Book review

Cisco Bradley – ‘Universal Tonality: The Life and Music of William Parker’

Cisco Bradley – Universal Tonality: The Life and Music of William Parker
(Duke University Press. 416pp. Book Review by Tony Dudley-Evans)

The free jazz and improvised music scenes in Europe, including UK, are so strong that it is sometimes easy to neglect the fact that the movement into freedom in jazz began in the USA with Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane’s late recordings.  It can also be easy to overlook quite how alive and well the tradition is in New York and other US cities today, not least because it tends to fall beneath the radar of the music press.  Universal Tonality, a new biography of bass player, composer and community leader William Parker by Cisco Bradley, seeks to redress this by giving the broader context, and also a comprehensive summary of Parker’s career and role today.

There is considerable detail on Parker’s roots, even tracing his ancestors back to the Igbo and Nri people in West Africa and their lives as slaves and free Black people.  Cisco Bradley’s narrative follows the Parker family from the South of USA to New York in the time of the Harlem Renaissance, and then traces their subsequent move to the South Bronx.  We  learn how Parker as a teenager became interested in the Arts and gradually moved into music and playing the double bass.  All of the groups that Parker played with in his early years, and all the groups he either led or played in as a sideman are documented in detail.  As with the best of jazz biographies, there are excellent descriptions of the music to be found on the key albums of Parker’s various groups. And these vivid words send the curious listener scurrying off to hear the music…

Parker has always been committed both to music and to the idea of a musical community. And not just the community of improvising musicians in the USA, but also to an international community of players of excellence.  And that idea gives rise to the title of the book, Universal Tonality. In essence, Parker asserts that master musicians from anywhere in the world can meet and play together.  Moreover, in his early years as a player on the ‘free’ New York scene Parker and his partner Patricia Nicholson, the dancer and choreographernever sought to compromise on their commitment to creative music and to building a community of like-minded musicians despite the difficulties of making a viable living as artists. Parker and Nicholson have been the main pillars supporting the continuing growth of the free scene in New York. In Parker’s case he has done that through the various influential groups he has led and, and in case of Nicholson, through the creation of the Vision Festival that the couple have jointly run every year since 1996.

In his youth Parker was interested in theatre, film, photography and sports.  He could have had a scholarship in American Football, but, apparently hearing Ornette Coleman’s At The Golden Circle Stockholm album, he decided that free jazz was his priority.  In addition to the Ornette Coleman album, Coltrane’s A Love SupremeCharlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra and albums by Albert Ayler had a major impact on him.  He also had a great liking for the songs of Curtis Mayfield and throughout his life he has believed that music serves the purpose of connecting people and the fight for justice.  He attended classes at the Jazzmobile run by Billy Taylor, but was very critical of those classes as a result of the negative attitude towards free jazz; he also had some lessons with Wilbur Ware, bass player with Monk for a number of years.  He was, however, largely self-taught on the bass and in composition.   

In the 1970s he served his dues by playing on the New York loft scene, particularly at the Firehouse Theatre and later at Studio We, with groups such as the Aumic Orchestra, the Juice Quartet and Jemeel Moondoc’s Ensemble Muntu.  Times were hard and early success and popularity of free jazz had declined; most gigs were door gigs and life for Parker and Nicholson was a struggle from a financial point of view.  Parker’s first big breakthrough came when he joined the Cecil Taylor Unit in 1980 and toured with various groups of Taylor’s until 1991.  The author describes in some detail the ways in which Parker found his niche with Taylor and learnt to respond to the changing nature of his music – and also points out that Parker was at last earning good money.

After leaving Taylor in 1991,  Parker spent a year practising and strengthening his command of the double bass.   After this he launched his first major band of his own: In Order To Survive, a sextet with Lewis Barnes, trumpet, Rob Brown, alto sax, Cooper-Moore, piano and Denis Charles, drums.

The final third of the biography documents the many groups, both large and small, that Parker led and composed for from the 1990s to now.  The In Order To Survive group settled down as a quartet with Rob Brown, Cooper-Moore and drummer Susie Ibarra, but Parker moved on to other groups in 1999.  He returned to the group in 2017, this time with Hamid Drake on drums.  Parker had developed a very strong relationship with Drake, both musical and personal, and they have worked together regularly, both in Parker’s Quartet with Rob Brown and Lewis Barnes, the group that continued Parker’s explorations of free jazz, and also in a trio with Daniel Carter, a reeds player with whom Parker has been playing since the loft days.  Another key musical relationship has been with vocalist Leena Conquest who joined the quartet in 2001 which led Parker to rename the group as Raining On The Moon from the title of their first album.  In 2006 the pianist Eri Yamamoto joined the group.   

Another key project was the Little Huey Creative Jazz Orchestra, a big band that used both compositions and free improvisation.  As with all of Parker’s bands, it had a socio-political as well as musical purpose; in Parker’s own words: ‘we make a big band to make a big sound to make a big change’.  Through a residency at the Knitting Factory in New York and European festival dates it created a strong identity with its mix of structure and freedom, and with its focus on the individual voices of the band became a kind of Ellington or Mingus style band of free jazz.

Although strongly committed to free jazz, Parker has always seen his music as part of the ongoing jazz and black music tradition.  He has always had a great respect for the music of Duke Ellington and Curtis Mayfield, and has recorded albums dedicated to both.   He has also led other groups including a trio with the German free saxophonist Peter Brotzmann and Hamid Drake, and also an organ quartet.  

The biography is an excellent introduction to William Parker’s music and to his role in the free jazz community in New York and the USA.  The one thing I feel is missing is an assessment of where the music of Parker’s many groups can be placed in the current evolution of jazz in the USA.  It is clear that Parker sees his music as part of the jazz tradition, and part of, but not exclusively, the free jazz or ‘new thing’ movement of the 1960s.  There would be no question of Parker considering his music as having moved on from jazz.  In establishing his own groups in the 1990s, he was keen to move on from some aspects of the classic avant-garde sound, notably what he describes as the tendency for everyone to be blowing at the same time and creating a wild cacophony.  Parker’s music is based on compositions – all written by Parker – and follow a head + solos + head out format and have a very strong rhythmic pulse.  In this sense, his music follows the pattern established by Ornette Coleman in his early recordings with its basis in composition, but freedom in the solos.  It also reminds me of the more adventurous albums on Blue Note in the late 1960s and early 1970s, e.g. albums by Jackie Maclean, Eric Dolphy, Bobby Hutcherson and Wayne Shorter.  It is a style of music that has great strength and vitality.

LINK: Universal Tonality at Duke University Press

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