Pianist and songwriter Phil Parnell passed away September 2, 2015 after a battle with liver cancer.
Phil began performing at an early age: A picture that hung in his parents’ house showed him in a straw hat, striped coat and cane at age four in the lead role for his school play.
Born in Dallas, Parnell started taking piano lessons at age five. At age eight the family moved to New Orleans. His interest in piano came from his mother, who played in church and at home.
Parnell became obsessed with jazz after hearing John Coltrane. Before long, he was inspired to follow a musical career by listening to many others, including Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, James Booker, Dr. John and Ray Charles. “I was working for a painting contractor after school,” Parnell said. “I used to bring a boom-box cassette player with all my favorite jazz and it would drive the rest of the crew mad after a while. I was always doing something different from the other kids— usually solitary endeavors. I learned to ride a unicycle and to juggle,
and was into trampoline, diving, gymnastics and art.”
As a teenager, Parnell studied piano with Ellis Marsalis. His son Joplin remembers, “Dad would often tell me the story of Ellis asking him to transcribe a song of his choice as homework. He brought back his attempts at transcribing Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” which earned him a good deal of respect from his teacher for being so ambitious.
Ellis left a lasting impression on my dad’s approach to piano and music. I recall a fan after a show at Snug Harbor coming up to talk to him and commenting on how similar their touch and tone sounded, not even having known that Dad had taken lessons from Ellis Marsalis.”
In the late ’70s, Parnell attended Berklee College of Music, where he continued his studies in theory and piano technique and took saxophone as a second instrument. After school he returned to New Orleans and began working with many different bands in various venues, including Bourbon
Street. He played with Freddie Kohlman, David Lastie, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Justin Adams and many others. Over the years he performed with Bettye Lavette, Astrud Gilberto, Brian Blade and Bo Diddley.
Parnell moved to London with his wife, Mandy, and his son in 1995. A year later he released his first album, Dear Jo, featuring Johnny Vidacovich on drums. Around this time Parnell was discovering dance and house music, and he began working with Matthew Herbert and Dani Siciliano. Their recordings would re-define how electronics and live music can be employed together in the studio and on stage. In 2009, Parnell moved to Northern Denmark with his partner Iben Leer, whom he wed.
Phil Parnell embraced many styles of music, from electronic to gospel, cabaret to rhythm and blues. He recorded with Lillian Boutté and produced CDs for his own label.
In 2008, as a member of Jamie Lidell and Street Material, he and the band opened for Elton John’s Red Piano Tour. Parnell’s music
was used in the 2009 Zurich Film festival documentary winner The Sound After the Storm, about New Orleans musicians after Katrina.
“Phil Parnell was, in all his humility, a master musician from New Orleans, who out of love, ended up in Denmark,” said Esben Just, a Danish pianist and friend. “He cast gold dust and good vibes over all the ensembles that were lucky enough to have him play piano with them.”
“I first met Phil on the steamboat Mississippi Queen sometime around 1996 or ’97,” trombonist Rick Trolsen said. “We shared a cabin together. After the usual formalities and introductions, he offered me a beer. This was sometime in the early afternoon. I wasn’t accustomed to drinking that time of the day, but I accepted the offer (just to be polite). We quickly became friends. Over the years, he taught me a lot about music and we played many gigs together in New Orleans. I always loved his enthusiasm with all of his endeavors: making beer, beef jerky, baklava, rolling his own cigarettes (some a bit ‘spicy’), and electronic music; his interests in yurts, and of course, his political theories. He has been a brother to me. His smile, his laugh will be forever present in my heart.”
His son Joplin: “Let’s be thankful for the time he did have with us and spread the joy he gave us. His life was all too short but it was sweet as peaches on a Southern summer’s day.”
Phil Parnell is survived by his first wife, Mandy, his son, Joplin, his current wife, Iben Leer, a daughter Taylor and his brother Doug.