Time zones aside, trumpeter Longineu Parsons is used to being ahead. It’s 1:15 on a Thursday morning when Parsons jumps on the line, six hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. For most working people, that is dangerously late, but there is very little about Parsons that conforms to the norm. For a jazz musician, the night is often only warming up by this point. Fortunately, a hole in his schedule left two hours for chit-chat.
Parsons is in Paris, performing and teaching in a city he first visited back in 1978. “It was October — got here to do the show ‘Bubbling Brown Sugar,’ ” Parsons said. “Half of the musicians were French, half were Americans. The American musicians didn’t speak French; the French musicians knew only a few words of English. So we got together the first day in rehearsal. We couldn’t speak to each other, but we had a great time. We got along right off the bat because the music was so strong that [the musicians] could make it together, without even having spoken language. That was a tremendous lesson.”
That initial epiphany was the beginning of a love affair with the city that is now well into its fourth decade. Paris allows Parsons to be an underground musician, literally. In fact, he tends to view himself as a sort of caveman.
“Paris has this big underground system of caves that go back to medieval times; some are still attached to the old system that was used for the French Resistance,” Parsons said. “For someone unfamiliar, it might seem really exotic, but for me, it just feels very at home to be in those caves, because there are a lot of clubs in those caves.”
He attributes the legendary depth of the city’s music to the assimilationist nature of French culture: “The music is about bringing all of these influences together, and that’s what I’m all about. In the States, we all live in our little categories, and to me that’s really boring. I don’t want to be in a box, and I don’t really want to look at a box or listen to a box. I’m looking at experiencing things that are just different from the norm.”
The relationship between Paris and black musicians dates back to James Reese Europe, an American composer who led his military band across French battlefields in 1918, near the end of World War I. From there, the line extended through guys like Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter and Sidney Bechet in the ’20s and ’30s; their hot music and cool personas drew a rapturous response from fans and critics alike, affording jazz the respect and credibility it was denied by mainstream America until Benny Goodman took it to the general (read: white) public in 1936. By the time bebop pioneers like Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke jumped the pond, it had become the era made famous by the Paul Newman/Sidney Poitier film “Paris Blues.”
Though he’s worked in nearly every configuration available to a jazzman, from solo sets and duos to at least six different symphony orchestras, Parsons’ preferred grouping is the trio, with just bass and drums, where the bulk of responsibility for developing melody and harmony falls on him. He finds the extra pressure liberating. “Playing free is not a matter of trying to escape the conventions; it’s more like, ‘I’ve already done all of that stuff so much, I’ve already passed them. I don’t need them.’ ”
Some of the first sounds he ever heard were probably his parents’ jazz records. “I can’t remember any time when I didn’t love music very much,” said Parsons, born Longineu Warren Parsons Jr. in Jacksonville on Feb. 2, 1952. “When I was in second or third grade, they bought me a toy organ, and I was starting to pick out their jazz tunes on it, so my parents said, ‘Looks like the boy needs to take piano lessons.’ ”
“I’ve been listening to music for as long as I can remember,” he said. The first record he concretely remembers buying was Miles Davis’ classic “Bitches Brew” in 1970, having settled on the trumpet as his instrument of choice. The album marked a major — some would say abrupt and cynical — evolution in Davis’ sound that changed the history of the business. The critics’ mixed reaction to that album and their retroactive flip-flop in later years struck Parsons as an early and powerful demonstration of the dynamic between musicians and critics.
Parsons was among the students who helped integrate Ribault High School in 1966, a tumultuous era defined by racial tensions. “The ’60s and ’70s were very different,” he remembered. “In the ’60s, Jacksonville was one of the most horrible places you could imagine — probably not even imagine. I remember when it was still illegal to go into restaurants and stuff — movie theaters, Jacksonville Beach and on and on and on. Young people now would say, ‘Ah, man, I’d never would’ve accepted that!’ Well, you could not accept it, and get strung up, ’cause the cops were in on it. It was pretty miserable. But the upside was, going to school in segregated schools, my teachers could tell me the truth.”
