Interview with William Hooker by Cadence - May 1991

CADENCE: When and where were you born?

WILLIAM HOOKER: I was born June 18, 1946 in New Britain, Connecticut.

CAD: Do you come from a musical family?

W.H.: Yes. I come from a musical family in the sense that everyone sings. My mother and father aren't professional musicians, but they have a very strong love of music. We all had lessons when we were kids. I stuck with mine.

CAD: What was your first instrument?

W.H.: Drums.

CAD: How old were you when you started?

W.H.: Maybe about seventh grade. I played rock and roll in a group called the Flames. We played at all the colleges. It was good. It was good money. I had an opportunity to meet a lot of people. I had the opportunity to grow up a little faster than most of my friends did. In high school I was president of my music club. I worked in the chorus. But when my teacher told me to be there for a particular concert they were giving, I chose to go to Columbia University and play a gig there. this was in, I guess, eleventh grade. That got me thrown out of the position I was in, because they couldn't understand why a person could want to do something like that. But I knew we were a good group. So I stuck with it.

CAD: Were you planning on becoming a professional musician?

W.H.: I was already a professional musician. In the rock group, we were auditioned by the Isley Brothers to go and play at the Peppermint Lounge. There was a place in Plainville where we used to back-up Dionne Warwick, Freddie Cannon and Gary "U.S." Bonds, all those people.

CAD: Did College (Central Conn. State college) have a positive or negative influence on your musical development?

W.H.: Positive. Art Wellwood was one of my professors. I took a course called Twentieth Century Composers. I did a paper on Berg, who was a disciple of Schoenberg. Wellwood turned me on to those people and what they were doing. I would bring in all the blue Note records that excited me and try to turn him on to the fact that these people were legitimate as what I was studying. Plus, we were playing five nights a week in Waterbury, Wolcott, New Jersey and Springfield, Massachusetts. We gave a few concerts around here when I was with an organ group. We were learning tunes. I was really getting into how to play changes and colors. College was an outlet where I could actually think about what I was playing and put it into practice. So, it was good, it freed me up. And I was getting a degree at the same time.

CAD: So, at this point, you were playing Jazz?

W.H.: Yeah. We were playing "Work Song," "So What," "All Blues," "Stella By Starlight,"... We were into the fake book.

CAD: Who were you playing with?

W.H.: Bob Snell, Al Pitts... I was working with people that were coming out of here like Ellie Grant, Juddie Watts, and we were meeting people in New Haven, like Bobby Edwards and Dickie Meyers. One of the drummers on the scene at the time was Tony Williams, who was going into New Haven frequently to play at the Monterey Club. When a person your age like Tony Williams is blowing everybody away you ask yourself, "How far can I develop what I have to develop in the environment of Connecticut?" Mind you, there weren't many people who really wanted to play with such drive and such passion and such energy. But when I saw those kind of players coming through, I felt as if it was just time for me to take a different attitude. That coupled with the fact that I was listening to Jimi Hendrix and people like that who were breaking a whole other direction, made it an exciting growth period, a good listening experience.

CAD: When did you start playing jazz?

W.H.: Late high school. My parents entrusted me into the hands of these older guys, who knew that I had to be home at a certain time, who made sure I wasn't getting drunk, made sure I wasn't getting wasted. These older guys seemed to be responsible. Because of that I was given the opportunity to go and play.

CAD: Were any of these older musicians influences?

W.H.: Al Pitts, a tenor saxophonist, was one. I could always depend on him for direction. He made me aware of what kind of sound I should put to become part of the group, as opposed to playing rock, where most people are just playing a beat. Bob Snell was a heavy influence, also. He played bass. He kept the organization of the group together. As a result of that I developed organizational skills which are very important, I think: How to go and get a gig, how to negotiate what you're going to play, how to keep a certain dignity about yourself even though you're an "entertainer" - and how to sneak in every once in a while those things that excited us: Some of the directions Yusef Lateef, Cannonball Adderly, Wynton Kelly, Philly Joe Jones and those people were taking. Ultimately, I was completely blown away by some of the directions the Coltrane started to take - "A Love Supreme", number one - and some of the things that Elvin Jones was playing in those situations.

CAD: You moved into playing, for want of a better term, "free jazz." was Coltrane one of the people who got you started in that direction?

