The early seventies were a time of transition for improvised music in New York City. The first generation of rebels against the standard jazz order had already made its statements, and a new crop of young musicians was trying to take the music beyond the new frontiers. Largely shut out from the still smoky jazz clubs of the city, they created their own performance spaces in apartments and lofts, mixing with poets, dancers, and painters. Integrating art with social and political concern, many of them were involved with the struggle for civil rights. Among these was a bassist, William Parker. Mostly self-taught, he quickly became fully immersed in an all-encompassing artistic world, often playing almost continually day and night.

Parker studied the whole history of jazz, mostly by immersion into performance, but also took the opportunity to study with some of the greatest bassists of jazz, including Jimmy Garrison and Wilbur Ware. Listening to his first recordings made in 1972 and to his playing today, it is immediately apparent just how much he learned from Ware, whose unique percussive approach to the instrument, with a deep sound centered on the lower range of the instrument and rhythmic idiosyncrasies, obviously made an impression on Parker.

But the young musician was already moving in new directions, inspired by others, including Garrison, who liberated the bass from the job of simply keeping time and marking basic harmonic stepping-stones. Over the years Parker progressively developed a highly personal approach; he can play soulful melodies, but sometimes he treats his bass as a percussion instrument, assigning each of the four strings a role similar to the individual elements of a drum set; he can bring out harmonics, creating the illusion of a string choir; generating sounds of birds, wind, folk instruments, or industrial machines, he embraces the universe in sonance. Unlike many more traditional jazz bassists, he has fully mastered the use of the bow, using it to create sonorities that you would never hear from a classically trained musician. Often, however, he goes back to the traditional role of the bassist, keeping time and driving his bandmates forward in ever shifting ways with his own take on Ware’s riffs and ostinatos. When the spirit moves him, he will pick up a bamboo flute or an African harp to make musical and cultural statements.

Parker’s creative energies have made him the unofficial mayor of the New York improvisational scene. It seems that he has played with just about everyone of every nation and generation, and he leads at least four regular ensembles. He also writes poetry and has published essays and books about the spiritual and political aspects of creative music and is intimately involved with the annual Vision Festival in New York. He now brings his generous spirit to Ann Arbor’s Edgefest, where he will perform with the brilliant local pianist Kenn Thomas at Encore Records on October 22 and with his own quintet on October 23 at the Kerrytown Concert House.