By the time he graduated in 1969, he had already settled on music as his life’s work. “It was a good recreational activity,” he said. “It was always something I was good at, from the time I started doing it. I just didn’t think of it as something to make a life out of, but after a certain point, I realized that I couldn’t live any other way. Once I decided that was it, I knew I had to go all the way.”
Parsons started playing cornet in the school band when he was 11, later transitioning to trumpet. Physically, these are some of the hardest instruments to play. “You have to make the note with your lips,” Parsons said. “The horn is the amplifier, that’s all it is, so you really have to play your own body. It’s about playing your airstream, the muscles which push the air, and also the facial muscles.”
He has since become proficient on most brass instruments, as well as on flute and recorder. The man knows his circular breathing (breathing in through the nose while simultaneously pushing air out through the mouth, using air stored in the cheeks), and can often be seen playing multiple instruments simultaneously, a method pioneered by reedman Roland Kirk. He’s put a lot of effort into restlessly refining his technique, resulting in a muscularity of tone across the instrument’s full range.
The trumpet and the cornet look and sound virtually alike to the casual fan, but they’re quite different from a performance perspective. “The difference is in the shape of the tubing.
If you stretched both of them out, they would be the same length. But in the trumpet, the tubing is very straight until the last one-third of the instrument; for the cornet, it starts to flare a little earlier — maybe after the first third, it already starts to flare. We would call that a ‘conical bore,’ whereas the trumpet, we say, is cylindrical. It makes for a slight difference in sound.” Even after 45 years, Parsons himself sometimes can’t tell the difference.
Parsons’ pedigree was honed over four decades of sideman work, years in which jazz music was hardly the biggest game in town — not this town, nor most others. He performed and recorded with traditionalists like Cab Calloway, Frank Foster and Joe Williams; crossover acts like Nancy Wilson and Herbie Mann; and post-bop titans like Mal Waldron, Nat Adderley and Philly Joe Jones. He found special favor among the modernist set, men like Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, David Murray and Henry Threadgill; he also worked with the late Sam Rivers, who lived in Orlando for many years.
“Jazz music started making a turn in about 1981 into neo-classicism,” he notes, in a thinly veiled reference to the emergence of Wynton Marsalis from Art Blakey’s band into the flagship of Columbia Records, and the public face of jazz over the last 30 years. His efforts led to the creation of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which was the biggest investment ever made in jazz music on an institutional level. It has been a boon to jazz education, telling stories that need to be told, but it’s led to what some critics and musicians allege to be a narrow definition of jazz that denies the legitimacy of much of the post-bop era.
“At least now, we do have jazz in schools, but the jazz music for quite some time has been — well, I’ve already heard it,” Parsons said. “The new stuff that’s coming out, I’ve already heard it from the masters who lived it. … That time doesn’t exist anymore.”
Of all Parsons’ experiences in the business, probably the most formative were his stints spent touring with the legendary Sun Ra, who was (along with Anthony Braxton) arguably the primary “victim” of neo-classicism in jazz, which shunted artists like him to the genre’s periphery.
It was the ’80s, a decade before the popularity surge Sun Ra saw toward the end of his life, and the artist was widely dismissed outside the jazz world as a lunatic in weird clothes making noise — an industry veteran whose work was hardly considered jazz at all. Parsons got to see, firsthand, a genius who remained mostly obscure until the era of CDs and streaming video allowed consumers to bypass the boundaries erected by corporate media. (John Gilmore, who held the lead tenor sax spot in Sun Ra’s band for almost 40 years, is held in reverence.)
While maintaining a jam-packed schedule of recording and performance, Parsons has expanded into academia, like so many great jazz musicians have over the past 30 years. Hailing from a city with one of the best jazz-education programs in America (at University of North Florida), it’s a natural fit. Parsons holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Florida A&M, and a master’s from University of Florida; he did post-grad study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. At FAMU, he’s working to develop a program to supplement music students’ training in practical professional matters. “You can go all the way through to a doctoral degree and not be taught the first thing about being a musician. We’re trying to do things a bit differently and train those who are interested in how to actually do business — teach them marketing, public relations, film-scoring and all those things that go with.”
