts, jazz musicians were doing what artists were also doing in New York at the time. The most famous loft space of the era was Sam Rivers’ Studio Rivbea, a space immortalized in the Wildflowers recordings (released in 1976 as 5 LPs, subsequently released as 3 CDs or as a single CD of highlights). In interviews, New York musicians tell the same story over and over again: the relative absence of government support for culture in the United States compared to Europe, which has two effects: a continual stream of musicians touring subsidized venues and festivals in Europe, and musicians at home having to be creative in the performance, promotion and distribution of their work.

On the positive side, the importance of the loft jazz scene lay not just as a means of taking control of the production and distribution of music, but the spaces also functioned as centers of community, bringing together musicians, artists, dancers, writers as well as an audience (in fact, the audience may have been mostly comprised of other artists). Again, the parallel development in downtown art of the 1970s resulted in site specific installations in alternative spaces such as lofts, storefronts and basements, which usually involved process-oriented, spontaneous and often collaborative artworks. For both artists and musicians, this downtown culture was an alternative to the uptown commercial culture of museums and commercial galleries for artists, and for musicians, midtown clubs and increasingly commercial jazz festivals. As well as subverting traditional musical and artistic forms, downtown culture was thus also politically engaged.

William Parker, in a 2001 interview, mentioned the impact of Elijah Muhammad’s ideals of black self-determination through economic power and self-motivation on his musical career: “You had to tell yourself that you were worth something because in the school systems you were not told you were worth anything. You really had to depend a lot on yourself and your historic figures to give you inspiration: your musicians, your writers, your poets, who at that time were heavy into Black Nationalism.” (interview with William Parker on 50 Miles of Elbowroom, by Adam Lore, 2001) No surprise then, when Parker named one of his key quartets, “In Order to Survive”. Survival as an artist in New York, particularly an African-American jazz musician, depended on self-motivation and self-determination.

A logical outcome of this tactic is the ongoing Vision Festival. Though started by Parker’s wife, Patricia Nicholson Parker, it is a forum for many of the musicians associated with William Parker. An annual festival that began in 1996, the Vision Festival grew out of earlier festivals such as the Sound Unity festivals of the late 1980s – and the same basic principles of self-motivation and self-determination still apply. Twelve years after its beginnings, the Vision Festival today remains fiercely independent of corporate interests or sponsorship (unlike, for example, the JVC Jazz Festival which also takes place in New York in June). Vision is unique for its inclusive aesthetic – dance, painting and photography work in tandem with music – perhaps an extension of the inclusive aesthetic of the 1970s loft scene. Unlike so many contemporary festivals, you get the distinct idea that Vision not all about making as much money as possible but that it really is about both the music and the community rather than about ticket sales, merchandise sales or overpriced food and drink. Finally, Parker and Parker’s recent “Blueprint for a Cultural Revolution” (Sept 1, 2007, see the Blog section), though vague on practical details, is certainly an overtly political call for government involvement in New York’s cultural life (though their line about New York as “the world’s center for culture” is unfortunate). But with a recently re-elected billionaire mayor whose interests extend only as far as Wall Street and real estate development, I applaud their efforts but don’t like their chances.

Musical Space and Time

“All improvisers are composers.”
William Parker, Who Owns Music?, p.67

From his beginnings in New York’s free jazz scene to working with European improvisers such as the late English guitarist Derek Bailey or regular gigs and recordings with German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann (such as with his Die Like a Dog Quartet), Parker has experience in a wide range of improvised music that has led him to develop a particular musical theory based on what he terms the “sound stream”. In the sound stream, Parker argues, there is no distinction between composition and improvisation, nor between musical styles. Here, the common-sense distinction between classical music (based on composition) and jazz (based on improvisation) is lost. In his book, Improvisation (DaCapo Press, New York, 1993), Derek Bailey argued similarly that improvised music was widespread in various global musical traditions (Indian, Islamic, Flamenco), including European classical music – his portrait of Baroque music as inclusive of improvisation flies in the face of accepted ideals of what classical music is.

Parker has been mining the sound stream while jazz became increasingly institutionalized and conservative, exemplified by Winton Marsalis’ rise to popularity in the 1980s, replaying 1950s bop, only now it was codified and palatable to an uptown (read also white, conservative) audience. Thus the label “jazz” seems to be one that many improvising musicians are a little uncomfortable with today. Not that Parker (and many others) don’t compose as well as improvise. At its heart though, the concept of improvised music involves an interplay between control and flow rather than improvisation and composition – something like surfing a wave, or, in Parker’s terms, surfing the sound stream.

In a version of Heraclitus’ famous dictum, “you can’t step in the same river twice”, Parker proposes a musical theory whereby you can’t play the same note twice, precisely because the context has changed each time you play (see his recent book, Who Owns Music? for numerous elaborations of this idea). Finally, Parker argues for the importance of the audience as an essential element in any improvised performance: “Improvisation’s responsiveness to its environment puts the performance in a position to be directly influenced by the audience.” (Who Owns Music?, p.44) This idea, coupled with the impossibility of playing the same note twice, means that recordings must be a poor substitute for a live performance in which the musicians interact with the audience. The audience is thus not an anonymous homogenous mass (as suggested by a recording), but a changing quality that effects the equation of the live performance. Which takes us back to the points above about politics and community – at the heart of the musical experience is the live performance and interaction between musicians and audience.

