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Horace Parlan, Soulful and Persevering Hard-Bop Pianist, Dies at 86

Horace Parlan, an astute and soulful pianist whose unique style was informed by the partial impairment of his right hand, died on Feb. 23 in Næstved, Denmark.

 He was 86. His death was confirmed by the jazz historian Frank Büchmann-Møller. 

Parlan had a brief but productive association with Charles Mingus in the late 1950s, as a member of the bassist’s Jazz Workshop: he appears on the landmark albums Mingus Ah Um (1959) and Blues & Roots (1960), providing the pianistic gospel rumble on songs like “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” and “Better Git It in Your Soul.”

Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting

Among the other artists Parlan backed as a Blue Note sideman in the early 1960s were alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, who recorded his “Blues for J.P.”; tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, notably on the 1961 album Doin’ Allright; and tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, on releases including Look Out! (1960) and Comin’ Your Way (1961). Parlan also recorded with trombonist Slide Hampton, multi-reedist Rahsaan Roland Kirk and, later on, with saxophonist Archie Shepp.

Stylistically, Parlan was an admirer of Bud Powell and Ahmad Jamal, though he drew widely from the jazz-piano canon. He made six of his own well regarded albums for Blue Note in the early 1960s, including Up & Down, which featured saxophonist Booker Ervin and guitarist Grant Green. After moving to Denmark in the early ‘70s, he made more than a dozen albums for the Steeplechase label. His most recent release was My Little Brown Book, released on Stunt Records in 2007.

A documentary film by Don McGlynn, Horace Parlan By Horace Parlan, features interview and performance footage of Parlan from 2000. The film, which is available on DVD and YouTube, is a glimpse into the bucolic expatriate life led by Parlan and his wife, Norma, whom he honored with a lilting ballad by the same name

Here is a clip from the film, featuring Parlan and bassist Jimmi Pedersen playing another original song, “Love and Peace.”


 Horace Parlan was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Jan. 19, 1931. As a newborn he was left on the doorstep of a children’s home, where his adoptive parents picked him up at six weeks of age. He was stricken with polio not long afterward, and although he recovered, his right hand was permanently affected, with two fingers paralyzed.  

 There was a piano in the house, and his parents determined that playing the instrument might be therapeutic. Parlan’s first teacher, insensitive to the challenge of his disability, failed to inspire him. But his interest was ignited by seeing Vladimir Horowitz in performance, and he found a second teacher, James Miller, who helped him develop his left hand. 

  Parlan formed a muscular and dexterous technique with that left hand, along with shrewdly percussive strategies for his right. His chord voicings and phraseology were devised to accommodate and transcend his impediment, and there was little in his playing that conveyed limitation.

 Parlan graduated from Peabody High School in Pittsburgh in 1949, and studied law for 18 months at the University of Pittsburgh. He was also playing in local jazz clubs around this time, and sitting in with a distinguished roll call of musicians who passed through town, including Cannonball Adderley and Gigi Gryce. It was in Pittsburgh that he met Mingus, who brought him to New York in 1957.

 Parlan’s decision to leave the United States was motivated by the times. “Well, rock changed the whole thing,” he told JazzTimes in 2001, referring to a decline in work. “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.”

 Norma Parlan died several years ago, and the couple had no children. A previous marriage ended in divorce.

 In recent years, Parlan had been living in a nursing home, wheelchair-bound and effectively blind. He was revered by a community of musicians and fans in Denmark, and appreciated by a broader circle beyond. Several of his Blue Note albums have been reissued in remastered editions, though the 5-CD Mosaic boxed set The Complete Blue Note Horace Parlan Sessions is out of print.

Parlan often reiterated his satisfaction at the career he led, including the decision to leave the New York scene and seek musical evolution on his own terms. “I’m constantly listening to music,” he says in McGlynn’s film, “and I’m constantly thinking about new ideas, new ways to challenge myself.”

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.