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Sunday, February 7, 2021

Cisco Bradley - Universal Tonality (Duke University Press, 2021)

By Lee Rice Epstein

Like Graham Locke writing about Anthony Braxton in the 1990s, Cisco Bradley’s biography of William Parker arrives as the artist seems to be entering yet another unprecedented phase of his career. Yet, Universal Tonality: The Life and Music of William Parker is a timely and dynamic picture of the great artist’s travels, to date. Bradley’s book charts a past that also provides many clues and contextual narratives that tell us much about where Parker may be heading. As an unintended companion to the recently released set, which itself contains a combination of biographical and folkloric reflections, the two work together to illuminate and challenge much of our current accepted conceptions of creative music, Black music, and the artistic mission. Like many contributors (and, surely, readers), I’m a longtime fan of William Parker’s music, which, like sedimentary layers, continues to build upon itself in new shades, textures, and depths. Bradley’s book—which I recommend as highly as Locke’s seminal Forces in Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-reality of Creative Music —is the kind of scholarship that invites a reader to engage with fundamental and complex ideas about art, its purpose, and the roles of an audience. Like Locke, Bradley pulls off the feat of bringing the artist and his music to life, a cliché, of course, but there’s no better phrase for it. While reading Universal Tonality, I was constantly dipping in and out of the text to play a recording or look online for photos or additional materials.

Instead of rehashing the book or presenting some version of my own findings, what I really wanted to do was talk with Bradley about some of the ideas that were rattling around after I finished the book. We didn’t come close to covering everything, but what I hope we may have accomplished is opening up the door for anybody who is interested in Parker and his music to jump in, as well as for other writers and researchers to move forward with their projects. All quoted portions that follow come from two conversations I had with Bradley in January of this year.

“There are numerous books to still be written. I don’t know if a definitive book has been written on the loft scene. It’s not a criticism, there’s just a lot left to be written… There’s a lot to be written on the downtown scene.” One topic we kept returning to was how many stories there are to be told. And for those deeply interested in the loft scene and creative music of free improvisation, the second section, “Early Work,” contains about 100 pages with chapters each on Parker’s playing on the loft scene, especially with Jemeel Moondoc’s Ensemble Muntu, the music he made with Centering Dance Music Ensemble and his wife Patricia Nicholson, and his time spent with Cecil Taylor.

Throughout the second section and into the third section (“Toward the Universal,” primarily focused on In Order To Survive, Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, William Parker Quartet, and Raining On the Moon, among his other groups), you get a sense of how Parker’s sense of self is reflected in his earliest interactions: “I always think of something Steve Swell said, ‘William never really had a careerist moment, he’s still very dedicated to making sure the community is functioning.’ He’s not one of those people with ego or attitude. First of all, there’s his monumental body of work, he tours all over the world, he’s played in 50 countries or something, and he’s gotten a huge amount of respect. But at the same time, let’s say from the jazz establishment in the United States, he’s barely on their radar.”

In many ways, for me, the crucial section of the book is what would most likely be considered the traditional biographical portion, section one, titled “Origins.” Truly, the section opens contra tradition, with the chapter “Enslavement and Resistance: From West Africa to the Carolinas to Harlem.” Beginning briefly with the Harlem Renaissance, Bradley traces Parker’s family to the seventh-century Kingdom of Nri, located east of the Niger River.

Bradley explained: “Part of it is, William spoke so much about his family and about his history. I don’t think I’ve spoken to someone who has a memory like him. And he talked about his earliest events in his life, his parents, his brother, and so forth. He has an impeccable memory. ‘I read this book when I was 12,’ and not only does he remember the book, he’ll say, ‘This is what I was thinking when I started reading it.’

“He’s aware of his own consciousness. He talked so much about the things he experienced, his connection to history, that I felt giving it a deep context was necessary… There were some surprises in there. The fact that he was descended from a free Black family in pre-Civil War North Carolina. I stumbled into that in the record. He talks about Native Americans a lot in his work, and what I find stunning is, in his own history, it’s right there. The fact that one of his ancestors escaped slavery and took refuge among the Lumbee Indians in central North Carolina. There’s this incredible parallel with his own artistic vision and some of the themes of his work. And I thought, 'We have to go all the way back.’ Given the limited resources I can turn to, ‘Let’s go back as far as we can.’”

These reflections of Parker’s artistic vision and the mission of his music, the communication of tradition, which often re-emerges through a refracted lens, like the radical settings on Parker’s Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield project. Given how much of Parker’s music is steeped in historical exploration—including some on his latest set, like the stirring Manzanar session—the book feels very much in tune with Parker, the researcher and storyteller.

“He had a very clear idea of the narrative he wanted for the book. I can’t overstate that, he really had a story that he wanted to tell. When we sat down, those stories came out pretty quickly, especially chapters 2 and 3. We didn’t get to talking about his music until after the first three or four interviews I did with him. He really wanted to talk about growing up and a lot of the early influences on him, just as a human being, as a poet, as a young person.