W.H.: No. What happened was, I went to California and I had all this experience. But nobody in California knew how to play. They had the energy and they were into a certain consciousness, which was Black Consciousness at the time. I used to go and stand in front of the Both/And and watch Alphonse Mouzon. The Moffetts, they were people in Oakland. In Berkeley, there were people like Sun Ra coming through. Herbie Hancock and Bobby Hutcherson were over in California at the time. But I noticed that many of the younger musicians in California didn't know how to play. They didn't know tunes, they didn't know changes, they didn't know anything. I was too advanced. I knew all this stuff already. And I knew that for us to work, we had to have a certain basic knowledge of what was going on. Every once in a while I would lose myself in the music and start to play free. Something clicked in my head. I heard this Earth rhythm, I heard this Earth sound. From that time on, I would perhaps start a song out nice and swinging, then I would go out and I would stay out. I was developing a certain spontaneity, but it wasn't just a spontaneity based on the fact that I wanted to be a rebel. It was a spontaneity based on all those years of playing and developing and listening to a lot of music, constantly listening to music.

CAD: Did you find players out there that you could play free with?

W.H.: None. You'd start to play free and people would say, 'What are you doing?' They wouldn't play with you. They'd stop, like you were offending them or they heard something that was bothering them. At that point, I realized that I had to keep going, or else I was gonna stop like them and go back to playing "Work Song" and "Stella by Starlight." I didn't intend to do that. It was a very lonely situation. There were a a couple people who were playing music, but they weren't playing outside. Ed Kelly was there... Sonny Simmons and Barbara Donald, they were people that I never really met. They weren't playing that often, and I couldn't go looking for them. I mean, I had to try to survive and I was trying to get into grad school, to go to Berkeley. I was politically oriented, I was politically steeped. I wasn't just out there to play. I wrote a book while I was out there, that started me into writing.

CAD: What kind of writing?

W.H.: Sociological essays. i encompassed my going to Mexico and meeting people down there who were being persecuted and seeing people get killed. So it wasn't just about me being a musician. It was about actually trying to find myself, you know. I think everybody goes through that period. Mine just took me to those sort of regions of mind/music and then I came back.

CAD: So you went out west basically to find yourself?

W.H.: I went out there essentially to be able to develop more and I knew that I would be able to go to Berkeley for free and get a Master's degree. Also, it was the time of the Black Panthers, of Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, and those people. They were coming to the fore, and this was where they were coming from. i was immersed in this whole consciousness. But I couldn't rationalize the fact that it was a very closed-off, separative sort of consciousness. I didn't like the fact that it was either all black or all white. I'm not necessarily the type of person that says like, well, it's Africa or Dave Bruback and that's the branches of the tree. No. I see the whole tree. I saw the whole tree was growing too, because people were coming out of ESP-DISK. I mean, it was definitely something that was happening. But when I went out there with a purpose and I couldn't achieve the purpose that I went out there for.

CAD: When you came back east, did you move directly to New York?

W.H.: No. I was in Hartford for a while, living near Trinity College.

CAD: What kind of music were you playing in Hartford?

W.H.: I was completely outside. Completely outside. I was not readily accepted in a lot of the circles that were around Hartford because everybody was playing straight ahead.

CAD: Who were you playing with in Hartford?

W.H.: I was with Lou West for a while. emery Smith was trying to play a little bit more stretched out at the time. there were various people around, but I really didn't have my counterparts here. The musicians were really sort of fearful about what people would say if they got up on the stand and started to play totally out. they still hadn't detached themselves from the audience enough so that a movement could actually happen here. Which is a sad thing because I see that as the job of the musician. The musician should take the people out or or point the direction to them. I couldn't understand why people were having the attitudes they were. There wasn't that much work, so people didn't stand to lose that much. I wasn't afraid. But maybe that's because I couldn't get any gigs anyway. I was trying to write my own songs. I didn't know how to write, so musicians would sort of ridicule the fact that I was trying to put together these tunes in a very unmusicianlike manner. I would sing and sometimes my sister would write the things down. It wouldn't be in perfect script, the way people learned it. When they got the music they would look at it and say, "What id this?" I would sing it to them and they would play it. It was really a period of sort of ridicule, you know, but it didn't bother me because I knew that I wasn't gonna stay in Hartford. I knew that. So, I just tried to get enough bread together to make my move. Plus, my son was born, so I couldn't just jump up and go. I tried to work and hold my family together and get enough money to be able to move. And that's what I did.

