In light of this year’s Winter Paralympic Games, I thought I would highlight the career of one of my favourite musician’s who overcame a disability of his own to become one of the leading pianists of 1950s and 1960s hard bop, pianist Horace Parlan.
Parlan, who despite being stricken by polio, which left him partially disabled on his right side and limited the use of his right hand developed his own unique style and voice, which proved very effective.
As a highly sought-after sideman during hard bop’s heyday, Horace Parlan’s distinctive rhythmic style graced the albums of Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Lou Donaldson, Booker Ervin, Slide Hampton, and Stanley Turrentine among others.
Parlan was orphaned and was adopted as an infant by a Minister and his family, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on January 19, 1931. Thanks to his adopted family, he was exposed to music, specifically gospel throughout his youth. As a youngster, and at the the urging of his parents, Parlan began taking piano lessons as therapy for his polio. However, his first piano instructor was less than sympathetic to Parlan’s condition and limited ability and as a result Parlan quit taking lessons. Nonetheless, Parlan migrated back to music and was inspired to do so after attending a concert by classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz.
At the age of 12, Parlan began studying with Pittsburgh’s James Miller, who also taught fellow Pittsburgh native Ahmad Jamal. Under Miller’s tutelage, Parlan was encouraged to develop his left hand more prominently and began voicing chords with as little notes as possible.
In the early 1950s, Parlan worked in and around the Washington area with saxophonist Sonny Stitt. By the late 1950s though Parlan had moved to New York City, invited there to play with Charles Mingus’ band, where he recorded on Mingus’s landmark album of 1959, Mingus Ah Um as well as Mingus’ Blues & Roots from the same year.
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. I think simplicity is the thing; I learned that from listening to Ahmad (Jamal), who is equipped to do a lot more than he does, but doesn’t choose to.
By the 1960s, Parlan was recording for Blue Note records on a regular basis and recorded with Dexter Gordon on Gordon’s 1961 release Doin’ Alright. He also performed with Gordon in Copenhagen in the early 1970s, when at which time Parlan met and fell in love with who would become his wife, Norma. Parlan eventually decided to move to Denmark permanently to be with Norma and due to the struggles that were attributed to the New York scene at the time, with dwindling gigging opportunities and the rising racism and crime rate.
Horace Parlan died on February 23, 2017. He was 86.