William Hooker photographed by  Yusef Jones  for THE TROVE at  Rhizome DC  on August 19, 2018.

William Hooker photographed by Yusef Jones for THE TROVE at Rhizome DC on August 19, 2018.

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Seventeen years to the day that William Hooker carried a traumatized woman from the dust and rubble of the World Trade Center collapse about a mile northeast to TriBeCa, we sat in his exposed-brick and wood-paneled living room on Manhattan’s west side to continue a conversation we’d started in Washington, D.C. weeks earlier. Before the exemplary bandleader and free jazz drummer's extemporaneous trio set at Twins Jazz with two of the dopest improvisers in the nation's capital, bassist Luke Stewart and tenor saxophonist, Brian Settles, he waxed optimistically on touring his eponymous multimedia chronicle of The Great Migration, his soon-to-launch podcast and the next release in his prolific recording corpus. By the time we reconvened in New York City over tea, his characteristic ebullience was dimmed – only a notch – by a bout of bronchitis, the suitable opprobrium of the election cycle and the remembrance of September 11, 2001.

That day, fateful for obvious reasons, also bears very personal significance to William. “I had to carry a woman that could not walk because one of her legs was gone – a heavy woman – from the Native American museum (National Museum of the American Indian) to the Knitting Factory. That was after being stuck in a building where there was nothing but ashes. Why do I bring that up? After that, I said to myself there’s something more important than you wanting to be at the top of the World Trade Center." He'd recently applied for an executive position with Aeon and was feeling salty about not getting the job over missing a mere two points on a test about Microsoft. “I was really disgusted because I was about to make some money. I had put out all these records, but I was about to make some real money. What do you mean I can’t be on top of the World Trade Center? 'Well, William, we can't take the test over, but we’ll put you in a place that’s one and a half blocks from here,'" he said, recalling the alternative offer. “And then 9/11 happened." In the vicinity, just east of ground zero, he survived and eventually made it back home. “I was in this apartment for about a week; I couldn't go out, I was in shock. Donna (his wife) and her mother were in San Francisco. I was in this apartment, and nobody could reach me – I was messed up." All he could do was write a poem.

 William Hooker photographed in his Manhattan home by Sharon Pendana for THE TROVE on September 11, 2018

William Hooker photographed in his Manhattan home by Sharon Pendana for THE TROVE on September 11, 2018

It was an existential reckoning. Sure, he desires stability for his family; who wouldn't want the freedom to create unfettered by cash flow concerns? But his is not a journey about a financial windfall. “I really don’t think I’m going to win," he says, “but I know that I have to keep fighting even though I know I’m not going to win." Nonetheless, he is ever the optimist, his enthusiasm infectious. Whatever winning means, you wish it for him. His is an ultimate goal of service; recompense is secondary. “Maybe because my wife has been with me for so long that she understands some of the ups and downs of this existence." A cordial, engaging woman, Donna Hooker warmly welcomed me into the coziness of their garden apartment, home for the past forty-seven years, before heading off to yoga class.

They met in college: “I took Spanish and she was in the same class and we fell in love, and we didn't learn any Spanish," he laughs. “We were together for a very long time, maybe six years before we got married, or whatever they call the institutional thing. We were seeking ideas; we were trying to learn how to think." Their bookshelves, lined with treasured tomes on mysticism and esoterica attest to their expansive thinking. Their approach to life helped ground them when early this year they were displaced from their home; given an hour to evacuate because of a threatened tree collapse in their backyard. It's nearly inconceivable to think of having to throw a few belongings from almost fifty years of life in one place into a backpack and head out for terra incognita in the coldest month of the year. A several-month ordeal involving city-sanctioned shelter, hotel stays subsidized by their adult son and furtive visits to the cordoned-off property under threat of arrest to gather important papers, they soldiered on as they always do, partners in this life together. "It was crazy!" he exclaims, looking no worse for the wear. Their fresh-faced vitality belies age. Fortunately, their house in Connecticut provided needed, though distant haven in their hometown.

