Instead of the final article, which if memory serves ran in The Wire, here's the transcription.
I interviewed William in the Knitting Factory basement prior to sound check for an Ivo Perlman/Parker duo performance.
SH: Even though I've seen you a million times and heard you on a million records, it seems like, I don't really know that much about you, so if I sound like I don't know much about you, it's because I don't know much about you.
Let's begin at the beginning. When did you start playing bass, and what made you pick the bass?
I began playing bass my latter years in high school. My last year in high school, actually. I was listening to a lot of music of John Coltrane at the time, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Duke Ellington, Modern Jazz Quartet, and for some reason once I was able to figure out why people were playing music in the first place, a real clear aesthetic which was that music was functional on a level of reaching human beings or the human soul in a way that was very positive and healing, then I thought that I could make my contribution, figured out what I could do as a human being was to play music, and I was attracted to the bass and I got one and began to play and study so I could join in this celebration of music that was going on.
But what was it specifically about the bass?
I just liked it. Part of it was I listened to Percy Heath with the MJQ, and John Lamb with Duke Ellington, and Jimmy Garrison with Coltrane, and I just was--I previously had played the cello in high school, I can say that. Maybe it was at that time that I had subconsciously thought of going to the bigger instrument. As I recall, I did like the bass in junior high school. It was just something about it, I don't know exactly was it was except that I liked it. I thought I could do it.
There's a pretty broad range of styles in the people you mentioned, so I guess you didn't start out playing just free jazz. You started out playing a lot of stuff?
Yeah. I mean, my first period of playing the bass, I played with Maxine Sullivan, I was in her band. She is a singer; she also plays pocket trumpet, which a lot of people don't know. We had a band with me, her, a piano player named Dil Jones from the United Kingdom--I'm not sure exactly which country he's from, I think he's Irish. But I played with Maxine Sullivan, I did a lot of work with comedians, with poets, with folk bands. I played with a Cuban folkloric band where I was the youngest member. Most of the people in the band were 60 and over. What I did when I was learning the bass, I just played. I played with anybody, anything I could play to learn how to play bass. I eventually narrowed it down, funneled down to really finding the music I wanted to play--which I knew I wanted to play, but in order to play it I had to have a foundation in some other things and that I had to be able to feel comfortable on my instrument. I did shows, I worked a lot with singers, and all sorts of situations until I started to get more selective because I began to really play with--during that time I was also playing jazz. I played a lot with Billy Higgins. He was one of the first musicians who I met. There was a place on 11th Street and Avenue C called the Firehouse and Andrew Hill would come by, and Billy Higgins, and Billy Higgins invited me to his house on St. Mark's Avenue in Brooklyn, he had a house out there. And I went out there and Wilbur Ware was staying there, and the piano player Chris Anderson was there, and Clifford Jordan would come by. So I went out there whenever I could, and we would just play.
And this was when?
This is the early '70s, this is like, around '71, '72, '73. So I played informally in that setting. Billy didn't just play the drums, he played the tablas, guitar, all his other instruments, and then he'd also play his trap drums, but he really did stuff. He had some bowed Arabic instruments he would play. Then from there you just branch out. I began playing at Studio RivBea, four or five nights, I was one of the house bass players at Studio RivBea, and also Studio We. Studio RivBea was on Bond Street, and Studio We was on Eldridge Street. People at Studio We, Karl Berger, Dave Burrell, Milford Graves, Noah Howard, Gunter Hampel, I met Diedre Johnson down there, who's now Diedre Murray. She was playing in Daniel Carter's first band. At Studio RivBea I played with Frank Lowe, Charles Brackeen, Charles Tyler, Sonny Murray, Ray Anderson, Keshevan Maslak--everyone that came through there, I played with. I basically had on-the-job training supplemented with lessons. I studied, actually had bass lessons, with Richard Davis and with Wilbur Ware, and I studied with Jimmy Garrison a bit, with Milt Hinton and Art Davis. So there was a lot happening at this time, it was 24 hours music during this period from about '71 up till about '75, when I met Don Cherry. And he invited me to play at the Five Spot with him in '75, and I played at the Five Spot for a week with him, and in that band we had Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Roger Blank on drums--and was there another drummer? Yeah, they alternated the drum chair, sometimes three of them would show up, sometimes two. They would play the whole week. Frank Lowe was the saxophonist; he had an oud player, Sandy Bull; Hakim Jami also played bass and euphonium. Selene Fung played an instrument called the qin. Then he had guests come in during the week. That was my first gig at a major jazz club.
How did you hook up with Cecil Taylor and join his group?
Well, at the Five Spot, Cecil was in the audience. But I had known Cecil in '73. I was playing with Jemeel Moondoc in a band called Muntu, and Arthur Williams, the trumpet player, invited me to come down to one of Cecil's big-band rehearsals on Chambers Street. So Arthur took me to Cecil's house and introduced me. Cecil didn't have any bass players at that time in the band, so Cecil said, "Just come down, and when I got there, a lot of the students who had come from Antioch were now in New York, and they were in the band. Raphe Malik was in the band, and David Ware, who wasn't a student but had just come down from Boston. Charles Tyler was in the band. I brought Luther Thomas and Joseph Bowie in the band, because they had just come from St. Louis and they had sat in with me in a band I had with Billy Bang and Daniel Carter and Dewey Johnson, the trumpet player, called the Music Ensemble. So they were ripe and ready to come and play and hit New York, so they eventually ended up in the band. We had three drummers: Sonny Murray, Andrew Cyrille, and Rashied Bakr and Marc Edwards--four drummers. We ended up with four bass players: Sirone, myself, Dave Saprawho played with David Ware in Apogee with Cooper Moore, then known as Gene Ashton, and Earl Henderson, who changed his name to Earl Hudson, who changed his name to Earl, who was on Albert Ayler's record Witches and Devils. So we had four bassists, four drummers, and we played opposite the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at Carnegie Hall. Marvin Hannibal Peterson was in the band, and he was a soloist, and Sharon Freeman. It was quite a--that's when I actually first played with Cecil. Then later on I saw Cecil at the Five Spot and December 1980 I did my first gig with Cecil which was a quartet setting, with Jimmy Lyons and Rashied Bakr. That was at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. I basically played with Cecil from 1980 till about 1991, late '91 maybe.
What did you take out of that experience that helped you put your own large band and quartet together?
Different ways of how to put music together. This is something I've learned from everyone who I played with, is that everyone has a different system of putting their music together. Don Cherry never used written music, he'd always sing you the parts or just play 'em and you'd have to pick 'em up. Bill Dixon sometimes uses written music or uses written music for larger ensembles, but in the smaller groups we've had, quartets or quintets, there was no written music. He relied on our instincts as improvisers to come together and make music. Roscoe Mitchell has a different system of putting things together, Jemeel Moondoc had a way of putting things together, Roy Campbell. And with Cecil, he had his way of putting the music together, and it was not unlike Ellington or Monk. Most people, what they do is really just an extension of the tradition of how all the music was put together, from Louis Armstrong on up to Anthony Braxton or on back to Thelonious Monk. It's basically all put together the same way. Everyone has a system of improvisation, and they either do it by signs, symbols, verbally, or use intuition and trust the players to bring what they have to the music. That's really the connection to it. What makes the so-called avant-garde or New Thing, what they called it in the '60s, what was different about it was the rhythm. If you lock in a rhythm, if you have the drummer actually keeping time, it just changes the music, but when you give the bass/piano/drums freedom, it changes the music. The actual how you put it together is no different from any other music in the world. You have sound and everyone manipulates the sound in a certain way, and they interact. That was more a political thing, the putting music in categories to label it and sort of make it not accessible to people. It's all coming definitely out of a tradition, and when you see people putting it together you really see them--you actually see Ellington put things together, it was not unlike Cecil Taylor or Thelonious Monk, from what I hear.
Stafford James once told me that he sat in with Cecil and he couldn't read the charts, he couldn't understand the notation. What was different about it?
Cecil doesn't use notes and stems, he doesn't use a lollipop system, he just uses a different system where he writes the actual names of the notes down, and there aren't any particular rhythms written down, so it's very organic and natural, because it takes the counting aspect out of the music. That's the only difference. Once you get used to it and explain the system it's just like reading a play or reading poetry or reading in another language. It's just a different system, it's not any more difficult. You can learn it in no time. I think it's a simpler system than standard notation, really.
You've been working more as a leader in the last few years. Does that responsibility change your musical approach?
Well, as a player it doesn't, playing the bass, it doesn't. As an organizer of the sound or the music, it just allows me--I'm responsible for organizing the music, so I'm able to get more of a--as anyone when they do their own music, hopefully, my perspective--not my perspective, but my sense of organizing music to get a perspective that's, say, both bigger than me and bigger than the players who are actually playing the music, but it's sort of what I think my job is to organize it so the music itself is what I call creative music, which is any music that procreates itself when it's played, to create a music that's both bigger than the original scene and the player. So I have a concept, or I have a germ for a composition, and the idea is, when it's played it grows bigger than the germ and bigger than the player, so it brings out the best in the player, the best in itself, and it also becomes its own thing that has its own way of going and moving in a particular direction.
When you're in a longstanding group, such as David's, how does a switch in drummers affect you? Do you have to react differently to what Susie Ibarra does than to what Whit Dickey did?
Oh, of course. In one week I played with Rashied Ali, which was interesting--me, Charles Gayle, and Rashied Ali--and then Sonny Murray, and then later on in the week Milford Graves, three different drummers but the same horn and bass. And we played three different musics. You always react and play differently according to who you're playing with. Playing with Tony Oxley, that's one thing. When you're playing with Andrew Cyrille, I played with Beaver Harris, that was another kind of feeling. When you go to Europe and play with Han Bennink, that's another kind of thing. Or when I played with Blackwell. Every drummer has a different thing happening, same as any horn player or piano player, so you always are playing different. That's why your concept, you have your germ, you have your sound, you have your way of phrasing, the more vocabulary you have, that vocabulary is altered each time you play with someone, because they may bring out something or you interact in a certain way. And then certain people play the way one likes to play, meaning that, see, I like to be in a position where you can play anything you want in the music. When the music is really happening, and this happened with, oh, with Cecil, with all the bands that really work, is that you can play any rhythm, and I mean any rhythm, six, five, four, three, two, you can play Brazilian, African, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, folk, country, you can play blues, four-four, any rhythm, any melody, any sound, at any time, and it will work. This is what I really like about the so-called universal music or whatever you want to call creative music, is that in very few musics can you do that. I mean, if you're playing Javanese music or Indian music, you're really, you have to play, there's certain restrictions you have. If you're playing blues, playing pop, you can't play any melody, can't play any rhythm. Except all the deeper musics, whatever style they are, you should be able to play anything you want to play. When I played with those old Cuban guys--and Latin music is sometimes very strict, you know, you have to keep clave-ing to the beat--they say "play what you feel." And then I found out when I went to Brazil, I went to the mountains in Brazil to play with these guys, and they were different. They were different than the Brazilian music you hear here. It wasn't about being Brazilian music, it was about THE music. I think in each country, you can go to the mountains, the deeper guys, not the guys that come over to America, they're playing a music that's closer to what we're doing. It's music that's not restricted to like, Guinean music or Ethiopean music or Egyptian music. It's beyond Egyptian music, beyond category. It's just music. And what we hear, all these cultural musics, is we hear the music when it's very refined and defined as what it is, as samba or coming from Brazil or certain forms of court music or dance music or puppet music. And these musics have certain restrictions on them that make them court music or puppet music or dance music or wedding music, and if you add something else to it, same as bebop, if you extend it, you're not playing bebop, you're playing something else. Yes, we're playing something else that's not bebop, but for me that's the beauty, to be able to, when I put a group together, I'm not trying to play a single style, I'm just trying to play something that works. And I think it's wonderful to be able to play anything. Look at the concert last night with David. I could play anything. I could superimpose as many rhythms over his rhythm, and there were times when you had three different things going on, four different things going on. I could play with you, I could play against you, I could play with the piano player Matthew, I could play with Susie, I could play with David, I could just be independent for ten minutes and then go with it. So that's really the fun and joy. But the same feeling you do get music is so wonderful, if you just play 12-bar blues all night, you can get the same feeling. When it's really happening, you never really feel restricted in any music. If it's really happening and you really know how to do it, you don't feel that, you know, because at times you just wanna play blues in B-flat, you don't wanna go to another key, because it's working, it's got that groove and it's all you need. To do anything else would be wrong then. But to go anyplace else shouldn't necessarily be wrong, because it's not really about wrong or right, it's about doing what's necessary to make it happen. It's like, breaking rules and making new rules, you're not just doing it just to be doing it, you're doing it to make it work. This music is like doing brain surgery, it's just as important as that, but it's also about making things work, making new discoveries, putting anything together as long as it works. As a bassist, my job is, when the music is dying, I gotta pump it up, I gotta add something, I gotta hit hard, I gotta do a slap, I gotta do something to lift it up. It's like flying a plane, if it's gonna hit a mountain, you've to to lift it up over the mountain to get the next air pocket to keep it going. Maybe I didn't realize this but one of the nice things about playing music and playing the bass -- playing any instrument, I think all instruments are equal -- is that you can do these things, you can navigate.
I think all instruments being equal is what sets free jazz apart from all the other styles. Sort of the political aspect that scared people is that if all the instruments are equal, it's not the hierarchy that people are used to dealing with.
It's like, that's true, and a lot of it was economics, a lot of it was jealousy. Oftentimes, you'll see musicians who've worked very, very hard all their lives to play music, and then there's someone who just says, oh, I can play that, and they just pick up an instrument and they can play. It baffles people: "I spent all my life practicing" and people shouldn't be attached to what they've learned, because you have to spend your life practicing to perfect your music. Everyone's different.