Universal Tonality

The Life and Music of William Parker

Book Pages: 416 Illustrations: 47 illustrations Published: February 2021

Author: Cisco Bradley

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, General Interest > Biography, Letters, Memoirs, Music

Since ascending onto the world stage in the 1990s as one of the premier bassists and composers of his generation, William Parker has perpetually toured around the world and released over forty albums as a leader. He is one of the most influential jazz artists alive today. In Universal Tonality historian and critic Cisco Bradley tells the story of Parker’s life and music. Drawing on interviews with Parker and his collaborators, Bradley traces Parker’s ancestral roots in West Africa via the Carolinas to his childhood in the South Bronx, and illustrates his rise from the 1970s jazz lofts and extended work with pianist Cecil Taylor to the present day. He outlines how Parker’s early influences—Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and writers of the Black Arts Movement—grounded Parker’s aesthetic and musical practice in a commitment to community and the struggle for justice and freedom. Throughout, Bradley foregrounds Parker’s understanding of music, the role of the artist, and the relationship between art, politics, and social transformation. Intimate and capacious, Universal Tonality is the definitive work on Parker’s life and music.


“Writing elegantly about the music as well as William Parker's work as an activist and organizer, Cisco Bradley gives a full sense of Parker's centrality to the development and maintenance of the free jazz scene in New York as well as his efforts in presenting the music across the globe. Universal Tonality is a book worthy of its object.” — Fred Moten, author of Black and Blur

“We have precious few monographic works on creative musicians, fewer still on living ones, and none quite like Cisco Bradley's fascinating biography of bassist, bandleader, organizer, and composer William Parker. Bradley situates Parker as part of a historical legacy, skillfully illuminating Parker's career—including his crucial term with Cecil Taylor—as well as the entire underground scene, including the groundbreaking Sound Unity Festival, the enduring Vision Festival, and manifold developments in the New York creative music community. An essential entry in the critical culture reading list.” — John Corbett, author of Vinyl Freak: Love Letters to a Dying Medium

"Each of [Parker's] own major projects, including the quartet, Raining On The Moon, Little Huey, and In Order To Survive, is discussed and analyzed in depth; his family history and personal life are documented in detail; and ultimately as full a portrait as possible of William Parker, artist and human being, is painted. Essential reading." — Phil Freeman, Stereogum

"Cisco Bradley endeavors to pull the diverse parts of the artist's life together in this first ever biography of Parker. It is a monumental task, and like the dozens of biographies of Louis Armstrong that have been published, it is a good start." — Mark Corroto, All About Jazz

"This is long overdue respect and praise for one of the finest and hardest working musicians of the post-war era. William Parker is a national treasure, as this book is a testament to his perseverance." — Tim Niland, Music and More

"Bradley's work, currently only in English, really deserves to be translated into multiple languages." (translated from Italian) — Giuseppe Segala, All About Jazz

"As with the best of jazz biographies, there are excellent descriptions of the music to be found on the key albums of Parker’s various groups. And these vivid words send the curious listener scurrying off to hear the music. . . . The biography is an excellent introduction to William Parker’s music and to his role in the free jazz community in New York and the USA." — Tony Dudley-Evans, London Jazz News

"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." — Lee Rice Epstein, Free Jazz Collective

"Parker’s art and family history get explored at length in Cisco Bradley’s illuminating new critical study Universal Tonality, the first William Parker book that William Parker didn’t have to write himself. Parker appreciates the attention—he called it the story of how he rose 'from rags to enlightenment. Note that I didn’t say riches'—but still encourages musicians to tell their own stories, and not just because critics can be slow to catch up." — Alan Scherstuhl, New York Times

"Excellent and overdue. . . ." — Angus Batey, The Quietus

"The book, while essentially a biography, explains aspects of his musical vision that are exemplified by these recordings. There is an emphasis on vocals and lyrics, and the book goes in some depth with regard to Parker’s interest in poetry and literature, and his love of music from other cultures as well. . . . An important takeaway from Universal Tonality is Parker’s belief that music is in and of itself a revolutionary act, a rebellion against the hatred which he sees as inherent in the current organization of the world." — Todd Manning, Rock and Roll Globe


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Price: $29.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Cisco Bradley is Associate Professor of History at the Pratt Institute, editor of the Jazz Right Now blog, and author of Forging Islamic Power and Place: The Legacy of Shaykh Da’ud bin ‘Abd Allah al-Fatani in Mecca and Southeast Asia.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction. "Flowers Grow in My Room": Realizing a Vision  1
I. Origins
1. Enslavement and Resistance: From West Africa to the Carolinas to Harlem 15
2. Struggle, Beauty, and Survival: Childhood in the South Bronx  41
3. Consciousness: Art, Politics, and Self in the Mind of a Young Man  61
II. Early Work
4. The Loft Scene: Art, Community, and Self-Determination  93
5. "Music That Will Give People Hope": Centering Dance Music with Patricia Nicholson  124
6. "Music Is Supposed to Change People": Working with Cecil Taylor  148
III. Toward the Universal
7. "It Is the Job of the Artist to Incite Political Revolution": In Order to Survive  173
8. Into the Tone World: Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra  194
9. Toward a Universal Sound: William Parker Quartet and Raining on the Moon  216
10. Honoring the Elders: Tribute Projects and Other Bands  239
11. All People Need Truth to Survive: Recent Work and Legacy  261
Appendix: William Parker Discography  279
Notes  291
Bibliography  359
Index  385
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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