New Britain. By June of 1946, Georgia-born William James Hooker II and his wife, Doris had joined the multi-decade, mass exodus of six million African-descended people from the American South for points West, Midwest and for them, the Northeast. Landing in the Connecticut city, unusually diverse at mid-century, he would accept the call to preach. The manchild born to them that month, one of four children, would be named William the third and called “Billy." Billy took to music, beginning drum lessons at age six or seven, but resenting the time away from friends and play that practice required. In retrospect, he is grateful for his “wholesome" childhood, safe and loved, his talents recognized and fostered early on. “Every child should have access to the arts," he says. “Because my father was a minister, the house was always packed with people – a hub for people to come from all communities, so I was exposed to all kinds of music." He appreciates that though his parents were devout in their religious faith, they “were not dogmatic at all," and allowed him to explore a plethora of secular genres. He led the school chorus and played in both the band and orchestra. With the admonishment of “no drinks, no drugs, and no loose women,” the Hookers entrusted their talented teenager to perform professionally.

 The Reverend and Mrs. Hooker of New Britain with their sons and daughters. Photo courtesy of William Hooker.

The Reverend and Mrs. Hooker of New Britain with their sons and daughters. Photo courtesy of William Hooker.

He'd gotten deep into the groove: “I backed up dancers. I backed up singers (like Dionne Warwick and Gary “U.S.“ Bonds), which helped me to hone my craft in terms of dynamics; what makes a song. How does a person accompany a song? How do you build a band? How often do you rehearse? Practical things." He enjoyed the shine given him and his interracial group of fellow musicians, chosen best in the state. They were even whisked to New York to audition before the Isley Brothers for a gig at the famed Peppermint Lounge, to no avail. That early letdown kept him in New Britain and allowed him to focus on college, triple majoring in Political Science, Sociology and History, at Central Connecticut State University, where he would meet a smart, lovely Italian-American woman named Donna Berti with whom he shares a profound connection, gain no command of the Spanish language, and take on a single, but significant music class on 20th-century composers. “I studied Albert Ayler, I studied Verez, I studied Stockhausen." His collegiate exercise self-funded by gigging five nights a week with everyone from rock bands to Hammond organ trios. He studied the fake book: learned all the standards and played weddings, bar mitzvahs, frat houses, and clubs. “I was the first person in my crew to have an apartment and a car. I was good."

Upon graduation, he managed a bank. “They were like, oh; you're Rev. Hooker's son, here, have a bank. I didn't have to schmooze; so I took it. I was playing golf and making deals as soon as I got out of college and hated it, but not that I didn't take it seriously, because I always took seriously being able to survive." He doesn't subscribe to the concept of the “starving artist," yet the shifting consciousness of the 1960s stirred a desire for change. With a tent and few camping skills, he laughs, he and Donna embarked on a cross-country journey in a Chevy. “Some things beautiful; some not,” he says. “It was dangerous." First to Vermont, then Montana, South Dakota, and Tennessee before heading to California, with about one hundred dollars between them.

“We had a huge house in Oakland, huge; a waterbed bigger than the patio! The Panthers were in Oakland, and Angela Davis was in jail." A revolutionary spirit charged the air, and he began playing with a group of congueros and drummers, an outfit that would come to be called Juju. Playing with a fervor so deep, pure and free, it summoned a sound he’d never known, his Earth Mother, as he calls it. He honored “her" by vowing never again to play anyone else’s music. Juju would go on to some renown and William would return to the East Coast to singly answer his call to “outside" playing, his insistence upon no time signature and his ultimate erasure from the Juju genesis story. Liberating himself from all notions of musical hierarchy, he would squarely place the drumset first, not as the rhythm section undergirding another lead instrument or vocalist, a practice he has maintained since.

 William, Donna and Yureesh. In recent years, father and son share the same smile and smooth pate. Photos courtesy of the Hooker Family.

William, Donna and Yureesh. In recent years, father and son share the same smile and smooth pate. Photos courtesy of the Hooker Family.

