William Parker
Jazz has an extensive history of self-empowerment that reflects aesthetic and political values of individual musicians, their communities, and underground society at-large. Many musicians have asserted control of and responsibility for their art, releasing material on independent, artist-run labels whose names continue to inspire: Debut, Saturn, SRP, Center of the World, Survival, Unit Core, Ak-Ba.

William Parker has been deeply involved with artist-produced events for over thirty years, organizing concerts and festivals, releasing music on Centering Records and Stork cassettes, and publishing his own writing, as well as a magazine, The Bill Collector. In this interview from 2001, he reflects on his experiences during a period that laid the groundwork for the Vision Festival and other contemporary like-minded efforts. - Adam Lore

When I was in high school, there was always a community center that was there for us - "us" meaning the kids who lived in the projects - to play basketball and have some activities. In the summertime when everyone had sleepaway camp, we had day camp that we would go to, where it wasn't very fancy or anything. You'd have ping-pong, skellies, basketball, softball, and trips to the swimming pool. There was that and then later on, on Boston Road, up the hill from where I lived, there was the Black Panther office. They were organizing things. There were the Black Muslims in the Bronx who used to sell Muhammad Speaks, a newspaper that my father used to buy every week. In this paper Elijah Muhammad would talk frequently about black economic power and self-determination, having your own land, your own houses, your own base of operations. Those ideas were around in that time, to be self-motivated and to do for yourself, because if you didn't do for yourself, who would provide for you? You really couldn't depend on the government or what they call the system to provide the things for one's survival.

trio concepts flier That crossed over to the ideas laid out by John Carter and Bobby Bradford. They recorded a record called Self-Determination Music. Charles Mingus had this track called "Fables of Faubus." Archie Shepp put out a record called Fire Music. All of these things were on the perimeter of doing for one's self, self-promotion, and self-development, and to mirror self worth, which was very important at the time. 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, and your poets, who at that time were heavy into Black Nationalism.

Bold gestures are always inspirational. I read about Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra in California, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music, the Liberation Music Orchestra. So politics were in the air but also politics of human beings were in there too, spirituality and all that. But the motivation was to do, to get up and move and make things move when you got up.

The first things I really got organized in were festivals that I organized with Billy Bang, at 97 St. Mark's Place, a place called Someplace Nice, run by John Dahl, who was a very politically active person and still is today. Someplace Nice was a very beautiful place that was home grown. We ran three-day festivals there, doing the booking, doing the flyers. Then we moved to a place called the Nuyorican Village which was where the Pyramid Club is now. We booked things out of there. This is the early '70s, like '73, '74. So those were the very first attempts, outside of booking events at the Third World Cultural Center, which was in the Bronx, 167th Street and Park Avenue. I booked a series there with the Aumic Orchestra, my first orchestra, the precursor to the Little Huey Orchestra. It was self-produced, putting the flyers up, getting people to try to come. The other things with Billy Bang happened after I moved down to the Village.

You had the New York Musicians Organization around '72, '73, which did a festival that was an alternative festival to the JVC Festival and the Newport Festival of George Wein. At another point in time George Wein actually gave them some money so they got Alice Tully Hall and Milford Graves, Arthur Williams, Ahmed Abdullah, they played. Warren Smith's place, Studio WIS, was also host of that festival at that time.

Also at that time there were festivals out at the East, in Brooklyn, 10 Claver Place, that were self-produced, no corporate sponsorships. There were concerts at the Muse, out in Brooklyn, which is the museum that Reggie Workman and Bill Barron worked out of. There was a concert series at Studio We, Studio Rivbea, the Ladies Fort. Studio We was run by James Dubois and Juma Sultan. That was one of our stomping grounds. Studio Rivbea was run by Sam Rivers and Sam did festivals in 1972, '73, again, self-produced. The Ladies Fort [was] a place on Bond Street run by singer Joe Lee Wilson. Rashied Ali opened up Ali's Alley, a wonderful club on 77 Greene Street.

That was sort of the beginning of what they called loft jazz and the main ingredient of loft jazz is that all the concerts are self-produced. ... Wherever you could find a place to do a concert, a storefront ... we used to rent St. Mark's Church all the time. It was $25 to rent St. Mark's Church. So if you wanted to work, you had to produce your own concerts because if you sat there and waited for the Vanguard or other jazz venues to call you, you might be sitting there for quite a while. So we'd create our own work and then sometimes it would sort of stack up together in what was a festival.

You had lots of record companies. You had Strata East. You had Survival Records, Rashied Ali's company. You had Birth Records, [by] Gunter Hampel. You had Ak-Ba Records, which was Charles Tyler's record label. I had my record label called Centering Records. If no one would record you, you'd record yourself. That was the idea, simply out of need.

music ensemble flier 1977 is when the funding began. Right after the musicians got the funding, Douglas Records came in and recorded their Wildflowers series around that time at Studio Rivbea. By then things were set up and we had to go to the next level, beginning to get write ups, record companies, and beginning to go to Europe, so the loft scene died out.

But also what happened was the music started to polarize itself to certain geographical locations in the city. It was moving out of its communities, because instead of me staying in the Bronx, I came to Manhattan. So if I had stayed in the Bronx, I would've had to start a music community there. I would've had to start a club, a workshop, and orchestras, and have people from Manhattan come up and play. For me it was like, well, I didn't have a car and all the music was down here. The musicians were down here [and] it was cheap to live down here. You could get an apartment for $65, so all the musicians were coming down to the Lower East Side. It was convenient. The clubs were down here. So eventually it got it out of the communities and it sort of drained down to a certain location, away from the people. 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. We weren't there on those hot summer days to do an outdoor concert. There was the Jazzmobile, but basically 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.

