Patricia Nicholson Parker

In college, I went down a naïve path with Edmund Husserl and phenomenology from which I retain a strange half-remembered/half-read mind experiment: I focus on one small item (initially it was a sewer grate) and will try to reverse engineer the multi-generational story of its origin. Starting with the person who installed it, I imagine each set of hands that have been laid on that grate going back to the mining of the metal ore, or further if I can manage it. I try to spin outward, thinking of lives of the people involved in that object’s existence: their families, their neighborhoods and communities, their working conditions and ideas. It’s a humbling exercise, and a creative way to kill time.

If you were to play this mental game with the New York free jazz scene of the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries, you would come across Patricia Nicholson Parker very quickly. She has been directly involved in the mining, production, installation, and maintenance of the scene since the early eighties. And though you may not have met her or know her by sight, you have probably reaped the benefits of her work.

I met the dancer, poet, and organizer almost immediately after moving to New York in 2001. One of my first concerts in Manhattan was an improvised set on which she was one of a handful of dancers. I have definitely taken advantage of her work with the Vision Festival and Arts for Art, not only as a musician who has gotten to play on concerts sponsored by that organization, but as a listener and cultural flaneur that has been influenced by the local musicians she has supported or those that she’s brought to the city.

Nicholson Parker is a fighter. She knows herself and her mission and has developed a philosophy of life and work that is inspiring as a reminder of why many of us got into improvising, collaborating, and performing in the first place. She doesn’t just run a festival, she’s built and maintained something larger: a community, a mutual aid society, a village.

I don’t know Nicholson Parker well—this zoom interview was easily the most we’ve ever spoken to each other, even after performing together a few times over the past twenty years—but I’ve always admired her work from afar. It’s the kind of behind-the-scenes effort that often goes unnoticed until it isn’t being done. And as she begins looking at passing the torch in the future, a reminder of Vision’s history, and a celebration of the work she’s done with it, is long overdue.

NWI want to start with the Vision Festival. The first one was in 1996; is that right? So, this music was happening. You’d been working in the scene. But something must have changed to make you decide to tackle such a big project.

PNPWell, to understand the Vision Festival you must begin two years before with the Improvisors Collective. My husband, William Parker, would come home saying that the only place he would see fellow artists was on tour in Europe or at funerals. The scene for improvised music had lost its venues in New York. This was particularly true for black improvisers. The heart of the scene for Vision is black improvised creative music, black artists. They were the ones who were struggling the most; getting the fewest gigs in Europe; getting the least pay; getting almost no gigs in America. That’s why I started the Vision Festival: there was no space for improvised music. There was no infrastructure, no funding, and no one writing about it.

When we were in our twenties, there was a whole scene around us, but since the eighties and nineties, it had either dispersed or just disappeared. We needed to come back together, so I contacted a bunch of artists we had lost touch with—plus some young musicians who had stumbled into our world—and we started the Improvisors Collective. It was about fifty artists, mostly musicians, but a few dancers, poets, and visual artists as well.

After a minute, I realized that having a collective is like having fifty bosses. Even though everyone was supposed to do work—and some people did some work—it all basically landed on me and one or two others to get things done. It was fun and exciting at first, but it was also a lot of work. It was hard for me, because I wasn’t what you would call the group’s natural leader; I had to prove myself to the community. “Who are you? You’re a dancer?” But it was a learning process. And it was great in a way.

We had meetings where most everyone would show up. That’s how dead everything was! There was a space called Context Studio at 28 Avenue A. This was where rock and jazz musicians went to rehearse and record—run by Ed Montgomery—a great space. He had a large dance/performance space that he gave us for a reduced rate. We held a performance every week that first year. Whoever was to perform was chosen by lottery, and whoever led that band would also lead an open improv for the second set. I still miss the Improvisors Collective. You could come each week and improvise. If nothing else, you were active.

Anyway, we sent out press releases each week. Typed it. Printed it out. Put a stamp on it. Mailed it at the post office. But no press ever came. Still, the series was going fairly well, especially at the beginning. Then it began to taper off, of course—that typical problem of getting attention and securing an audience with no support from the press. After two years we thought, “Well, we need to do something that’s going to grab more attention.” That’s when we decided on doing a festival.

NWDid you know what you were getting yourself into?