William and Donna gave Connecticut another shot and became parents to a beautiful flame-haired boy, Yureesh. “Given this gift of a child, who is very, very advanced in his own evolution, I realized I had a responsibility,” William remembers. Their stint in Hartford, however, was short-lived. “Jackie McLean saw me in the middle of the street and said, ‘I know you, you gotta get out of here. You’re never gonna get a job here, not playing the way you’re playing.’” They decamped for the Big Apple, life in Hell’s Kitchen and exploring the jazz loft scene. “By this time I was listening to European avant-garde, I was listening to ESP (ESP-Disk, a non-commercial/experimental record label); I was listening to the avant-garde of Blue Note. I was playing that way; I had completely given myself to that, but I still had the experience of other ways of playing, I still knew the fake book; I still had the feeling about the church, even though I didn’t go to church at that point. It was something that never left. The roots of the music I was playing in had its feet in both places; in the church and in the blues. You can’t separate those two." Free jazz is for many, he says, perceived superficially as dissonant noise, but he contends that “until you start to investigate this music, look at its history do you realize just how spiritual this music is.”

“The other day I was listening to 'Precious Memories' from Aretha’s album, Amazing Grace and all of a sudden, I burst out crying. I couldn’t stop. My wife looked at me and said, ‘You’re crying.’ I said 'Yeah, because this is my father’s church.' My father had a large black congregation – Beulah AME Zion Church. My sister played piano there. There is something about the nature of who I am today and the nature of the music that I play that is rooted in gospel, and I don’t mean the religion part, I mean the spiritual part." He paraphrases Native American author Vine Deloria, Jr., “Religion is for people that don’t want to go to Hell, and spirituality is for people who have gone and don’t wanna go back. By the time I was 17, 18, I had seen some Hell; I'm lucky to be alive. Most of my friends are not, or they went into the service and came back crazy." He remembers how proud his childhood buddy, the late Tyrone Lampkin was to be a drummer and percussionist for Parliament-Funkadelic and how the P-Funk crew came to town, “dropped acid, and were riding up and down the street butt-naked on bicycles!" he laughs. “I'm laughing because of the chances we took while we were growing up as musicians and artists, not the losses. It was a different kind of life."

The move to New York was pivotal, and William was “feeling very good about life,” yet over time he noticed that though “many people played this music, few were given keys to the kingdom,” and it made him angry. He persevered, held day jobs as his minister father had done before him, “parallel careers" to keep his family afloat, including ten years of teaching middle school social studies while continuing to make music true to his essential self. “I realize life is too short to let this drive me crazy. I was very lucky in my life to be able to accomplish some of the things I was able to. During 1975 and 1976 he produced his first recording as a bandleader on his independent label Reality Unit Concepts with Mark Miller, David S. Ware, Hassan Dawkins, Les Goodson and David Murray (on one of his first-ever recordings). Titled ...is eternal life, the double LP was released in 1977, followed by Brighter Lights in 1982 and a diverse array of other recordings.

By 1993, still moving the music forward, he met Sonic Youth guitarist, Thurston Moore and went into the studio with him. When his friend, writer Neil Strauss publicized their upcoming concert on Canal Street, a rock/free jazz hybrid in a local paper, William was stunned by the turnout. “I go down there, and there are all these people waiting with bated breath. Another friend, filmmaker Matt Kohn videotaped the performance and submitted it to MTV, which aired it. “So that was the advent of that rock/jazz marriage; the first time it was presented. Out of that came an entire scene; rockers and experimental musicians were all playing together,” he says. “That’s when I started playing with many of the people in the Sonic Youth and rock crews (including Lee Ranaldo, with whom he has toured and collaborated multiple times). My record Subconscious is on Thurston’s Ecstatic Peace label.” He describes it as a “very fruitful” period. “I learned a lot, traveled a lot and gained a whole other audience.” 

His is a tremendous and unflinching output, recording and gigging with frenzied velocity in many configurations: The William Hooker Orchestra, William Hooker Ensemble, William Hooker Group, William Hooker Sextet, William Hooker Quintet, William Hooker Quartet, William Hooker Trio and in a stroke of brilliant inspiration from Donna, a surprising duo with violinist Billy Bang.

 A few of the 60 + recordings William has made as a leader.

A few of the 60 + recordings William has made as a leader.