Folk Music: Inventing Community

“…every music that I’ve heard has been an inspiration to me. Everything from Ellington to the Benanzuli Pygmies, call-and-response, the gospel church, rhythm and blues, blues itself, Tibetan music, music from China, music from Japan. And when I say influenced, I don’t mean ‘we’re going to strive for a Tibetan sound today’, but I mean influences inspire you to seek sound.” (“Mayor of the Lower East Side”: interview with William Parker by Brian Carpenter, Free Association, WZBC 90.3 FM, Boston College Radio, aired Jan 21, 2002)

The final aspect of Parker’s music I wanted to briefly address is “world or folk music”. Although best known as a bass player, Parker often plays a variety of unusual instruments (at least in a jazz or European classical tradition), exploring various folk music of the world. The best examples of this are the recent collaborations with drummer Hamid Drake (Piercing the Veil, 2001, and Spring Snow, 2007). On these albums, Parker plays a wide variety of musical instruments from around the world, including: the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute), the balafon (West African marimba), the bombarde (French reed instrument) and the dumbek (Arabic drum). Drake, meanwhile, plays the tabla (an Indian drum) and the frame drum. At times they evoke the repetitions and drones of trance music – that on the one hand might be traced back in a local context to late Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Alice Coltrane or Don Cherry, but on the other, a myriad of folk music traditions that also utilize improvisation. This is in contrast to the generally condescending and patronizing Eurocentric attitude to folk music, often defined as primitive or less sophisticated than the European classical tradition (though sometimes useful for appropriating in the case of say, Bartok’s music). While the characterization of New York as a global cultural “melting pot” is one I’m highly suspicious of (see my Elsewhere post), Parker does seem to draw upon a wide array of musical traditions with conviction and respect. His most recent Vision Festival premier in June 2007, “Double Sunrise Over Neptune”, featured an eclectic instrumentation – trumpet, saxes, violins, viola, cello, oud, bass, drums, the voice of Indian singer Sangeeta Banerjee and Parker himself on a variety of reed instruments.

Perhaps the more important issue of folk music is that of communication with the “folk” – above all, folk music suggests a relationship to a community different to the aloofness of the concert hall or the commodified abstraction of popular music. In the case of Parker’s audience in New York, who exactly are the folk? While it’s difficult to pin down a particular socio-economic audience for this type of music, Parker himself reflected in an interview on the loss of the African-American audience for improvised music in New York: “People question why there’s no black audience for this music – we lost the support of the community. We drained the music out of the community. We lost contact with them… you needed a club in the community, where every night there’s a concert, 52 weeks out of the year, for 10-20 years, establish it, then you have an audience. But we took the music out of the community and it drained down to the Lower East Side.” (Interview with William Parker on 50 Miles of Elbowroom, by Adam Lore, 2001) Thus the polarization of music in New York I’ve been referring too above is not just along an uptown-downtown white audience distinction, but needs to be extended geographically further uptown to Harlem and the Bronx. Jazz and improvised music from the 1970s to the present has largely lost African-American communities to hip hop and pop music. Despite this, the music has formed what seems to be a loyal and eclectic downtown audience.

In my characterization of the New York downtown music scene here, I’ve tried to tread a line that argues that this music is neither pop music (exemplified by the commodified image-world of MTV) nor “Art” with a capital A that you might find uptown at the Lincoln Center (a fossilized European classical music and opera tradition that now includes the static “classical” version of jazz). Instead, this is music linked to a community, and to a process of living. In his book, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Attali offers this perspective: “ ... the world is not for beholding. It is for hearing. It is not legible, but audible ... Nothing essential happens in the absence of noise.” (University of Minnesota Press, 1985, p.3) Attali suggests that noise is a source of power equivalent to the written word or the articulation of space. Capitalism seeks to channel noise into saleable commodities, at the same time filtering out noise that is not the constant repetition of the same (the classical canon, be it of European music or jazz, or MTV). While downtown music is certainly integrated into a capitalist economy, it does offer a small pocket of resistance to the wholesale commodification of music, while also opening up both musical spaces for further creative exploration and the possibility of new communities.

Photos by DJ Huppatz. Top: Vision Festival XII, New York, June 2007; bottom: Howl! East Village Festival, September 2007.


No idea what any of this is about? Start with this concert clip from Vision Festival 2003 of the Matthew Shipp Quartet featuring Matthew Shipp (piano), William Parker (bass), Daniel Carter (tenor) and Gerard Cleaver (drums).

William Parker website

Impressively comprehensive William Parker sessionography by Rick Lopez

Impressively comprehensive David S. Ware sessionography by Rick Lopez

“Everything is Valid”: interview with William Parker by Eyal Hareuveni, All About Jazz, March 2005, online here

“Mayor of the Lower East Side”: interview with William Parker by Brian Carpenter, Free Association, WZBC 90.3 FM, Boston College Radio, aired Jan 21, 2002, online here

Interview with William Parker on 50 Miles of Elbowroom, by Adam Lore, 2001, online here

Further interviews with William Parker listed here (plus brief bio and discography) here

Kyle McGann, “Breaking the Chain Letter: An Essay on Downtown Music” (1998)

Downtown Music Gallery: the #1 source for buying downtown music

Indiejazz: an online retail source


Anonymous said...

Well written article.

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.