The vision behind the Vision Festival

Patricia Nicholson Parker resembles the wise university professor, pleasant of disposition but iron-willed when it comes to ensuring students do the right thing in her classroom. It would appear that blend of wisdom and tough-mindedness has served her well in developing Arts for Art, the not-for-profit she started in 1995 principally to present the renowned Vision Festival. That annual gathering and collection of some of the freer thinkers identified with jazz and improvised music expressions has become such a strong haven of successful collaborations and vibrant performances that Ms. Parker has produced several spin-offs, including the Vision Collaboration Festival (for dance & music collaborations), and the weekly series known as Evolving Music.

In a 21st century kind of way, Arts for Art’s grassroots, DIY approach harkens back to earlier musician’s collectives, and particularly to the early 70s when such restless explorers as Sam Rivers, Rashied Ali and other Lower Manhattan-based artists grew the loft scene. A multiple recipient of the Jazz Journalists Association “Producer of the Year” award, as an artist Ms. Parker is a dancer-choreographer and poet. At last week’s Chamber Music America conference panel I moderated (see preceding piece), as pianist Marilyn Crispell and bassist Reggie Workman spun out a lovely, medium tempo piece I caught a glimpse of a restless Patricia Parker doing what comes naturally – dancing in her seat to the music. Oh yeah, coincidentally she’s also the spouse of bassist-composer and Vision Festival fixture William Parker. I’ve been curious about the whole development and mission of Arts for Art, so some questions for Patricia Nicholson Parker were clearly in order.

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What came first, the Vision Festival or your overall operation known as Arts for Art Inc.?
The Vision Festival came first – It came out of the Improvisors Collective that I began in 1993 and ran through June 1995. In ’93 there was nothing happening – nowhere to play improvised or edgy music – the Knit was mostly booking John Zorn‘s scene and the indie music scene while the more improvised and high energy school was under-represented. So I began the Improvisors Collective to bring people back together and support each other. After 2 years of the collective, the energy was not building. In 1996 I organized the first Vision Festival. The idea was to make visible the high energy music that had been inspired by Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Ornette, etc. and that had hither to been overlooked. We saw these initiatives as part of the continuum of the movement of self-determination, as I was working closely with other artists. The festival takes the musicians/artists’ point of view in the way that the business is conducted – the artist comes first. To ensure ‘visibility and embrace some kind of diversity we included artists from other genres and at different points in their careers. We booked people who were well known and others who were coming up and some who were new or emerging. The Festival embraced the idea of bringing arts together and including ideas of social justice. We applied for non profit status in 1996 as it became clear that we would continue and make the festival an annual event.

How has the Vision Festival grown through the years, to the point where it is arguably one of the signature creative music events in this country?
When we began it was about making the NY high energy music available to a larger audience. We were a niche festival. Now we seem to be the only game in town and this has put new responsibilities upon us. There is a young group of musicians emerging with a different aesthetic whom we are including . But we still fight for the original aesthetic because we think that it is a very important part of the story which is still being left out of music education/history – However, we will also need to include more and more aesthetics and a greater diversity of artists.

As a year-round arts presenter what have been some of your biggest challenges?
Arts for Art has always responded to the needs of its community, so we have tried to present concerts year round and have education programs that teach the under-served about non western music and improvisation. However since we don’t have our own venue yet, it is a struggle to raise sufficient funds for all of our programming, It is particularly difficult without our own venue to present the music and art in the way and with the frequency that is needed. Also without our own venue it is difficult to build the loyalty necessary to optimize audience development. Thus we have just launched a new project. We are building consensus and raising support for The Under_LIne, a new venue that we wish to build on the lower east side in a city owned building. If seems like the right idea and this is about time.

How do you balance your career as a dancer/choreographer with your work as a presenter?
I struggle always with this, all the time. But one way that I deal with it is based on the understanding that I am one being and everything that I do is dance, is movement, is art, is prayer.

What are some of the highs & lows of having two creative artists, both with a wealth of ideas, living under the same roof?
We have very different personalities but we believe basically in the same things and then we keep loving each other and respecting ourselves and our art.

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