In his At-One-Ment, presented on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage, Dave Ross's screeching guitar yields to a rising call-and-response work song recorded in a Texas prison in 1933. As “Lightning" Washington intones, “Oh Cap'n won't you help me?" his fellow inmates respond, “Good God a'mighty," and William, in homage, in solidarity, joins the chain gang punctuating the rhythms of their labors.

Over the past decade or so, William has been exploring various media as means of expression, collaging music, movement, and visuals (still and moving) with spoken word, narration and evocative vocalizations rounding out his sound design. It wouldn’t be surprising to find him incorporating olfaction in his multi-sensory performative approach or transmitting the influence of Southern foodways.

In his exploration of melding art forms, William improvises to 1920s-era silent cinema classics. In this clip, he performs to pioneering African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s 1920 film, The Symbol of the Unconquered, recorded live on February 14, 2009, at The Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, NY.

In The Great Migration, William’s multidisciplinary interpretation of the most significant movement of individuals (from 1916 - 1970) within the United States during its history, changing the course of that history, the focus is on the years 1935 - 1950. “It is the most personal piece I’ve ever done. My father is a part of it; my mother is a part of it, and the more I got into it, I realized how much of me is in it. I wanted to establish a universal understanding of what this migratory impulse is about.” His inclusive group of performers hails from Israel, Venezuela, and the Southern United States. "Each person had to explain where they were from; how they interpreted migration." He is excited by its potential to grow and travel. “It’s got legs!” he shouts.

He premiered it at Roulette, a Brooklyn performing arts venue with whom he has established a "fruitful" relationship in their 40-year history. He was honored to have in attendance, Alton Brooks, 97 and Nannie Lampkin, 89, his primary sources who provided voiceover commentary in the production. Migrants to New Britain from Alabama and Mississippi respectively, they've known William all his life. “They raised me," he says. Mrs. Lampkin is the mother of his late friend, Tyrone.

William has described “The Great Migration” as “a declaration of independence; it moved those who have long been invisible out of the South and into the light." And his The Great Migration as a depiction of “the struggles of a people transitioning from rural to urban." This mass compulsion of a people to move stirred him. He saw Jacob Lawrence's seminal work, the Migration Series (shared by MoMA in NYC, and The Phillips Collection in DC) four times; and was deeply touched by journalist Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns. Fans of Alice Coltrane will notice that “Going Home" from her final album Lord of Lords is incorporated into William's “Migration Theme," a recurrent structured musical thread through the freeform soundscape.

In July, William had the pleasure of participating in a Q & A at the screening of Full Mantis, a documentary on percussionist, avant-garde drummer, and kindred spirit Milford Graves. Like his close progenitor in the music, William has a feature documentary in the works, an offshoot of which is the podcast The Lost Generation: Outside the Mainstream, which debuts in December. A passionate steward of free jazz, he is hyped about this latest venture giving exposure and voice to “the musicians of my generation who have made contributions to the culture of this country and the world and have gotten short shrift for those contributions.” He is determined to enter his cohort into the annals of music history and foster the growth and continued support of the free jazz movement. “I have a lot of heavy people on this thing: Marc Edwards, Andrew Lamb, Mark Hennen, Patricia Parker," he says. The inaugural episode features multi-instrumentalist/composer/poet, On Ka'a Davis and free jazz activist/poet Steve Dalachinsky and will be accessible on YouTube. (click to subscribe) The launch event is on December 2, 2018, 7:30 PM at 61 Local in Brooklyn.

 William Hooker photographed by  Yusef Jones .

William Hooker photographed by Yusef Jones.

What's on tap for 2019? “An Oakland label is putting out a re-release of my very first recording in its original form. I put in some poetry in the middle, so that distinguishes the very early ones from this one. When people open it, they’ll be surprised." With the renewed interest in vinyl and original liner notes, in conjunction with Record Store Day, his 1997 Knitting Factory recording, Mindfulness, featuring DJ Olive and Glenn Spearman will be re-released with original cover art by Yureesh as well. The late, great music journalist Tom Terrell described William as having “mad chops and humanistic empathy to play with any musician on the planet,” in his Jazz Times review of the original release: “a brilliant audio-diorama of electric cathedrals, humpback whales, magic cities, brass satyrs, heavy metal wind chimes rendered in layers of whack colors, subtle shades and stillness.” 

