Horace Parlan: Return Engagement
January/February 2001 by Stuart Nicholson
I tell you, I definitely don’t regret making the move to Denmark. It probably saved my life,” says Horace Parlan. The 69-year-old pianist may have been out of sight and out of mind since moving to Copenhagen in 1972, but unlike many of his hard-bop contemporaries of the ’60s, he has survived. “When you think of the guys I came up with and recorded with on the old Blue Note label, so many of them gone,” he says. “Just being in that rat race, the stress of being in New York, it takes its toll on musicians.”
Relaxing in his idyllic country home with Mosaic’s The Complete Blue Note Horace Parlan Sessions box set opened across his lap, the memories flood back. Between 1960 and 1963 he made seven albums under his own name for the label, which are treasured by collectors as much for their striking ensemble interplay as for his darting, dancing piano style that was wholly his own.
“It was ’59 when I made a couple of records with Lou Donaldson for Blue Note,” he recalls. “Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, who ran Blue Note, weren’t so much interested in making money as producing good music, and after I made the records with Lou, he recommended me to Alfred. Thought it would be a good idea if I was to record things under my own name, and they were keen with the idea, so that’s how it started.”
His first two albums as a leader were trio affairs recorded in 1960, no mean feat once you learn that as a result of polio at the age of five, he was virtually denied the use of the middle two fingers of his right hand. The extent of his handicap is brought home on Don McGlynn’s new documentary film Horace Parlan by Horace Parlan (Rough Sea Productions), filmed in early 2000. Suddenly it becomes clear he had to invent his own piano technique to surmount his disability. His exceptionally well-developed left hand rushes to the aid of the right to fill in crucial chord voicings without loss of rhythmic congruity while his right hand uses a unique method of fingering that never hints at impediment.
Taken together, the album reissues and the documentary film offer a vivid then-and-now picture of Parlan and focus long overdue attention on a player of great originality and resource who, while eluding the spotlight, has always kept the flame of creativity glowing brightly.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1931, Parlan began studying piano at the age of eight at the suggestion of his parents, who saw the therapeutic value to their son rather than a possible career pathway. A failed attempt with an unsympathetic teacher discouraged him, but after seeing Vladimir Horowitz perform he decided to try again.
This time he found a helpful teacher who helped him develop his left hand. Local performances by Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker drew him into jazz, but it was only after 18 months as a law student at the University of Pittsburgh that Parlan finally opted for a career in music. By then he was inspired by contemporaries such as Sonny Clark and Ahmad Jamal.
“I was not equipped to speak musically in the manner of Tatum or Peterson or any of the pianists I admire,” explains Parlan. “I had to find a groove of my own. I think simplicity is the thing; I learned that from listening to Ahmad, who is equipped to do a lot more than he does, but doesn’t choose to.”
By 1952 Parlan had launched himself on the busy, competitive, Pittsburgh jazz scene, playing with the likes of Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderley, Art Farmer, Gigi Gryce and Charles Mingus. One report has him playing so well with Mingus one time that the bassist tried to upstage him with a show of technique. It was only afterwards that Mingus noticed Parlan’s disability.
The bassist didn’t forget their encounter. When Parlan moved to New York in 1957 he landed a job with Mingus almost immediately, and during his 20-month stay his gospel-drenched solos on “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” and “Better Git It in Your Soul,” from the albums Blues & Roots and Mingus Ah Um, respectively, indelibly associate Parlan with Mingus’ music. From Mingus he moved to Lou Donaldson’s group, who recorded Parlan’s “Blues for J.P.,” a toe-tapping theme that four years later became a popular feature for Woody Herman’s Swingin’ New Herd.
In July 1960 came Speakin’ My Piece, his first date under his own name with horns. It reunited him with two close friends from the Pittsburgh jazz scene, Tommy and Stanley Turrentine. Together with bassist George Tucker and drummer Al Harewood, who with Parlan were then Donaldson’s rhythm section, they immediately created a spiritual as well as musical empathy.
“I never actually played with both Turrentine brothers together in public,” reveals Parlan. “Strange as that may seem. I had played a lot in Tommy’s band in Pittsburgh; he was like a mentor to me back then, and I had played with Stanley, actually that live album in Minton’s, Up at Minton’s [Blue Note]. But we never all got together in public because they were with Max [Roach] at the time.”
The group reconvened in March 1961 for one more album, On the Spur of the Moment, and it is once again hard to believe this was not a set working group. But as Parlan points out, the only time he had a band of his own was in the recording studio. “That’s the way it went, freelancing. I was beginning to record with Dexter Gordon and not only for Blue Note but other labels with Clark Terry and Dave Bailey the drummer. I did a few gigs with Coleman Hawkins, the singer Irene Krall. Monday night jam sessions at Birdland or one of the other clubs in Harlem, like Small’s Paradise or Count Basie; it was an active and creative time.”
