Both Leon Parker and his music have been difficult to categorize, but Parker firmly believes in what his ongoing evolution must be. “My work is a personal statement in a society that discourages that which the true spirit of jazz is,” Parker said during a telephone interview with Contemporary Musicians’m November of 1999. Criticism for his departure from “mainstream” jazz and percussion echoed similar criticism hurled at another jazz pioneer. Sun Ra died in 1993 after evolving from piano sideman to conductor of his “Myth Science Arkestra,” reaching further out into the sounds of soul and spirit, hearing the “percussion” of the universe and trying to reveal it to his audiences. For Parker, as with Sun Ra, the criticism did not deter him from continuing his exploration further into the soul of jazz.
According to Nicky Baxter in Newsnet, “there was a time when many of Leon Parker’s contemporaries thought the man was several cents short of a dollar.” A cursory glance at the jazz drummer’s gear in the 1980s appeared to confirm Baxter’s suspicion: Parker’s drum kit consisted of a single cymbal. By 1999, Parker began to simplify his music more. When speaking to Herb Boyd of Down Beat, he was on his way to Boston for a performance. He told Boyd that he would “be doing a solo performance and playing my drums, but mainly I’ll be doing my vocal/body/rhythm technique, including audience participation.” As Boyd explained it, his body became a living drum. Yet for Parker in his innovative approach to his use of the “human” as instrument is as much indicative of his freedom of thought as it is his uncovering of a pure essence of jazz. As a teacher, as a musician, as an artist, Parker insists on holding to a standard unusual in the commercial world.
Leon Evans Parker, Jr., was born in White Plains, New York, on August 21, 1965, to Elaine Tucker and Leon Evan Parker, Sr. Parker’s mother was a musician who did social work, and his father was a postal service employee. “I get my music from my mother, and my integrity from my father,” Parker told Contemporary Musicians. When asked about his family, Parker indicated that it was a complicated, extended one with blacks, Native Americans, and whites. His interest in music began early, and he was “beating on things at the age of three,” according to Whitney Balliet in the New Yorkerin 1997. The music he heard as a child around the house included his parents’ collection of such jazz greats as Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, and Tito Puente. They all contributed to his direction as a musician. As a teenager Parker started playing in a black band in Westchester County where he lived. The band travelled into nearby Connecticut as well, playing “every kind of music for weddings and dances and parties,” Parker told Balliet. “We were there to make people happy. I loved it. It was where I got my foundation, the social connection.” His later hit entitled “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” was a testimony to what pleased him from his early days of performing for people.
Instead of attending Fordham University in New York City where he was offered a scholarship, Parker decided to stay with music. He spent time with alto saxophonist Arnie Lawrence, taught at New School, and was “jamming” at Augie’s, a club on upper Broadway in New York, with alto saxophonist Jesse Davis, and pianist and organist Larry Goldings. Parker met his wife Lisa atAugie’s. The couple had one daughter. Now divorced, Parker has made a permanent home in Westchester County. He believes that living there and raising his daughter is what keeps him balanced.
Parker began his career by paring down his drum set. He explains it on his website by saying that he trimmed down his drum kit to one lone cymbal because, “Why wouldn’t it work? When you listen to Bill Higgins or Ben Riley, what do you hear? You hear a cymbal.” He felt that by using just one cymbal, he was “forced to encompass the textual and dynamic possibilities of an entire drum set into one piece of equipment.” For awhile, according to Balliet, Parker went back to the drums of the 1930s and 1940s that New Orleans drummer Baby Dodds used. As a percussionist more than a drummer, Dodds “thought of his drums in terms of colors,” said Balliet,
Born Leon Evans Parker, Jr., on August 21, 1965, in White Plains, NY; son of Elaine Parker, a musician and social worker, and Leon Evans Parker, Sr., a postal service employee; wife: Lisa; one daughter, Evandrea. Education: Studied with Arnie Lawrence, alto saxophonist; Jesse Davis, alto saxophonist; Larry Goldings, pianist/organist.
Awards: “Percussion Talent Deserving Wider Recognition,” Down Beat magazine, 47thAnnual Critics Poll, 1998; Belief, Album of the Year, 1996; New York Jazz Critics’ Circle, 1996.
Addresses: Home— P.O. Box 473, Mohegan Lake, NY. Record company —Sony, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211, (212) 833-8000. Email— [email protected] .. Website —www.leonparker.com.
“and how to mix them.” Pianist Bill Charlap commented that Parker, like Dodds “gets many different colors, and he’s got brilliant time. Many drummers just don’t groove; they lack that intensity in their beat. But Leon’s got real pop to this time. Wham! And his sense of intricate rhythms never gets in the way of his grooving,” according to Balliet.
Parker’s direction began to change further by 1999. Boyd noted that “mentioning his former record company [Sony/Columbia] makes this percussionist deserving wider recognition a little uncomfortable.” Parker commented further to Contemporary Musicians, “Let’s just say we made three beautiful artistic statements together that I’m very proud of, and I’m really happy with the way they distribute records. It was a great learning experience, but I’m happy where I am right now.”
Parker focused on solo work in 1999. In New York City during that summer he conducted Vocal Body Rhythm Workshops under the sponsorship of the Central Park Summerstage Commission. He told Boyd he was “very busy developing this vocal/body/rhythm technique and my ensemble.” His art was expanding into the world of Dance, a natural next step, according to Parker. In his management, as well, Parker was going solo. A big part of that included the establishment of his website. “Having a Website means I don’t have to rely on a big corporation to present me to the world,” he told Boyd. “I want to define my image, to control the rate of my own growth and exposure, and a Web site is a good way of advertising and promoting what you do.”
As Parker put it, “things come to me.” He used his own contacts to pick and choose where he would go next with a performance. Cyberspace brought him to an audience eager to witness his next move. Whether he is updating his website, composing, or in his studio, Parker is clearly a person in control of his destiny, not content to simply emulate someone else’s style or even his own of a few years ago. If critics have judged Parker harshly because of his exploration into the other forms of his art as a purveyor of jazz for himself, and for others, he is not concerned. The tension in Parker’s voice during his phone interview with Contemporary Musicianswas one that spoke to the happy struggle an artist meets daily in understanding his role in the universe, and how his work could reach new heights. He is content that his way is necessary in leading him to a deeper dimension, forever grounded in the same county that gave him the roots he needed to travel freely.
Above and Below, Sony/Columbia, 1994.
Belief, Sony/Columbia, 1996.
Awakening, Sony/Columbia, 1998.
Duo, (with Charlie Hunter), 1999.
George-Warren, Holly, editor, The Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide, Random House, 1999.
Down Beat, August 1999.
New Yorker, January 13, 1997.
New York Times, March 16, 1996; June 13, 1997; January 10, 1998; August 2, 1998; January 11, 1999; June 29, 1999.
Leon Parker Website, http://www.leonparker.com, (November 1999).
Additonal information was obtained through a phone interview with Leon Parker on November 23, 1999.
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