“He was talking about Amiri Baraka’s poetry, he was talking about Stan Brakhage’s films. William consider’s Brakhage to be his single greatest influence. The French New Wave, some of the films I outline in chapter 3, kind of blew his mind. He was thinking about not only the experimental visual things they were doing, sometimes with sound sometimes not, it threw open his mind to other ways of existence. Imagining what the greater world was to a child growing up in deep poverty in the projects in the South Bronx.”

Reading these chapters, then pressing play on, say, “Alphaville” from the “Live At Yoshi’s” quartet session of the Wood Flute Songs set, you begin to get a sense of how long Parker’s been working through the ideas he first encountered 60 years ago.

“In a way, William Parker’s a historian. He’s telling stories through his music. Until I sat down, I didn’t realize how many tributes he had done. He’s a proactive historical figure, he’s out there defining himself, defining his own narrative. His music is Black music, and it’s also other things. He says in the beginning of his career, he identified most closely with the Black music spiritual school. [Eventually he said,] I’m not going to be limited by any categories, but I’m also going to embrace these categories.”

It’s a traditional biography structure to lay down a person’s history and allow it to build towards the later sections. But, in Parker’s case, so much of his music reflects backwards that reading these early chapters felt revelatory. "Early key interviews I did were with Patricia Nicholson, and the other two crucial ones were with Matthew Shipp and Cooper-Moore. They were the first two people William suggested I reach out to. They helpd me understand William Parker, the evolution of the human being. I’m only seeing William Parker the bass legend, the established figure. They knew him when he was the new guy on the scene. And honestly, the interview with his daughter Miriam. She has an obviously special relationship, as his daughter, but she can also speak to the evolving person he is, from when she was little to today.”

Of course, hearing Bradley talk at length about his process, how he strived to be open to what he heard from Parker and others, to really listening. "This went through a peer review process with the publisher. There were three external reviewers. And I really tried to make sure that William’s voice was the strongest voice in the text. And it was to the point where, in an earlier draft, someone said that William’s voice was stronger than the author’s voice. And I pulled that back to where his voice carries the narrative.”

This ended up being, I think, one of the more important aspects of our conversations about the book. Because, and of course it already occurred to me, we would be two white people who write about jazz, a historically Black art form, discussing a work of biography about a prominent Black artist from the South Bronx, whose music extends a through line that binds Duke Ellington to Cecil Taylor. I’ve written about the knottiness of this before, so it felt necessary that we talk about it, and Bradley—who at one point simply said, “We need to have more conversations like this”—was keen to do so, as well. It was a sincere and open conversation, and in that respect, I’ll present what Bradley said to me as plainly as possible here:

“The question I asked repeatedly is, am I able to do this without causing damage to the way he is portrayed? How might I misconstrue him? I think a lot of white writers, it’s easy, subconsciously sometimes, it’s quite easy to warp the narrative a little bit. Whether that’s making the narrative about white people or not being aware of the assumptions one is making as a writer.

“Fill the narrative with as many Black voices as possible, that was something I tried to do. Because most bureaucratic documents and a lot of historical resources out there are written by white people, who are maybe misunderstanding what they’re seeing. It’s a judgement call, really. You try to do the best you can; you see racism in the documents, all over the place. And how do you pick through that? You do the best you can. [You let] Black voices define the concepts as much as possible. What is William Parker’s conception of what freedom is, for example, and not make assumptions about what that might be. I tried to make sure he is defining those terms and concepts and ideas. Because he thinks a lot about those things. His work has a lot to do with that.

“I’ve tried to be humble about my approach to it, and I look forward to my Black colleagues being critical about what I’ve said. As a white writer, I can’t make that judgement. I can make certain judgements as a trained historian, but there’s a large chunk of things I don’t think I can say. I thought of myself as a guide, the person who gathers all of this together and puts it forward.”

We agreed this is, we hope, the first of many books to be written about Parker, about the loft scene, and about the scene that’s emerged in New York with his support. To continue his work amplifying voices, Bradley is getting ready to launch the Free Jazz Oral History project. It’s a broad and ongoing project, begun in 2016 with the goal of “interviewing all the people involved in the scene up to 1980. I’ve been trying to document people’s stories in a very in-depth level.” If you haven’t looked into them, there are already a number of more traditional oral history projects, dedicated to jazz in general, to British jazz, and to other regional voices. But the focus on the loft scene and the creative explosion of free jazz in the 1970s is crucial: “I’ve been trying to be systematic about it. I should say a lot of the people I’m talking to right now are between 70 and 85, and we’re going to lose them in the future. And other people are doing projects too, to document those voices and their philosophies, their life stories. I’ve been gradually making my way through, I’ve done about 50 interviews. This is the kind of crucial stuff we need, to be documenting these histories, preferably in the words of the people who created that music.” And this is probably the most important aspect of Universal Tonality, how many voices are there, on the page, including Parker’s. It’s his story, most of all, but now it’s also ours, as the audience, as the experiencers, as the ones who’ll carry it forward.

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