As the son of two teachers, he saw the sacrifices they made on behalf of their students and vowed never to get into that line of work himself. “I used to see how hard they worked and how tired they were at the end of the day, and I said, ‘No way, that’s not for me!’ But I was wrong.” He said it’s one of the few vows he’s ever broken. He’s been teaching at FAMU for the past 14 years. His résumé also includes stints at Edward Waters College and Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, as well as schools in Colombia, France and the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, where he taught music, in French, for two years.
Having traveled the world for half his life, Parsons approaches spoken languages with the same aggressive interest he takes in the “universal language of music.” Parsons grew up speaking English, French and Creole; “I’m fluent,” he said. “I function. I have friends who don’t speak English.” His children (Longineu III, 32, Sebastien, 27, and Jennifer, 24) speak those languages as well. He can converse a bit in Spanish and Italian, and he’s trying to learn the native language of his wife, Joanna Sobkowska, a pianist and teacher born in Warsaw, Poland. He looks forward to visiting his in-laws again in a few months, but lamented, “Polish is kicking my ass!”
Increasingly, Parsons is becoming known as the father of Longineu Parsons III, the drummer for Yellowcard, currently on the Vans Warped Tour. His father said LP, as the fans call him, “may be the most culturally inclusive drummer of his generation — maybe the best.” Born in France, LP spent much of his childhood on the road collecting formative experiences (including meeting legendary drummer Max Roach, at the tender age of 5) one can hear in his playing. LP’s 10-minute drum solo on the recent album “Tribal Disorder” album is the purest distillation of his style available. The only thing that gives away its modernity is the crisp digital recording.
Parsons has visited 30 countries so far, with no plans to stop. He just renewed his passport, so it’s no longer a mess. “I had one that they just stopped stamping,” he said. He often travels with family, which helps keep him grounded within an industry that can be bad for one’s health and utterly disastrous for one’s personal life. “The major challenge has to be keeping that balance,” he said. “I find the best way to keep perspective is to not be in that scene at all.” He said he stays busy working and enjoying the charmed life he leads.
Recent months have seen his full extension into the digital realm, using the Internet to project his musical vision to audiences worldwide. His company Tribal Records distributes material by Parsons and his son, as well as that of a small roster of jazz artists including John Betsch, George Caldwell, Sulaiman Hakim, Richard Raux, Ted Shumate, Indian trio Stringing Echoes and singer Tina Fabrique. TribalDisorder.com is named after the band the Parsons men lead together, which seeks to fuse disparate insights gleaned from a lifetime of musical globe-trotting. Much of the material is good, and some of it is truly excellent. His mastery of Skype aside, Parsons is no computer geek. “My forte is producing the product, but I’m looking at using all the tools at my disposal. It’s all fair game.”
No matter where he goes, however, Parsons remains a Floridian at heart. A member of the Jacksonville Jazz Festival’s Hall of Fame (along with longtime colleagues Von Barlow and the late Teddy Washington), Parsons was a principal soloist for the River City Jazz Band for a decade. He sings the praises of the local jazz education programs, particularly Bunky Green’s at UNF. “Chicago guy, nice guy,” he said. “Really plays his ass off, and he’s done a lot for shaping young people. The guys who studied under him really got to learn something.”
Parsons returns to Northeast Florida for a gig at Jazzland Café on Aug. 4. It’s billed as a tribute to Louis Armstrong, whom Parsons hails as “the most important figure in the history of American music.” Pops’ primeval impact on the industry began in the earliest days of recorded music and has been felt continuously ever since. Having helped acquaint the city he loves to the music he loves to play, Parsons sees such tribute as paying the literal debt that all working musicians owe to the masters who made their careers possible.
After that, who knows? Poland beckons, and then Parsons would most love to return to Thailand, to a monastery where he can enjoy the most pleasant, yet most elusive sound of all: silence. “I’m exploring that part of myself,” he said. “It was a reflection, now it’s a serious exploration.”