When I moved from Philadelphia to New York, I stayed with my Aunt Joyce and her five children in Harlem. That was my first year at Goddard College, when I was 19. I used to go to jam at a place called Count Basie’s, on 125th Street, and guys like Freddie Hubbard and Horace Parlan would come to the sessions. Not long after I saw Horace, he was picked up by Charlie Mingus. This would be 1959.
He could make all 88 keys sound at the same time, especially on the blues. And it’s amazing: Because [of the polio he suffered with as a child], he played with only seven fingers—five on the left hand and usually two on the right, sometimes a third. He was an incredible man, a lovely man. You couldn’t find a better guy than Horace.
[Goin’ Home, the Shepp/Parlan duo album from 1977] was the idea of the producer, Nils Winther [who founded the Danish label SteepleChase Records]. Apparently he had talked to Horace about doing some spirituals. There aren’t many American record producers who would conceive the idea of so-called jazz musicians doing spirituals, [allowing us to] reprise our history in such a sensitive way. And Horace had done some really marvelous arrangements; things like “Goin’ Home,” “Deep River,” “My Lord What a Morning”—they’re very impressionistic. We got ready to record and I felt my eyes welling up with tears. For a moment I thought we couldn’t record the song. I forget what we were doing, maybe “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” I think [Horace and I] both knew and felt … it’s like two ex-slaves getting together. We didn’t have to discuss our experiences because we were deeply and profoundly aware of the implication. When he touched the piano, I could feel history.
I was just talking to my wife about how we saw Horace maybe about a month before he passed away. We played a club in Denmark and he came out. We were very excited to see him. In fact, I had another piano player, Tom McClung; he was much younger but he died just recently from cancer [in May of 2017]. So it was something that we were all there together that night. We played a song of Horace’s called “Arrival.” Horace, at that time, was completely blind. He was in a wheelchair and suffering from diabetes. But he was 86, so it was very moving and important for us to get together that last time.
He always had a very good memory. For gigs that I had forgotten, I could always ask Horace, “Do you remember some place in Stockholm or the South of France?” And he’d say, “Yeah, you know—we went to that Chinese restaurant.” He liked Chinese food a lot. He would walk five miles for a Chinese restaurant! When he was blind and couldn’t walk anymore, he still had an excellent memory and sense of humor.
Denmark really looked after Horace and his wife in their old age. Horace had a recording he made that was used by the filmmaker Coline Serreau [“Wadin’,” in Trois hommes et un couffin] in France. That movie was remade in the U.S. as Three Men and a Baby. He didn’t know it was used in the film. A friend of his saw it on a plane and told Horace about it, so Horace collected a lot of money off it. And the thing is, in Denmark they tax so heavily, he paid more than half of what he got in taxes. But at the end of his life he was very comfortable in a rest home, he and his wife. He was well taken care of until the end. So there are some advantages to Obamacare!