PNPI had helped organize the Sound Unity Festival in the mid-eighties. The German bassist, Peter Kowald had secured funding from an East German artist, AR Penck, who had become a very successful visual artist and who loved improvised music. Kowald came to New York to work with William Parker to put on a festival. The organizers were Kowald, Parker, and me. This became the Sound Unity Festival. The idea of the festival was to bring together the different improvising communities and pay everyone, and that’s how I was thinking when I booked the first Vision Festival. And the idea of community and fair pay has been a part of the philosophy of Arts for Art and the Vision festivals.

An element of community that has always been important to me is social justice. One of the people who worked with me in the first year was Greg Ruggiero. He was a co-founder of the Open Media Series, a small publishing company publishing works by Amiri Baraka, Angela Davis, Howard Zinn, and many other progressive thinkers including a pamphlet by William Parker. Greg approached the Improvisors Collective to ask if we could do a benefit for them, and I said: “Musicians need a benefit!” So, we decided to do a shared thing.

He helped design the first poster and secured the venue. When I was young, I had refused to learn to type, because I thought that if I learned how to type, someone would make me a secretary. If I couldn’t type, then I was safe! Since then I’ve learned how, of course.

NWAnd you’re still safe. You’re not a secretary.

PNPYes [laughing] I’m still safe.

NWI didn’t know about the Improvisors Collective, but it makes so much sense as a genesis for the Vision Festival, which is very much about community. You’ve been presenting the festival in some form for twenty-eight years now. From your perspective, what’s the biggest change?

PNPWell, it’s a lot more structured. It was never just me, of course. I’m not that kind of person; I always have someone with me.

NWEven from the beginning?

PNPYes. I organized the first year with Greg Ruggiero with help from musicians, particularly the Israeli saxophonist Assif Tsahar. Assif was one of the young members of the Improvisors Collective. After the first year, he talked me into getting incorporated, and also into continuing. Actually, a lot of people were saying we had to do it again. It was a big success. The audience for Improvisors Collective was about ten to twenty people. The first Vision Festival at the Learning Alliance sold out with about 150 or 200 people per night for five nights.

NWThat’s a big jump.

PNPAnd that was good. I booked about five groups a night and guaranteed everyone a fee. But I only had one donation of $2,500 that I had secured from a musician of means. I promised everyone money that I didn’t have. The only logic-based way I could explain it is that I could feel the buzz. Whenever I would talk about it, people perked up. Everyone was excited. It was a right idea at the
right time.

NWHow would you describe the community around Vision and Arts for Art? It’s a very special group of folks.

PNPTo me, the idea of being a creative artist requires a deep commitment, because you’re not in it for the money. Right? This is not your path to a mansion; it takes a kind of idealism. Everyone is part of the community if they can see it. Since I can see it, it helps others to see it. My idea was that this is not just a community of musicians and artists. The volunteers, the tech crew, and the audience are all part of our community. They’re a more important part of the community than they understand. People don’t always get that because they don’t understand how interdependent we all are. Artists understand that they need an audience. And the audience likes the music, but they don’t understand their part in that relationship, that they’re helping to make the performance by the quality of their listening and viewing as well as their donation to the event. The performer feels the audience’s engagement, and it shapes the performance. So, even on that level, we participate together to create something special, something unique. We cannot fix the whole world, but we can fix the world that we live and work in. And we do it not by berating each other. We do it by setting an example, and through art and kindness we inspire each other; we give hope to each other. Also we keep encouraging the sense of community by holding space for it, by giving opportunities to
hang together.

NWDo you ever wish the festival could go back to a time when it was a smaller organization?

PNPNo, I don’t want to go back. Of course there are things and people that I miss. I miss being able to bump into people on the street. Then, the artists mostly lived in the same neighborhood. But now I am more interested in building something for the future. Arts for Art is more organized now. That will help. Also the original artists are older, and too many are gone. And so I have been working on bringing the younger artists closer. I’m trying to figure out how to do that best so that the original idealism and commitments to community and equity and justice and uncompromised music and art remain when I am no longer running things.

NWWhat kind of commitments?

PNPFor example, I have a commitment to black artists. There are two reasons for the black focus. One is that they were being pushed out—and they truly were. It was unbelievable, but believable nonetheless, right? Secondly, this music really came from a black community. When I met William, the scene was almost all black. So, I have a curatorial policy—that I will frankly share with you—that the Vision Festival has to be at least 45% black and also include people of color and women. I actually have this written out. The numbers are approximate and somewhat fluid. I want everyone who comes to feel welcome and included, that there’s a space for them that they know. We have a commitment to ADEI in general. We have a commitment to excellence. We have a commitment to bringing the arts together. We have a commitment and responsibility as artists to support those who are under attack, so AFA will hold space for the oppressed. But there has to always be an awareness of power games, and that makes everything complicated.