CAD: When did you move down to New York?

W.H.: About '74, '74 or '75.

CAD: Did it take you long to meet like-minded musicians and find places to play?

W.H.: No. It didn't take me long at all. I just went down there and I started to go around to see who was playing, who was doing what. The loft scene was happening. I played in all the lofts. I was playing with all the people who were getting recognized, but they didn't recognize me for some reason.

CAD: Who were those people?

W.H.: Well.. On my first album I've got: Hassaan Dawkins, David ware, David Murray, reeds. And they played with me. I didn't play with them, you see. I used to play at a place called Studio WE. I used to go in there, I used to always get a gig there. I met a lot of different people: Ahmed Abdullah, Malachi Thompson, Jameel Moondoc, Alan Braufman, who's now Alan Michael... all those people were coming out of 501 Canal Street. And the people from Chicago were starting to come in, but I didn't play with them. Everybody was starting to coalesce in New York at the same time. So I got there at a good time. The rents were cheap. You go there now and it's impossible. You got to pay $2,000 for a room. But I didn't have to so that. I didn't have to fight gentrification, I didn't have to fight developers. I had a little place where I could always go and practice. But Stanley Crouch had it all sewed up, and I wasn't exactly one of Stanley Crouch's friends. Partially because of that I didn't get recognized, I didn't get written about.

CAD: How do you mean he had it all sewed up?

W.H.: He was the main writer for the "Village Voice". But I did not hit it off with Stanley Crouch - or Gary Giddins - so, at that time, I didn't get the thing out there that I should have gotten. A few writers really dug on what I was doing. One was Bob Rusch, of "Cadence". He dug it a long time ago. A long, long time ago. John Gensel, the Jazz Pastor, loved the way I played a long time ago. He's one of the profound people who wrote on the back of my "Brighter Lights" album. He wrote a nice blurb for me. And also, Perter Ochiogrosso from the "SoHo Weekly News". I just met a lot of people that have stood by me in terms of being able to provide the little bit of work that I've had - a little bit of the paying work, you know. I've played most of my concerts for free, never got paid for any of them.

CAD: Back in the '70's?

W.H.: Yeah. It was like ridiculous. You do all your things, you take out an ad in the Village Voice, you give advertising your money, you paste flyers all over the place.

CAD: Did you have to pay the musicians?

W.H.: No. Nobody got paid. It was pathetic. That's the reason why I've been working all this time. Nobody got paid. It was just, like, we were happy to be playing. And when we played with joy and conviction and strength. We weren't thinking about how to sell and market our music, we were just playing.

CAD: How has the situation changed?

W.H.: It's changed because people are trying to turn the whole direction of the National Endowment for the Arts around. You have to do certain things that enable you to have a paying audience. The dilemma is that if people don't know of you, why should they pay to see you? And obviously, you can't play in a place that is a business and have two, three people in the audience. In those days, if you played and there were five people in the audience, that was fine. It was depressing, but it was fine. Nobody said anything. But now, you've got to do certain things so that you have an audience for your music.

CAD: Does that mean changing the content of your music, or does that mean changing your approach to dealing with the audience?

W.H.: For many people, it has meant changing the content. Not for me. Maybe that's the reason why I don't play in clubs. Maybe I'll be playing in clubs when I have six albums out. Then they'll know William Hooker is here and people will come and see what I'm about. It does a thing on your self-esteem. If part of your energy is being drawn out from you by what's happening on the scene, then you can't put all of your energy into playing. It's like you come out there and you're already tired. That's the reason I liked Real Art Ways. They treated us really well when we came down to the Lifeline side in 1988. They took care of a lot of things that the musicians in New York take care of themselves. I've always had a good rapport with michael at the Knitting Factory, too. They liked my music from the very beginning. I played there three or four time before they became the Knitting Factory. They believed in what I was trying to do. Pastor Gensel has always believed in it, always provided the space for me - and the audience - for me to be able to play. And a good sized audience too. It made people feel comfortable. You wouldn't feel, "Why did I come here? There are only three people."

CAD: How large an audience are you talking about?