His next recording, a three-disc set tentatively titled, Elegy is a collaboration with trumpeter Mark Kirschenmann, whom he met at the University of Michigan. “This is some other stuff,” he says. “What he revealed to me in his understanding of the trumpet was something I have never ever heard before.” 

In considering his legacy he offers that Bernard Stollman, attorney and visionary founder of ESP-Disk, “one the the greatest labels of the seventies, told me that my ‘legacy is secured.’ I’ve made a lot of records, I’ve done all kinds of pieces with a lot of different musicians from all kinds of genres. I think as long as the work has integrity, I think that it will last for those people that are seeking it, I’ll put it that way.” But at this moment, he is “just really thinking about staying healthy (he’s dosing on Apple cider vinegar, lemon, turmeric, and cayenne), getting the work done and presented properly.”

William’s TROVE:

 Photo by Hans Vivek/Unsplash

Photo by Hans Vivek/Unsplash

1. Meditation. He and Donna embraced meditation as a life practice when they returned to the East from their challenging stint in the Bay Area, clearing illusion. Freeing the self for clarity. “Trying to displace Maya, trying to displace illusion and glamour so that we can approach each other as souls, as people who are here for a purpose,” he says. 

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2. Soleri Bell. He treasures the small ceramic bell which hangs alongside his dining table. A memento of his artist’s residency at Arcosanti, visionary Italian architect, Paolo Soleri’s alternative human habitat/urban laboratory constructed in the high desert of Arizona, it was crafted in the on-site bell foundry.

  Winter Sunrise  by  George Hodan .

Winter Sunrise by George Hodan.

3. Sunrise. “Listening to the tone of the Hammond organ and placing a log on the fire is a “sunrise” for me. References to Words of Power we are not permitted to know.”

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4. Treasured texts. William and Donna’s bookshelves are filled with esoteric books like Madame Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine and Alice Bailey’s encyclopedic later works expanding theosophical doctrine into New Age thought including the volumes A Treatise on Cosmic Fire and A Treatise on White Magic.

5. Playing music. Just days after our interview, William performed with Ahmed Abdullah in Gardens music series presented by Arts for Art.

 “Strokes of Amarys,” written by William Hooker on June 18, 2018.

“Strokes of Amarys,” written by William Hooker on June 18, 2018.

6. Writing poetry. During his West Coast sojourn, he found that his Cali compadres functioned at a different level of musicianship than he was accustomed, so he began writing poetry as another way to funnel his creative energy and has continued to write and recite his work, incorporating spoken word into his musical performances.

 From   Charles White: A Retrospective     at MoMA.:  O Freedom,  1956 Charcoal with crayon, erasing, stumping, and wash, on ivory illustration board. Courtesy Rennie Collection, Vancouver.

From Charles White: A Retrospective at MoMA.: O Freedom, 1956 Charcoal with crayon, erasing, stumping, and wash, on ivory illustration board. Courtesy Rennie Collection, Vancouver.

7. Visiting art galleries/museums. The monumental survey of the work of artist/social activist Charles White now on exhibition at MoMA is on his list of must-see art.

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8. Sitting in my backyard. “I feel good about it. It’s gone through many transitions.” Over the course of five decades he and Donna have turned the formerly barren, narrow, cement enclosure into a serene, multi-level green space.

 Baby Yureesh; The Hooker men. Photos courtesy of the Hooker Family.

Baby Yureesh; The Hooker men. Photos courtesy of the Hooker Family.

9. Visiting my son. The multi-talented Yureesh, who created cover art for several of his father’s records, is a former drummer for the punk band, The Casualties. Now a National Artist and Educator for L'Oréal Professionnel, and a Master Hairstylist and Design Director of Broome Street Society, he has recently returned to the East Coast after life on the West. “And the child is the father to the man,” William says, awed by his son’s depth.

 Photo by Jesse Hanley/Unsplash

Photo by Jesse Hanley/Unsplash

10. Cooking a satisfying dinner at home. Though he loves going out with his favorite hang partner, Donna, he too enjoys the simple pleasure of preparing a meal.

Find William Hooker at williamhooker.com and on Facebook