At some point, somewhere around the tenth Vision Festival, I started being told that the music is white now. “This is not black music anymore, so what are you doing?” My eyes rolled and my claws came out. I’m stubborn; do not challenge me on what I believe is important. So it was a hard period, but that’s all right. I mean, it was wrong, but I made space for more people, and that was right. I had to adjust, so I did. And that was important.

NWWas there ever a point where you were like, “I’m not going to do this again.”

PNPFor about the first five years, I had to be talked into it each year. It was way too much work. It basically took over my life. With the Improvisors Collective, I at least had an opportunity to dance regularly. That wasn’t true with the Vision Festival. I would give myself a performance each year, but that was one performance a year. In early years some musicians would invite me to perform with them at Vision, but I turned it down because I was afraid that they were asking me to make sure that they would get a gig every year. I wanted it to be clean. Now, I think that is how people often connect, by finding people that they think can help them in some way.

NWHow did you come to dance?

PNPWhen I was three, I told my mother I wanted to be a dancer. I was trained in ballet. Actually, I trained in a little bit in everything. But what I really wanted to do was improvise. I grew up listening to all kinds of music. I wasn’t like your typical music lover that collected records, but I had my favorite people: Fats Waller, Billie Holiday. And then I liked Ornette Coleman and Gustav Mahler. When I was about twenty-one, I began looking for music that I hadn’t heard yet. That was how I met William. But when I found my way into this music scene, the dance was not accepted. I hardly ever got reviewed in the first twenty years, but one of my favorite reviews said, “I was surprised I didn’t hate the dance.”

NWWow. That’s really positive. [laughing]

PNPIt really is. [laughing] And as an artist, I never saw the distinction. To me, all the arts are one thing.

NWDo you feel like you’ve gotten to dance enough over the years?

PNPI don’t believe in that concept. I mean, the answer is obviously no.

NWMaybe “enough” is a weird way to put it.

PNPI’m humbly proud of what I’ve done. What I wish is that there was more space for me as an artist to have been able to develop bigger projects. As you can probably tell from my organizational work, I’m a big thinker. And I like to think big in terms of dance, too. I did this project with William called The Thousand Cranes. It was for the opening of the United Nations special sessions on disarmament on June 6, 1982. It was inspired by a story about this little girl who dies of leukemia as a result of America dropping a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. As she was dying, she tried to fold 1,000 paper cranes, because in Asian, and specifically Japanese, mythology, cranes live 1,000 years. The crane is a symbol of long life. The paper crane has become a symbol of Peace.

I put together a vision of the whole piece, directing and producing. I worked with a friend, Emily Collins, to organize the whole event. I choreographed a group of six or seven adult dancers plus a few children. We engaged a couple of jugglers and someone to paint the backdrop. William wrote the music and the words for twenty musicians and seven singers. And then the finale had 1,000 school children singing and wearing their own homemade crane wings. This was a major organizational effort! I think big, but it was very difficult because I didn’t have a name. But we did pull it off. We got a stage built. Dag Hammarskjold Plaza was packed with people from Japan and everywhere else, and it went off with a hitch.

NWWhich is the realistic way to put it. [laughing]

PNPI naturally want to work large. But it’s heartbreaking. Occasionally I have done really large pieces, but I only do them once. And it takes everything you have to do it.

NWHow do you feel about your dancing now?

PNPWhat is ironic, and it’s humbling, is that people keep telling me I’m better. I think, in general, artists do get better over time, but for a dancer this is unusual because age isn’t a friend to your body. However, fifty is a magic age for most artists; all your stuff comes together. You know who you are, and you’re still open and energetic and growing.

I spent most of my life taking care of everyone and still maintaining my dance. But at this point, I’ve been shifting mentally. I want to make sure that this demanding, open, creative process has a space to exist into the future, while at the same time, I am beginning to make a bit more space for my personal creativity, which actually is uncomfortable being so limited. Words—Spoken Word—come easily to me. I like to improvise text when I dance. I also hear music and direct bands when I have the time to do that. Recently I have been working a lot with singers and mostly women musicians when I am not doing duos with William. But in order to really have space for my own work, I need to make sure that I am passing down important information and leaving AFA in a very strong position.

NWI think that’s a good prompt to ask about Arts for Art. When did it come into existence, and what was the idea behind it?

