Not Just Whistling Dixie
Skip and his Riverboat Jazz Band corner live music market at the Fountain
By JENNIFER GISH, Staff writer
Published by the Times Union of Albany, NY: Friday, November 10, 2006
Pages D1 & D10 of the Life/Scene section
Webpage by Cliff Lamere November 10, 2006
Online with the permission of William Dowd of the Times Union
It's 10 o'clock Friday night and the jazz on the tiny stage in the Fountain Restaurant's corner is as hot as the pizzas served up by scrambling waitresses.
A seven-piece band packs the stage. Men dressed in Hawaiian shirts play "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans." In the dark, chaletlike interior of the Albany restaurant, the Skip Parsons Riverboat Band entertains a full house with music so loud couples shout across cozy tables.
They play traditional jazz -- true early jazz, the band leader will tell you. It's not that razzamatazz stuff you see in old Mickey Mouse cartoons, but music where the clarinet players' fingers flutter over the keys, the tuba keeps the two-beat with an um-pa, up-pa and the coronet stands out big and bold like sequins on a Mardi Gras mask.
Parsons' music is the jazz he heard as a boy on his aunt's record player. It's the jazz that makes pregnant women dance at summertime lawn concerts, and the jazz that tricks persons into thinking they'll step out of the Fountain's entrance on a Friday night and onto Bourbon Street.
And just like he has every month at the Fountain for the last 35 years, Parsons, the 70-year-old band leader, clutches his clarinet and leans into "Way Down Yonder," his comfortable shoes tapping to the beat.
Photo by Cindy Schultz, Times Union
He's brought the riverboat sound to the Capital Region for 50 years now, at bars, at retirement parties and weddings, to boats sailing slowly along the Hudson. He's been called upon by politicians and event planners to provide that old-time sound, the soundtrack for picnics of lemonade and fried chicken and the songs that make everyone smile.
A real live band
At times, Parsons fears the music is disappearing. When he discovered early jazz as a boy, it still had a place on the radio.
But these are the days of music downloads and disc jockeys, where kids crave a calculated sound born at a studio soundboard. The demand for live bands isn't what it was in the days they played nonstop reunions and parties, coronets wailing long into the night.
Parsons managed to provide for his wife, Linda, and two daughters on musician's wages for most of his life. He keeps an office above the garage at his Feura Bush home, but lately, the phone calls for work have been fewer. And though 50 years of skating-by wears on the soul, the music never does.
"One time I caught a big fish when I was a kid," Parsons says. "Once you catch that fish and you're in there, you keep fishing. That's how it is with music."
He booked his first gig in the 1940s at age 12, a church-hall dance where he played clarinet, an instrument he learned at age 9. He still remembers the first paycheck, $3 for the night. He compared it to the 35 cents an hour he'd later earn working at a grocery store, and decided music was the better paying job.
As a child he listened to his aunt's records. There was something magical about jazz, the way it came together on the fly, the way it sounded like nothing else, the way musicians seemed to do the impossible, jumping into the melody with a simple nod from the band leader.
"Jazz has that thing to it," Parsons says. "It's amazing that can happen. It's like artwork or something. One stroke of the brush does an amazing thing."
Education of music
He wasn't much good at sports as a kid growing up in Latham, but he could play the clarinet and saxophone. His father wanted him to go to college. Parsons figured he could do better in music, and his education came in the form of a couple mail-order courses from the Berklee College of Music.
He held a few regular jobs over the years, taught clarinet and saxophone lessons, and managed a store in Delmar called "Skippy's Music," until he gave it up about eight years ago. The business took too much time away from the music.
"The best times I had were when I could play," he says.
His music has taken him to the mountaintops in Lake Placid, where he and his band played for the ABC broadcasts of the 1980 Winter Olympics. It's taken him to barbecues for governors, to jazz festivals he organized back in the 1970s, to attending a 90th birthday party for Doc Cheatham, a legendary coronet player he sat in with more than a dozen times.
His music took him to lots of places, except for the place where it was born. The man who can recreate the sounds has never traveled to New Orleans, but he still tears up sometimes when he listens to Louis Armstrong's work drift from the speakers in his office.
"(Parsons) knows so many of the old songs, and what impresses me, too, is he knows the words to some of these songs I've never even heard before," says Cliff Lamere, the fan who posts photos of the guys playing out on his fan Web site http://www.skip.clifflamere.com, which has had about 900 hits since 2004.
A little riff
Parsons is a student of the music. He likes to talk to anyone who will show an interest in its origins and laments the fact that few kids recognize the name of Jelly Roll Morton. He'll grouse about the lack of business, and how it's hard to find people who are willing to pay a livable wage to musicians, asking him to cut costs by performing music composed for seven-piece bands with three or four players.
But he also has jazzlike coolness about it all, describing a slump in bookings during the summer as "a bummer."
Ernie Belanger has played tuba and bass with the band since 1973. Belanger never knows what little riff Parsons has come up with to layer with Belanger's solo, and the band leader is forever coming up with new ways to play the old songs.
They don't drink like they used to after gigs, and the 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. concerts at the Fountain are now seeming to go awfully late.
But one thing hasn't changed. When Parsons turns around, tipping his clarinet and dropping his mouthpiece just long enough to signal a solo with the words "Take One," the music is as fresh as the days before Parsons' hair frosted with age.
At the Fountain
There's an Internet jukebox now at the Fountain that can play anything from classic rock to hip-hop, but for one weekend each month, only riverboat jazz mingles with the smell of garlic and pizza sauce.
John Romano, the original owner of the place, fell in love with Parsons' music and first booked him for the restaurant in 1971. The band played at Romano's funeral five years later, but his wife, who still owns the restaurant, honored her husband's wish that the band would continue to be a staple at the Fountain.
A waitress there calls his older fans -- a crowd that's having trouble lasting much beyond the 10 p.m. start time of his show -- Skip Heads. And Pat McAvoy, the manager there for 25 years, likes the way the music livens up the place on those weekend nights, and sees no signs of the group's band leader fading out.
"Skip's right there still," McAvoy says. "He's kind of the Mick Jagger of the riverboat jazz band scene."
So as long as pizza's served up hot at the Fountain, the band will pack the tiny corner stage. Parsons will swing in his Hawaiian shirt (white and red stripes in the cool weather), calling out the tunes that so few people know anymore, and signaling solos with a nod of his clarinet.
And when empty plates litter the tables, and the tuba player's ready for bed, the band leader will sign off the way he always does, the way he always will.
"See you la-taaaaa."
Jennifer Gish can be reached at 454-5089 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All that jazz
SKIP PARSONS' RIVERBOAT JAZZ BAND
When: 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. the second Friday and Saturday of each month [When the month begins on a Saturday, Skip plays on the weekend that begins on the first Friday and includes the second Saturday. -CL]
Where: Fountain Restaurant, 283 New Scotland Ave., Albany
Info: 482-9898 (to reserve a table) or http://www.skipparsons.com.
Notes by Cliff Lamere: The photo of Skip Parsons was the largest I can remember seeing in the Times Union newspaper. It was 8 3/4 inches high by 6½ inches wide, appropriate for such a great musician.
The Times Union website can be reached by clicking here.