Interview with William Hooker

William Hooker (c) Peter Gannushkin

By Cam Scott

William Hooker is a consummate jazz musician, an honorific that fully encompasses his roving, multivalent output as a composer and improviser over the last forty-five years. His poetic approach to the drumkit, and his musical approach to the raw material of language, propels an immense discography, including last year’s Symphonie of Flowers—a multi-part tour de force that attests to the ongoing event of his creativity.

On July 9th 2020, during the fifth month of mandated social distancing, we sat down in different cities for a conversation about collaboration, composition, and the vertiginous times that we’re all living through.

CAM SCOTT : These are strange times to be talking about live music, but knowing that it persists in all kinds of ways in our daily lives, I thought I’d ask to start, how are you finding space for music in the time of corona?

WILLIAM HOOKER : Luckily enough I’m in a suburban place. I go back and forth between the city and the suburbs, and I have a drum set here. Which is really good, because when the spirit hits me, if it hits me, I can go and play. And I’m thinking of different ideas, things I want to do around this time, and what these times mean. Not only what they mean in terms of COVID, but also what they mean in terms of Black Lives Matter. Because I’m seeing that this is it, and trying to figure out ways to put that into a creative event. I don’t have communication with many musicians right now, which is fine because I know that everyone is under the gun with this thing. And that’s about it. To tell you the truth, it occupies a good space in my head. I don’t feel frustrated or like I’m going crazy if I don’t play with other individuals right now. So that’s where I’m at.

CS : As you say, there have been huge demonstrations, here in Winnipeg too, but in the United States especially. We’re in the midst of one of the largest uprisings in the ongoing history of the civil rights movement.

WH : And in the history of the United States, that’s what I just read.

CS : Where there’s a huge repository of politically emancipatory jazz music, including your own. I’ve been listening to Symphonie of Flowers , and the first section immediately summons the history of resistance to enslavement and oppression; ‘Chain Gangs’ is named for the travesty of forced labor, and ‘Freedom Riders’ for activists who protested segregation; and I feel like the music is buoyed by their struggle. And I think about your piece The Great Migration , which is a large scale work containing history. So I wanted to talk about two related matters, about the relationship of jazz and political movement, but also about jazz as a narrative art.

WH : I would say for myself that I’m always aware of the inspiration for certain compositions. So there’s always a connection between myself and something else, it doesn’t necessarily have to be freedom. It could be something cosmological. Some of the films I’ve dealt with, the silent films, it hits you over the head, like when you see Body and Soul by Oscar Micheaux. I know there’s a message and the message will come across. In most cases my audience is pretty intelligent, they really are, because they seek inspiration in art and music and film, in spoken word and poetry. So that automatically happens.

But jazz can talk about history because jazz itself is history. It’s the history of our people. It’s the history of this country. It’s the history of you and I together. It’s the history of everything that our being here is about. And if one just looks at it, and you don’t have to look at it that deeply, one can see this by the players, by what the players call their songs, what the players are doing, how they’re doing it, what kind of forms they’re using, because in many cases they’re using blues forms, or call and response forms. The form of jazz bears witness to history, to the players, to those who preceded us, and it bears witness to the times that we’re in; either the events that are happening right now, or events that we foresee happening. Jazz players are not only thinking about the present. Many, as you know, are thinking about the future … We can go deeper, but I don’t want to go deeper. I don’t want to confuse matters, I want people to realize that it’s easily accessible, all you have to do is be open. It’s likeable, it’s not something that’s scary. It’s not scary at all, I think it’s pretty inviting.

CS : You’re a poet as well as a musician, though perhaps the two are closer than I make them out to be. I feel like your drumming is remarkably close to the cadence of the voice, and highly phrasal even when you’re not accompanying speech, so I thought I’d ask how you see the relationship between poetry and music in your own practice.

WH : In many cases, I try to use sounds and letters and words in the same way that I use tones in music. Because of that I can weave them in and out of each other if I choose to, or I can use them separately, or in a run-on sentence. Because if you were improvising, you would do a run-on improvisation, it just goes on and on and on, for hours or minutes or whatever. So that essentially is the way I look at it, on a good day … Because I know that sound, abstract as it is, welcomes words. It welcomes the sound of the voice, and in many cases, it welcomes logic. Logic being the sentence, starting with a capital, ending with a period. Or if I don’t feel like doing that, it welcomes the Joycean creation of a new language. That’s the way I see the relationship of those two. I feel as though they’re very interactive, they’re very kind to each other. And for me it’s a very joyful experience, to be able to interject sound in music. Grunts, yells, and in the end there’s a period.