W.H.: Fifty.

CAD: Realisticly speaking, that's probably a good number.

W.H.: It's a good number, but it's got to be better. But different kinds of situations create different kinds of numbers. If you're in a jazz festival, obviously you're gonna have more people because the advertising goes out more. But when you have to deal with it the way I've been dealing with it - free listings, just going on the radio, that kind of thing - then you're happy when you've got a good rapport with people who come here to listen.

CAD: What kinds of places do you play now, compared to the '70's?

W.H.: I just did a gig at the Cubiculo, which is the National Shakespeare Theater. I'm getting ready for a gig now at the Generator, which is over on the Lower East Side. I played at La Mama Galleria. So I had all kinds of people there. The audience that I'm starting to develop is not just a hard-core "out" free-jazz audience, it's also a younger crowd of people who are also into industrial strength rock and roll. And I'm starting to play in more of the festivals. I'm hoping now that people that do these festivals will realize that George Wein isn't the only person that has expertise in doing festivals. That's one reason why I consider the Knitting Factory a major place: Because they've gone through their bout with George Wein and his hard boppers. I'm not saying that it's not nice to see the musicians who've been out there for a long time playing. I'm just saying that there's a whole other strain coming out here that needs to be recognized.

CAD: Would you say there are more outlets for this kind of music or less than there were fifteen years ago?

W.H.: I would say less. There's less people playing this kind of music. There's more people realizing that I'm here to stay, so they come to see me. But it's only because I've been playing and playing and playing that they're finally coming out. The audience is growing for the musicians, but it's not necessarily growing for the music. I think there's less musicians playing, I really do. And the attitude is a lot different.

It was much more free in the past. I mean, people weren't as oriented toward what they're going to get out of it, all the things that the "music business" is about. And that's why I really feel a certain joy when I find people who are really about the music now.

CAD: In your music, you appear to work in areas that inv=olve extended form and heightened consciousness-

W.H.: "Heightened consciousnedd," forget it. Thought, forget it. It's just about music. You come there with certain abilities and certain experiences. Hopefully, one can be spontaneous enough to put these things into a musical form. I choose to give many of my concerts titles. The reason why is because of my own studies. Like, the most recent concert I gave was titled, "The Mind World." It wasn't necessarily based on thought. A lot of the time when you talk to people about heightened consciousness they all of a sudden feel like you're some far eastern mystical guru like Ram Dass or somebody. I don't subscribe to that way of thinking anymore.

CAD: You did at one time, though?

W.H.: Not really. we're trying to materialize things, now. We're trying to put out albums. We're trying to reach as many people as we possibly can. Right now, it's really about trying to get people to come away from television sets long enough to see that there's some beautiful music out there happening. So, I don't know if it's about heightened consciousness anymore. I think it is, inherently, but it's just not selling. It's sad to say, but that's the kind of atmosphere we're in. Right now, what I'm about is trying to get the music out there and trying to get people to come and hear it. I have a whole slew of new music that has to be played. Hopefully, it can be played by the most professional players I can possibly get. For example, the players on my album, The Colour Circle, Booker T. and Roy Campbell, are excellent musicians. I don't have to tell them things. With certain people, you don't have to go through a big long thing, you just play. My music is hard. I'm not going to fool you into thinking it's just three notes and take it anywhere you want. It's hard music.

CAD: How much of it is spontaneous and how much is written?

W.H.: The music is usually written out and transcribed. I go into the studio every week. I've been in the studio for maybe the last three, four years, every week. I work for certain gigs with the musicians I'm going to be using. I tell them what all the sections are entitled. We work on the sections of the music per what the title of the section is and then we play around that. So. it's worked out. It's written for them.

CAD: For the individual musicians?

W.H.: It's written for the whole group. I don't usually use chordal situations, but the lines are written for everyone. We know where we are at any point in time because we've been playing together and we have the sections all set up. We don't dwell on it, but we know who's going to be soloing and who's going to be doing accompaniment for a certain solo. It's definitely a worked-out music. I didn't know if you would call that and extended form, but I'm very conscious of what's going on with the music.

CAD: Sometimes you perform without a bassist. Why do you choose not to use one?