Musicians have always had two things: they've had the music and they've had family. The music is why they were musicians and why they were doing what they were doing. And then the family, the support. And by family I mean, yes, your own personal family, but also your musical family. When you're young and you're coming up, you're just starting this music, your parents don't understand about being a musician, but you meet another musician and they immediately make you feel comfortable.

So an event involving other musicians was like involving your family. That was your support group. It wasn't like you were working for someone. Everyone was happy to do what they wanted to do because it was basically a family thing. It wasn't a business thing. ... It was work, but I don't ever recall it being work. It was total joy. If it was work, [or if] it was hard, I wasn't aware of it because we were all into the music, not the business.

Is that what appealed to you about collectives like Muntu or Other Dimensions in Music?

Well, those people are the people I started with. The first musician I seriously met after coming down from the Bronx was Daniel Carter. I met him in 1971. It was serious business. Jemeel Moondoc, 1973. Roy Campbell in 1976, '75. So all these people you play with, really they're your whole life. So I wasn't really thinking about Other Dimensions as a collective. ... I played with Charles Tyler. It was the Charles Tyler Quartet, but it wasn't like a dictatorship or anything like that. It felt like a sense of community. Charles Brackeen, we had a group called the Melodic Art-tet, [with] Ahmed Abdullah, Roger Blank ... Ronnie Boykins was in that band, Don Moore, Hakim Jami. I guess I was the last bassist in that band before it broke up. It was always a good feeling because you were around your heroes, you were around your elders, you were around your wisdom seeds. So it was all about music and playing all night, and as I recall there was never any hardship involved. The only hardship I remember is when you start to become aware of rent and bills and things like that. You step above the hardships. It's like flying in turbulence: you go a little above and find the clear air to fly.

melodic art tet flier I was rehearsing at 151 Avenue B, and I met Peter Kowald over there. It was 1980, '81. I knew about him because I heard him on a record by Karl Berger. We talked and I invited him over to my house, 141 1st Avenue, and we played some bass duets. He invited me over to play in my first FMP festival in 1982. So we became friends and colleagues in the music. I guess what happened was that Peter came over in 1984, he had gotten a grant to be an artist-in-residence in New York for a year. He had also met this artist, A. R. Penck, who wanted to do a music festival and would provide the funding. So we had a meeting because you can't just be someone from Germany, come into New York with money, and expect to pull something off because by that time all the mass paranoia had set in with musicians, from being ripped off. Mostly black musicians were being ripped off by record producers, the usual thing, club owners, musicians ripped themselves off sometimes. You also had people who were just kind of worn out about living in America, which also makes you paranoid.

So in order to facilitate the idea, Peter needed help. He didn't know musicians, so he needed a crew. So the one person became a "we." Daniel Carter's wife Marilyn [Sontag] thought of the name Sound Unity. We sort of collectively figured out things. The Sound Unity Festival was going to be the beginning of an organization of self-determination. The key thing was that we weren't doing a leader concept; everyone was gonna get paid $100. We're paying musicians as individuals, not as groups, even though people played in groups. That's what they do in Europe a lot. We had a pre-meeting, way before the festival, where I invited musicians to come. Bill Dixon came to the meeting, Ahmed Abdullah... It wasn't just "get a gig" mentality. Sort of begin to set something up as a permanent institution for the future. It could provide work, community service, maybe eventually some kind of retirement. We rented C.U.A.N.D.O. on Second Avenue and Houston Street and we pulled it off. It was very successful on its own level.

It was just wonderful. We were able to be very lucky and get a lot of different people involved. We had a publicist who knew the distributor of the [Village] Voice so we were able to stick our brochures in the Voice before they went to the newsstand. We made big banners that said Sound Unity that we put across St. Mark's Place and one on Bleecker Street. So we were waiting there and we needed someone to climb up the light pole and this guy from the circus comes by, Tony, and he says, "Sure, I'll do it!" He just climbed right up the pole and tied the banner. And that's how it worked - whenever we needed anything it just came to us. Every time.

There was some sort of fallout from the Sound Unity Festival because a lot of people didn't understand the concept, they wanted more than $100. They also felt a little jealous, here comes Peter Kowald, "German cat comin' to New York thinkin' he owns New York and takin' over the music..." That might have been a little fuel for us to start the Lower East Side Music Festival, which was done by myself, Jemeel Moondoc, Butch Morris I think was on the committee, Roy Campbell, a few other people, I can't remember everybody. So we rented C.U.A.N.D.O. and we did a small festival. We did two of those and they were successful on a small level. No funding at all, but again, it was a political thing. We're doing our own Lower East Side festival by musicians. We don't need outside help. So by 1988 when we did the second Sound Unity Festival, the attitude was a lot better amongst the musicians. There was less distrust.

[The] What is Jazz [festival] came right after Sound Unity in 1988. But it takes more than money and doing it to have a good feeling at a festival. [You need to be] treating musicians nicely and having a nice vibration at the space where you're playing to have a successful festival. When you go to any festival and the musicians haven't seen each other in years, everybody's talking and hanging out. I mean, people expend a lot of energy in a ten-day festival. "Wow, I think I'm going to stay home and rest tonight." But it's pure happiness to see all the musicians there in one room. ... The bottom line is that everyone loves to play music, and no matter what's going on, when you begin to play it just washes away all the craziness and it just comes down to the music.