PNPWell, we can’t separate Vision from Arts for Art. We did the first Vision Festival before we had the name Arts for Art. But by the second year, we had incorporated as Arts for Art. Everything was branded as Vision for a long time. And that’s why people didn’t realize that Arts for Art is the name of the organization. I just kept on using the word Vision because it was the strongest, most identifiable, title. The name is a little compromised because people think it means arts for art’s sake. But it was really a play on artists
for artists.

It was built on the concept of self-determination, but we didn’t keep the collective because it was unwieldy and constraining. We also did concerts out in parks beginning in 2000. Now our outdoor series is called the InGarden Series. Early on we did things up at McCarren Park in Harlem, because I wanted to make sure the music was in black communities. But I don’t have enough of an organic connection to those communities. It didn’t really work; it was like bringing in a plant from another country. In terms of community building, you need real ties in the community. They need to be asking for you, and we didn’t have the infrastructure to build those ties. But it is what I wanted to do.

NWBut at a certain point, Arts for Art became its own thing which supports younger musicians that maybe need some financial help or help getting their music out. When I came to town and started playing, a lot of the first gigs that I got to play were through you.

PNPWhere do you remember playing?

NWOne of the very first gigs I played in New York was with you as a dancer, and it was under the banner of Vision.

PNPSounds like the Vision Collaboration series. It was probably at Context Studios.

NWYes, that’s possible. But then there were years at CBGB’s and at Clemente Soto Velez cultural center. All of the different places and the different people who have been affected by that work is pretty profound. So, the last question has to be what the future looks like for you and for Vision and AFA.

PNPThat’s what I’m trying to figure out. I want to accomplish two things. I want to really renew AFA—and by AFA, I mean the presenter of the Vision Festival, the presenter of all these events, and the education program—so that it remains vibrant for another thirty years. If this is going to maintain the flavor, I need to make sure there’s a younger generation that really understands all the aspects of it. At the same time, trying to nurture this other generation in a focused way will give me the freedom to not always have to be present.

NWWhat would you do with some of that free time?

PNPOver the years, I have been writing poems and have been into multimedia. I want to be able to give that much more of my focus than I have been able to. And I want to dance! And I want to spread the ideals of Vision!

NWWhat do you think needs to happen to retain that vibrancy without you?

PNPI feel like I need to teach what I do. I want to work with a group of young artists who can commit a little bit of their time to make sure I can really teach them about all the ways that they can create a positive community, and teach them about the complexities of curation. When I curate, I go over it and over it. How do you really serve your community? It’s not a simple thing. You can’t just book your friends. But you do have to take care of people who take care of you, because if you don’t, then you won’t have any friends. There’s a balance. And that means extending yourself. “Is this the right balance? Is this the right decision?” And you have to also check to make sure people will show up for the event. I can’t book for the inside crowd, because then I’m not taking care of the community. The community needs everyone to come, and there needs to be some consensus.

For example, you must always include someone you don’t like. You don’t have to love everyone’s music. That makes it too much about oneself. I’m extremely opinionated, and I have a right to all my opinions, but I do not have a right to curate according to my opinions. That distancing takes maturity, but maybe it can also be achieved within a group setting. I’m trying to find the right way. And I’m trying to support what exists and understand it better, so I can understand how I’m eventually going to make this transition happen.

At one point, I had a panel discussion at the festival that asked how economy affects your creative choices. The answers are interesting, but the question is also interesting. We never assume that art is affected by money, but of course it is. If there’s no space and there’s no funding, then art and the public suffers. It’s just not going to be what grows. You won’t kill it off, because you can’t kill off the spirit that is at its root. Too often we humans pay too much attention to economics and not enough to that spirit core.

This music evolved at the time of the civil rights movement. I don’t think it would have occurred without that, because at that point, a generation of American black artists could feel themselves empowered; that they had a right to freedom; that they could feel their entitlement to it. Plus, there was a lot of commonality with the anti-war movement. There was this sense of optimism that allowed space in people’s spirits and their own being to really open up and push themselves forward into the world in an unconstrained way.

This is a very difficult world, and this is a very difficult time. It’s not possible without the support of each other. How else can we survive as an individual and also as a community and also as unconstrained creatives? We need each other. I’m figuring it out, and I’m trying to be as open as possible to finding that. But you stumble forward. The way forward is never as clear as you want it to be. Yeah, that’s the way life works, right?

Patricia Nicholson Parker