His final two albums for Blue Note included tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin, whom he had earlier introduced to Mingus in time for Mingus Ah Um. It was a friendship that began back in Pittsburgh and continued in New York, where they briefly ran a cooperative quartet at Minton’s. Work with Roland Kirk followed, but with the rock explosion of the ’60s, jobs began drying up for jazz musicians everywhere.
“Well, rock changed the whole thing,” says Parlan. “For me, at least, it all began to go downhill. That was part of the reason I left. The other part was social. I could feel a rise of overt racism and the atmosphere changed. There was a lot of crime in the streets, the increase of drugs. I was mugged twice in two years—just robbed on the street by teenagers—and when the same thing happened again on a street in Harlem, it triggered my decision. I decided it was time to leave.”
What, then, made him choose Denmark?
“I had visited Denmark on a Scandinavian tour with the South African singer Miriam Makeba in 1970. The tour wound up in Denmark, in Copenhagen, and we were supposed to do a couple of concerts there, but they were both cancelled because Miriam had throat problems. So I had five days to go around and check out the local scene. At that time the old Montmartre Club was thriving. Actually, there was a lot happening and there was also a kind of colony of American musicians who were living there at that time: Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, Kenny Drew, Sahib Shihab. I knew them all and to me it seemed like a good place to go.”
When the time came to emigrate, Parlan’s first step was to contact a friend who was involved in jazz promotion in Europe. “It was arranger Ernie Wilkins’ widow, but at that time, she was Jenny Armstrong. She was a booking agent and she arranged some things for me to do over here in Denmark, also a couple of other tours in Europe.”
One of the first jobs he played was at a European festival accompanying Sonny Rollins, followed by tours with singers Jimmy Witherspoon and Leon Thomas, Clark Terry’s big band and saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims (“We made a live recording there somewhere,” he says). “Then I met my wife, Norma, and settled down once and for all,” he says with a smile.
Parlan’s European career has been one of what he calls “continual freelancing.” Just back from a four-day jazz workshop in Gothenburg, Sweden, he says his health is now causing him to cut back on long-haul travel.
“That’s why I’m unable to work anymore with Archie Shepp,” he says. “The last thing I did with him was the Montreal Festival last June, after working together for 15 years in duo.” That association produced two classic albums on the Danish SteepleChase label. Goin’ Home and Trouble in Mind explored the traditional blues and spirituals repertoire, and the latter was voted album of the year by Downbeat in 1980.
Parlan also cites 1984’s Glad I Found You, also on SteepleChase, as one of his favorite “European” recordings. “That was done with Thad Jones on cornet and Eddie Harris on tenor and a Danish rhythm section,” he says. “That was a quintet session where everything seemed to go right.” Albums on a variety of European independents followed, including the Italian Soul Note label. His most recent release, Voyage of Rediscovery, is a 1999 solo session for Storyville that he says, “Got a pretty good response—I like to keep my hand in!”
That his playing is still as crisp and inventive as ever is revealed on Horace Parlan on Horace Parlan, an intimate and touching portrait recorded and filmed at Parlan’s home. With bassist Jimmi Pedersen on bass, he emerges as a piano master who in interview reveals his deep passion for jazz and an extraordinary persistence in mastering it. “I was approached by filmmaker Don McGlynn, who came to an afternoon concert I gave in Copenhagen. He put the idea to me, and that was that, and we went ahead with the project, simple as that, really,” he says.
Now, after almost 30 years in Europe, what are his experiences with European musicians? “There was a gap between American rhythm sections and European rhythm sections when I first came here,” he observes. “Probably the weakest link was the drummer, but that gap has closed. European rhythm sections have risen to a very high level, actually. Here in Denmark, there seems to be a tradition of very good bass players. Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen is the star, of course, but people will be surprised to find, to my ears at least, others who are equally as good.”
Devoted to his wife, Norma, with whom he has lived for nearly 30 years, Parlan is now looking forward to becoming more of a homebody. But even though he may be cutting down on work, Parlan still assiduously practices in his music room, where he spends more time on his compositions, which are, in a sense, a musical biography, providing cogent commentary on incidents in his life. “For me, moving from the stress of New York to where I could walk down the street day or night without looking over my shoulder has meant a lot. This peaceful atmosphere has been an incentive to create and do what I do.”
The Complete Grant Green-Sonny Clark Sessions (Blue Note)
Dizzy Gillespie-Sonny Rollins-Sonny Stitt: Sonny Side Up (Verve)
Erroll Garner: Concert By the Sea (CBS)
Bud Powell: The Amazing Bud Powell: Volumes 1 & 2 (Blue Note)
Art Tatum-Ben Webster Quartet (Verve)
Phineas Newborn: Here is Phineas (Atlantic)
Bill Evans: Everybody Digs Bill Evans (Riverside)
Almost anything by Hank Jones or Ahmad Jamal
“I have a 5-foot Yamaha G-1 grand piano, which I purchased 12 years ago. I have no other accessories.”