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Wisdom of William Parker, Musician

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In the late afternoon of Thursday, September 5, at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre at the University of Guelph, composer and bassist William Parker delivered a keynote talk for the Guelph Jazz Festival Colloquium (this year’s theme: “Sound Knowledges: A World Artist Summit”) called “Sound as Medicinal Herb: Creative Music 61 Years in Transition.” (The “61 years” refers to his age, he told us.) He was introduced by drummer and musical compatriot Hamid Drake, who spoke about “an energy of compassion and understanding that exudes from Mr Parker” and who acknowledged the important role that William Parker has played in fostering “my own artistic potential and awakening.” For about 40 minutes, interspersed with video clips of Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and Don Cherry, William Parker offered what was essentially an extended set of aphorisms, reflecting on his philosophy of music and on the social impact of artistic practice. If it works, I’m going to reproduce my transcriptions of key sentences from William Parker’s largely improvised remarks; this, for me, is an example of one form of improvisational pedagogy, a gathering of reflections and provocations. Any errors or infelicities are my own.

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Sound acts as a medicinal herb.

The core of music cannot be taught, the self-sound of a musician’s playing.

Why does the musician exist? Save, elevate, inspire and heal.

Muse plus physician equals musician.

As soon as you are born you become part of music.

Music is not something you learn. Music is something you are.

We need to redefine musical terms.

No one owns music. Nobody. Nobody owns music.

Music is the possibility of a miracle occurring.

It is a medicinal herb that heals.

You are responsible for your own self. You play the changes you want to play on a tune.

Sun Ra: “I didn’t know anything about music. It came from someplace else.”

What is the difference between knowing and feeling? You can know all of the answers, and you still can’t get anything right.

You don’t have to understand it, you have to feel it.

You need to be flowing with the spirit.

Jimmy Lyons was a shaman. Shamans heal and move us through sound. The have the juju.

Part of it comes from the blues. You can hear it. All of the musicians from Chicago, where’d they come from? Not Chicago. From the South.

They play extensions of Afro-American Improvised Creative Music.

If you play for three hours with Cecil Taylor and Jimmy Lyons, that’s some magic. And I played eleven years with those cats.

How can you play music and not know anything about it? You don’t need to know anything about it. What’s important is whether your music works.

We have to have a revolution in the world. The music has to step it up a notch. We have to play revolutionary music so that we can enter into the tone-world.

You take a tone, you vibrate it enough, and then you’re in the tone-world.

Each room in the tone-world is a secret of life.

It’s not about making money, but to make music and to heal people through sound.

Don Cherry knew something about music. But at the same time he knew when not to let it get in the way.

Everybody can be an accidental shaman, a shaman for the day.

You don’t want to be a shaman for a day. You want to be a shaman every day.

The listener is also a musician.

The sound of what you say and what you do is so very important.

You are your instrument.

You have to find the Don Cherry in you and the Sun Ra in you.

Wear your colours.

We can all be brighter and bigger than what we are.

What’s the difference between a musician and a shaman? You wouldn’t hire a shaman to play at your wedding.

Music in America is more about entertainment than inner attainment.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk had a composition he called “Volunteered Slavery.” Now what we’re dealing with is a system of volunteered slavery. You just have to go along with the system and enslave yourself.

The best musicians never get recorded because they’re left out of history.

The Guelph festival is very very important because it brings the people who want to hear, to be fed, to rejuvenate, to be inspired.

“It’s as serious as your life.” [Or, “It’s as serious as a laugh.”]

What’s the future of jazz? In one sense jazz is dead, it has no future. Don’t cry. But: music has a future. All your major players are dead: Jimmy Heath, Johnny Griffin. For me, I don’t hear anybody playing any jazz. Jazz has moved on. We just find something else. But hope goes on.

“In order to survive, we must keep hope alive.”

There is a universal tonality.

Boom. Let’s go. Let’s play. Boom.

Juju is in every country. It’s universal.

It doesn’t make any difference what you call it but it will go on.

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