Universal Tonality: the Life and Music of William Parker

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by Cisco Bradley

Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2021, 416 pp, $29.95, paperback


The Free Jazz communities of the 1960s and 1970s that provided the impetus for bassist and composer William Parker were marked by a set of intense politics and by Afrocentric conceptions of spirituality. And while this broad array of philosophical and political settings for the compositions and improvisations of the era may not always have been immediately apparent in what was, after all, a mostly instrumental music, they formed what we might call its tonal center, a nearly universal tonality in its reach, ambition and accomplishment.

And if that sounds a bit New Ageish, I can testify to the historical accuracy of one such event narrated in Cisco Bradley’s consummately accomplished biography of Parker. Bradley, drawing on the reports of bassist Joshua Abrams, tells us that at the close of an early morning solo improvisation by Parker in Guelph, Canada, a rainbow appeared in the sky. The Guelph Jazz Festival has long been unusual in that it has a colloquium on improvisation attached to it. One year I was invited, along with poet Jayne Cortez, to deliver a keynote at the colloquium. My subject was the performances William Parker had undertaken with poet Amiri Baraka, based on the musical legacy of Curtis Mayfield. I had been looking forward to the event in particular because Parker was going to perform at the festival, and because Cortez was a friend of the bassist. A tradition at Guelph is the Nuit Blanche, a long night of concerts scattered around the city, followed by a final concert at the crack of dawn. That year the final concert was a gallery solo performance by Parker, in which he told stories along with his between-the-songs commentaries. In Abrams’s report of the event, it was like ‘entering a magic space of being’. As I exited the front door of the gallery after the performance, I found myself greeted by an early morning rainbow stretched across the sky, a sign that Abrams, too, recalled, and shared with Cisco Bradley.

With William Parker approaching his seventh decade, Bradley benefitted in the writing of this book not only from a broad and diverse array of oral histories from the musician’s friends and collaborators, but also from direct access to much of Parker’s own writings. Given that Parker’s recorded output dates back to the 1970s, with his first recording as a group leader coming in 1981, the discography alone is a field capable of sustaining multiple critical engagements. Bradley’s access to testimonies, journals and other documents allows him to offer the fullest retrospective yet of one of the most vibrant and productive lives in what was once termed ‘New Music.’ The book’s title is, of course, a reference to one of Parker’s own concepts. Given the incredible diversity of ways of organizing tonality in the world, from the tempered scales of the western tradition to the svaras of India or the ritsu of Japan, it might be thought an insurmountable ambition for musicians of these disparate traditions to find common ground. Witness Ornette Coleman’s meeting with the master musicians of Jajouka, though, and you begin to see, or hear, what William Parker has aimed at throughout his life’s work. Parker’s vision of ‘universal tonality’ expresses the hope, confirmed by many of his own experiences, that ‘master musicians from any part of the world can meet and, without any preparation, play and communicate with one another in their own musical languages on a profound level’ (p5). This view of the availability and mutability of tonality finds its corollary in Parker’s view of multi- and inter-media arts. An early appreciator of experimental film makers such as Stan Brakhge, and avant-garde poets such as Amiri Baraka, not to mention jazz artists who incorporated their own poetry in their work, including Archie Shepp and Joseph Jarman, Parker was from the outset influenced by, if you will, the poetics of ‘outside’ and the practice of playing ‘out’.

Bradley follows the young Parker’s evolution from early explorations of brass and cello, into his lifelong devotion to the upright bass. We learn that Parker had opportunities to learn from masters of the instrument including Richard Davis, Wilbur Ware and Jimmy Garrison. The narrative is built around a series of turning points: Parker’s decision to become a conscientious objector from the war in Vietnam, his dedication to the arts communities of New York’s Lower East Side (drummer Andrew Cyrille, according to Bradley, has dubbed Parker the ‘Mayor of the Lower East Side’), the early dedication to open improvisation, the effort in early performances to avoid repeating compositions in public, Parker’s works with dancers. Throughout, we bear witness not only to William Parker’s growth across the decades, but, thanks to Bradley’s deft arrangements of his materials, also to his voice and to the voices of his many collaborators.

Parker, we read, began as a poet, reading in his youth such word magicians as Haki Madhubuti, June Jordan, Ernesto Cardenal, Larry Neal, Nikki Giovanni and, of course, Baraka, who performed many of his final public recitals as part of Parker’s I Plan to Stay a Believer: The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield project, including a memorable concert at the Guelph Festival. It is common among musicians and educators to speak of the literature of an instrument, to talk of the language of an instrument, of a musician’s ‘lyrical’ approach to their instrument, and to view the interchange among jazz improvisers as a form of conversation. In the case of Parker these metaphors become increasingly literal. Bradley quotes Parker as saying: ‘All my life I had been drawn to words, first through poetry and later I discovered that poetry was very close to lyrics. If you sing a poem it is a song. I had long been intrigued by words and music as a form of protest’ (p232). The name of Olaudah Equiano appears more often in Bradley’s biography than readers might ordinarily expect in the narrated life of a contemporary artist, but there is ample reason. Equiano, author of one of the first slave narratives in English, reported of his Igbo people: ‘We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians and poets’ (p17). For William Parker, this is the most apt description of his coterie on the Lower East Side, of the communities of musicians and composers he has worked with throughout his life, and of himself. ‘Universal Tonality’ may strike some as a utopian vision if applied as broadly as Parker would want us to apply it, but we are all in need of utopian visions just now; the life and music of William Parker might well help us improvise our way to freedom.

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