CS : This is a good moment to ask about your compositional approach, which seems to be based in a deep intuition and trust of your collaborators.

WH : True. And you saw that as well. I trust them, that’s why they were there. A lot of people aren’t witness to that, so they ask, where did he get this person? But you saw the relationship so that’s good. But go on.

CS : Symphonie of Flowers feels absolutely cohesive and there are clear movements. But within that structure you conduct breakaway duos and trios, it’s an archipelagic approach to composition. I wonder how you came to this way of thinking about form, and if you find players with the piece in mind, or if the piece is for the player, and the order of operations there.

WH : That’s a good question. But this question, Cam, is rooted in history. Because many of the songs that we play were written some time ago, they’re not new. I may have a library of songs. So I’ll put seven pieces of paper, which are the songs, into this folder, and after doing that I’ll figure out who should be playing what in each one of these. So automatically, just because this particular event is going to have different people playing on it, I’ve already got new timbres, new sounds, because I don’t use the same people and the same instrumentation. Which means that you could have the same piece in both sets, but if this part was done by a bass clarinet and this was done by a piano, it would sound completely different. Which leaves me with a lot of freedom, because obviously if I was playing with a person with a bass clarinet in this situation, or with a piano in this situation, I’d have to improvise in a different way. Then I can write new things, new passages, new interludes, new introductions and endings, new ways for one instrument to interact with another, and those aren’t in the composition itself. But they do make the event.

So it’s a balancing act, of trying to deal with the composition and the sound, and also deal with the open-endedness that’s created by the fact that I have different musicians doing different things. In an event like the one that you saw, we know the music, number one; the musicians know the relationship of one to the other, number two; and then I can guide it from the drums as opposed to standing in from with a baton, bringing people together. That can throw a person off sometimes, if they’re a little bit frightened by me taking them to another level, where I want to throw them out into space. So it’s not just a matter of writing a composition per se, and playing that composition. It’s a matter of really seeing and being visible and intuitive enough to understand that these musical instruments and these sounds have relationships that are opening the musicians and myself up to a trip, so that the entire thing, be it a piece or a multi-disciplinary event, all of those things can work together to make a cohesiveness.

CS : Let’s talk about the music as a social constellation. This interview is daunting for a few reasons, not least of all because you are a great interviewer yourself. Your podcast, The Lost Generation: Outside the Mainstream , is a wonderful resource, collecting conversations with so many great, and sometimes unheralded, musicians. So I thought I could ask you a question about asking questions. People often speak of jazz as a dialogue, but how do you think your own playing informs those conversations?

WH : First of all, I know the people I’m talking to. I like the people I’m talking to, that helps. And I think that all of us have a feeling about the story that we’re telling, and we also have a deep desire to tell the story, because we know it’s important. We know that this is part of the history that not many people have wanted to deal with. So that’s an easy one, because for me, it’s providing an outlet, just like you’re providing me with an outlet now. We’re just telling our stories, and all I have to do is keep it a little on point, let people go where they want to go, but also be cognizant of the fact that I want to find out about people’s music in this case, not about their personalities, what they’re like as people, if you like them or don’t like them, that’s a narrowing space for me. I’m just speaking for myself, somebody else might find that interesting. That’s just what I want to do. And everybody’s on board already, so it’s just a matter of getting everyone in one space, and the energy takes it to a good place, usually.

But basically, once the camera starts rolling, the train has left the station, and as long as I can keep it on track, it’s an exciting thing that happens. To tell you the truth, it’s one of the only times I feel that I really get the opportunity to talk to other musicians about their music and how they look at other people’s music. Because usually we see each other, we embrace, and we don’t see each for three months. So this gives us an opportunity to talk about how, wow, that person plays such and such, I really wonder what was going on, and then another person gets the opportunity to ask the same question. So the platform is there. I have certain questions, just like you do, that I ask. I have certain people I want to bring up that I think are important. That’s the format, and I’m sticking to that. And it’s worked so far. It’s just a matter of getting the idea out there as much as possible, so people know that it’s happening. And that these musicians existed, that they were even on the planet, that’s what the story’s about. So it fulfills itself.

