Horace Parlan, Jazz Pianist Who Overcame Disability, Dies at 86
Horace Parlan, a jazz pianist who overcame limited use of his right hand to develop a distinctive punchy style that made him a stalwart of the hard-bop movement of the 1950s and 1960s and a notable collaborator with such stars as Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon, died Feb. 23 at a nursing home in Naestved, Denmark. He was 86.
The death was confirmed by Danish jazz scholar Frank Buchmann-Moller. Parlan, who had lost his eyesight in recent years, had a variety illnesses, including diabetes.
Stricken with polio at age 5 and partially paralyzed on his right side, Parlan was encouraged by his parents to take up piano as a form of therapy. He eventually recovered partial use of three fingers on his right hand and learned to compensate by using his left hand to play textured chords and rolling arpeggios.
His simplified, rhythmic style was well suited to the blues-based hard-bop jazz emerging in the 1950s. Critic Harvey Pekar, writing in Jazz Times magazine in 2001, noted that Parlan had a "strong blues feeling" in his work and added that "you'd have to go a long way to find a jazz pianist who uses gospel elements so effectively."
Parlan gained early renown for his spirited playing in his native Pittsburgh and while working alongside saxophonist Sonny Stitt in the mid-1950s in Washington.
From 1957 to 1959, Parlan was part of a band led by Mingus, the mercurial bassist and composer then at the height of his creativity. He appeared on two of Mingus's landmark albums, "Blues and Roots" and "Mingus Ah Um," both from 1959. On the latter recording, Parlan's driving piano helped some of Mingus's best-known tunes, including "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," "Fables of Faubus," "Boogie Stop Shuffle" and "Better Git It in Your Soul."
During the early 1960s, Parlan was in demand as a top sideman and became a to-notch leader his own right. He recorded seven albums for the Blue Note label between 1960 and 1963, including "Up & Down" and "Speakin' My Piece," with such bandmates as guitarist Grant Green and saxophonists Stanley Turrentine and Booker Ervin. Mosaic Records released a complete set of the Blue Note albums in 2000.
Horace Louis Parlan was born Jan. 19, 1931, in Pittsburgh. He was adopted by a minister and his family and was exposed to church music throughout his youth.
His first piano teacher, following his bout with polio, was not sympathetic. But, after seeing classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz in concert in Pittsburgh, Parlan was drawn back to music. He was about 12 when he began to study with James Miller, who also taught another budding Pittsburgh jazz pianist, Ahmad Jamal.
Miller encouraged Parlan to develop his left hand, which led to his idiosyncratic style, with his right hand often pointed at a sharp angle toward the keyboard.
"I was developing a facility with my right hand that I worked out myself," he told the New York Times in 1984. "I was trying to voice chords using as few notes as possible. When I heard Horace Silver, I copied his voicings and they sounded good to me."
Parlan studied at the University of Pittsburgh, with an eye toward becoming a lawyer, before deciding to pursue a career in music. He worked with top musicians visiting Pittsburgh before moving to New York in the late 1950s.
As musical tastes changed during the following decade, he found it harder to make a living in jazz and moved in 1972 to Denmark, where Gordon, Ben Webster and other expatriate jazz stars then lived. Parlan worked primarily in Europe for the rest of his career.
In 1977, he made a well-received recording of spirituals with saxophonist Archie Shepp, "Goin' Home," and the two made several appearances over the next few years at jazz clubs and colleges in the United States. The duo later recorded two more albums.
"I never thought Archie and I could get together," Parlan told the Times in 1984. "His direction then was at the opposite end of jazz from mine. He was avant-garde. I was classified as a kind of soul-blues type. But when we did the 'Goin' Home' album in 1977, we had instant rapport.''
While living in Denmark, Parlan frequently recorded for the Copenhagen-based SteepleChase label and became a more prolific composer. His final recording, "My Little Brown Book," appeared in 2007. Filmmaker Don McGlynn made a documentary about Parlan in 2000.
He lived for years in the countryside with his wife, Norma Parlan, his only immediate survivor.
Describing the obstacles he overcame to become a pianist, Parlan told Jazz Times magazine in 2001: "I was not equipped to speak musically in the manner of [Art] Tatum or [Oscar] Peterson or any of the pianists I admire. I had to find a groove of my own."