W.H.: I've had a problem with the volume of bassist. I just can't hear them. I'm a loud drummer. That's number one. Number two, there are four bassist that continually can play while the music is happening. William Parker does not stop playing. That's one reason why he's an asset to the kind of music I've been playing.

CAD: Why do you think some bassist stop playing?

W.H.: Maybe they get lost. It's as simple as that. Same thing with horn players. They stop playing, and they start looking. I don't know what they're looking for. It's not on the music I've handed them. It's within. I enjoy playing with people that know that already. It comes off unprofessional when people get lost onstage. Instead of trying to figure where they are, they should lose themselves in what is happening. I think, for the most part, the musicians are a little too self-consciousness. But that can happen, that does happen. It's just something I feel that we have to be able to transcend.

CAD: Do you consider it a secondary interest to your music?

W.H.: Oh yeah, definitely. I'm more a musician than a writer. It's a toll to be used. But you have to make sure that the reading is on top of the music, so people can hear what you're saying. When you're playing on drums you've got microphones all over th eplave, sometimes it's hard to hear the words. So because of that sometimes I don't do it. A lot of times I really don't like to do poetry in places when people are really geared up for a musical performance. It all depends on the situation and who I'm playing with. If the text brings the music down, then you've failed. If the poetry is appreciated for what it is, then you've succeeded. As a matter of fact, in "The Colour Circle" the poetry was edited out - and one of the writers that was there in the audience felt that it was an opening in the music where another level of energy happened. The piece was entitled "Schools of Thought." I felt it that way myself. But you're also dealing with a completely different with musicians because their main thing is auditory. Different people have different sorts of fortes. I don't want people to feel like they have this obligation to some other form that is alien to what they've been doing. I want them basically to play, and don't stop.

CAD: What led you to produce your own work?

W.H.: The necessity that it had to be put out. I had an idea of how I wanted my introduction to be, so I took it into my own hands. And it proved to be the right thing to do. But you can't be every place, you know. You're trying to make a living, you're trying to have a certain security about you life. I have a solo side, it's called "The Golden egg, Part One and Part Two." If somebody picked up on it, they'd be putting out - I think - an historic side. And I say that with all honesty, with myself. But if they don't put it out hen what happens? Is it just gonna sit there on the master tape? That's the decision you have to make. But as it goes now, I could never put that out. It costs too much money. I just know that I'm not going to look back, I'm not going to look back. When you start looking back, you're in a trick. It's like depressing. Because you're someplace else already and you hope that things can catch up and get more in synch with where you are.

CAD: Do you find that being a businessman interferes with your being a musician?

W.H.: Not necessarily. I like to work. It interferes to a great extent when I deal with people who make it difficult to survive, you see. Then it's a hassle.

CAD: Who are those people?

W.H.: I have a day gig. I've had day gigs all along. But I've realized that you can't work all kinds of messed up hours, like these yuppies want you to work and be able to play. You can't so that. But I haven't been able to make enough to be able to live the way I want to live, just playing music. So, I've had to accept certain things.

CAD: But you do have to work all day, find time to practice, time for your family. You still have to make phone calls, write letters and send out press releases. How much do these detract?

W.H.: They're detracting less because I'm coming into contact with people who have expertise in those areas. And as I become more professional about what I'm doing, I'm learning that there are certain forms that are more acceptable to those people. I mean, I know when to send out certain things, I know when to make phone calls. Befor I was like ina blind alley. I'm still slightly in a blind alley because things keep changing, but it's getting better, and I think as it gets better can use less time and be just as effective.

CAD: You started over the last couple of years - especially with "The Colour Circle" - to gain critical recognition. Is the commercial success matching the critical success?

W.H.: I don't know. I just know a lot of people are writing about it. There have been some good reviews, but how much is being sold... I didn't know. My major motive has been to get the music out there. So, to an extent, I haven't really stopped to think about a lot of those business aspects that a lot of people think about. I want to just keep making the music that I have written already. I think a lot of people are out there waiting for the music, but the opportunity hasn't presented itself in the right way. I just hope that htese people will see that I'm doing everything in my power to make the music and make it right and make it honest and make it as potent as it's supposed to be. I'm in the middle of a very vibrant city and I feel like I'm at the point now where I'm reaching a certain potency as far as my music goes. I want to reach people with as clear and as positive a music as possible. And as often as possible. That's what I'm hoping for.

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