Frank Parker was born in New Orleans in 1919 and took his first drum lessons at age five. Soon after, he played his first job with The Gin Bandits, who got together every year at Carnival. Frank continued drumming around New Orleans and acquired his most important skill—flexibility. But much of his professional career has been outside New Orleans. In the ’50s, he recorded and traveled with such R&B artists as Roy Brown, Fats Domino, and Ray Charles. In 1958, Frank settled in Los Angeles, where he spent 12 years working with such artists as Johnny Otis and Lou Rawls.
In 1970, Frank returned to New Orleans and its traditional music. Preservation Hall is dedicated to preserving original New Orleans jazz in its purest form. Frank joined Preservation Hall in 1980 and has played with all four of the Hall’s bands. He is currently touring with the band led by Percy Humphrey.
Frank is playing a new four-piece Ludwig kit with a hi-hat and one old 20″ A Zildjian cymbal. This cymbal has a 1 1/2″ groove cut into the bell by over 40 years’ contact with cymbal stands, and thousands of Frank’s strokes have worn the surface smooth. I interviewed Frank backstage in Jasper, Indiana, which was the first stop on a six-week tour for the Humphrey Band.
DD: How did you get started playing drums?
FP: Well, when I was very young, I was a tap dancer. I use to go around and dance in different bars in New Orleans to pick up my lunch money for school the next day. Some of those bars would have live music. Also, a very good friend of my grandmother had parties at her house just about every day. Somebody would play the piano, and I would keep time on the chairs. From the chairs, I went to pots and pans, and then to an old snare drum. I was able to play the different marches on the snare drum, so at each Carnival, a guy would get me to play with him. Because I was only five years old, when I got tired of walking, somebody would pick me up and carry me on his shoulders for three or four blocks. Then he would put me down, and I would play again. The name of the group was Gin Bandits, because everywhere they would stop, people would have gin waiting for them. So there was always a rhythm. You could always find a rhythm, because the drunker these guys would get . . . They would create a new rhythm. [laughs] So you had to be flexible to work with them. Later on, I played in pickup bands at the Dew Drop Club in New Orleans, and in other places around Louisiana and Mississippi. I backed a lot of name artists throughout the years.
DD: When did you first go on the road?
FP: The first time I came out on the road was 1950 with a rhythm & blues leader named Roy Brown. We played all the major black theaters: the Apollo, the Howard in Washington, the Royal in Baltimore, the Regal in Chicago, and the Lincoln in Los Angeles. So I made the rounds as a rhythm & blues drummer. Years later, I worked with Earl Bostic, Louie Jordan, Ray Charles, Lloyd Price, and Fats Domino. I had a chance to meet lots of different musicians by just traveling around.
DD: Are you self-taught?
FP: I was until I went to school. Later, I studied with John DeSota, who played for the Ice Capades in Los Angeles. That was at the Professional Drum Shop. From there I worked on my own with books, and also got help from one of my greatest friends, