'In one sense, jazz is dead,' bassist William Parker told an intent, overflow audience in his keynote talk at the Guelph Jazz Festival's 2013 colloquium. ©Brett Delmage, 2013
'In one sense, jazz is dead,' bassist William Parker told an intent, overflow audience in his keynote talk at the Guelph Jazz Festival's 2013 colloquium. ©Brett Delmage, 2013

Bassist William Parker – one of the most inventive and expressive avant-garde jazz musicians today – told an audience at the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival that the core of music cannot be taught.

Jazz musicians – and others – can use the music of their great progenitors, he said, but it will end up being their own sound. “To go into the core of the music involves what we call the self-sound of the musicians playing.”

Parker was giving a keynote talk on September 5 at the festival's colloquium. Entitled “Sound as a Medicinal Herb: Creative Music 61 Years in Transition”, his talk ranged widely over many musical topics. He has had a long and fruitful connection with the Guelph Jazz Festival and performed in several concerts during the five days of the 2013 festival.

In 2012, Parker led a project celebrating the music of Duke Ellington, including dates in the U.S. and Europe. The project's concert in Milano was recorded for a CD, Essence of Ellington [Centering Records, 2012].

“Now when we played that music, we cannot play Ellington's music the way Ellington played it. Maybe we shouldn't have been playing Ellington's music at all, but I did it because my father liked Ellington.”

“We had had to transform the music to what we were. And that's what you have to do when you're playing other people's music. You can never play the way they played, because to play Ellington you need Ellington. To play Mingus you need Mingus. If Mingus were alive today, you don't know what Mingus would be doing with his music, or what kind of things he'd be doing when he changed the tempo.”

“Because you can't be Mingus. There are impersonators who can impersonate people, but you can't be another human being. Once you realize that, it frees you up to find yourself.”

Learning to play solos and chord changes that sound like the great progenitors is simply teaching “the perimeter of the music”, Parker said. “But the core of the music unfortunately cannot be taught. And if the core of the music could be taught, then the world, of course, would be different. You would have many more profound musicians playing. It wouldn't just be … people wouldn't be playing on the level that they're playing just to be able to playing solos and play the blues and 'Footprints' and 'Night in Tunisia' and all that.”

Instead, he said, musicians should evaluate whether the music they're playing can “elevate, inspire, and heal”.

“Now, of course, if we play something happy, we play something that moves you then we're inspiring you. So it's not the mood of the music but to me that's the credo or purpose of being a musician. If you take a creative muse and a physician and you put them together, you have musician.”

Parker strongly argued that “nobody owns music”, and he offered many possible definitions of the word.

“In the Parker dictionary, it says music is the possibility of a miracle occurring. That's the first definition.

“The second definition is music is love. The third definition is music is the vibration of sound into tone, allowing us to enter into the Tone World. Four: that music is a medicinal herb that cures high blood pressure,heart disease, depression, AIDS, and all illnesses including cancer. Number five: music is life.

“So you have to define music the way you hear it.”

Parker was later asked about the longstanding debate about the future of jazz.

“In one sense, jazz is dead. It has no future; it's dead. Don't cry. But music has a future.”

“Jazz in itself – All your progenitors, all your major players are dead. Who's left? Most of the guys are gone, so the music is gone. For me, I don't hear anybody playing any 'jazz' nowadays.

“But there is a future in music. As long as human beings are alive and are breathing, and can see the light, there's a way out of this. But jazz has moved on. That's OK. Let it move on. Goodbye! And we'll find something else. But hope will never die. In order to survive we must keep hope alive.

“Jazz will be called something else. But improvised music – it doesn't matter what you call it – it will go on.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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