CS : When you’re presenting works live, you give such magnanimous remarks about the individual players, I appreciate that. And you play with a huge range of musicians, from rock, electronic music, new music, and jazz. You’ve spoken about the history and form that inheres in the music, but there’s another question about the interrelationships of these genres. Do you hear it as idiomatically undifferentiated Music writ large or are you looking for discrete genres to stitch together?

WH : Both. Both. Because if I look for both, in that case it makes it easier for me to find the platform for the people that I’m working with, because I know that some people have chops in one direction, and some people have chops in another direction, and they may not even know each other. So that’s another thing. You have to recognize the fact that in many cases, they have to respect each other as well, in addition to my respecting them. I’m trying to figure out something that works together, so there’s not a clash of habits. Different people come with different chops, and sometimes they’re aware of it and can really transcend it, but in some cases I’m dealing with habitual behaviour, really. I’m listening to people that have played a certain way and they’re going to bring that regardless. They’re going to bring the volume, the feel, whatever it is about that genre that they’re really good in. And that’s why I call them, because they’re really good at what they do, and I want to add that to the sauce, right?

CS : This is another interesting layer to the question, because I was asking about the relationship of genres, but it sounds like from a certain standpoint, people and players are genres in themselves.

WH : In a sense. And it’s almost how the mind works, because sometimes you associate someone with something. I don’t know if that’s correct. Like if I said to you, Blue Cheer, you know what that sounds like.

CS : I do!

WH : So if I said that to you, automatically you would know what that is, and I know that you know what that is, so I don’t have to go through this whole thing with you. So I can choose that, it’s almost like making a salad. Some people are into what they’re into, and that’s cool. So it’s both for me, genre and transcending the genre, to make a hybrid music. I think that’s what comes out of it if I’m successful, a quality hybrid of all of these genres and personalities and different ways of looking at musical sound and form. That’s why I say it’s both. And that’s the reason why, back to this Lost Generation thing, I like talking to different people, because I find perspective on how to create this hybridity. Because they might not even know what they’re contributing when that happens, but through talking to them a little bit more, I find out what they’re about. So before we even make music together I have a sense of where I’m going with this.

CS : I think that accounts for the higher-level synthesis that comes across in the music.

WH : I try for that, I really do.

CS : You get there!

WH : Well, you saw it. Because I was dealing with electronic instruments, I was dealing with acoustic instruments. And in many cases I’m asking myself, how does this work? What kind of a synth is this? And thinking how to put it together with an acoustic instrument, and saying respectfully how this should work together, in my own way, without being dictatorial about it. Just out of respect.

CS : Your trajectory includes this almost Promethean moment when you move from traditional jazz to free music. As someone who for a long time has been committed to this music as a total ethic, both a way of life and listening, I was wondering if you could speak a little about that discovery, and what renews your commitment to the music.

WH : I’ll take this onto a little bit more of a cosmic level. What renews this, Cam, for me is number one that I think it’s very important that this happens. I’m very honoured to be a part of a tradition of drumming as well as music and artistry that makes me feel that this a significant contribution to humanity at large. And I will say that in many cases I really do believe that music has the power to change things. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of these people who says that if I play a certain tone all of a sudden there’s going to be food for those who are starving, I’m not one of those. But I think that in many cases, on a very subtle and unseen level, there’s change. Even if we think about the way the molecules change. So I feel that it’s a worthwhile thing to do. And if I felt as if there wasn’t going to be change, I wouldn’t do it. I’d become an accountant. Maybe that would work better.

But that’s the way I look at it, trying to find activities that are wholesome for me and wholesome for other people, trying to find opportunities for those are out there, and for those that are new to it as well. Because I know that everybody didn’t just wake up one day knowing the whole history of jazz. But it’s like Black Lives Matter. Everybody there, they don’t necessarily know who W.E.B. Dubois is. They don’t necessarily know who Frantz Fanon is. But they do know that there’s a time for change, and they do know that they want to contribute to that change. That’s kind of how I look at it. I’m trying to be present as much as possible. I hope that answers your question. I don’t want to look back. In a time of pandemic, how far can I look? So I won’t take you into any particular era, because they all change, and I’m very happy that they have changed. And I’m happy that I can talk to you about Blue Cheer and about Morricone in the same breath. That’s where I’m coming from.

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Email: williamhooker98@gmail.com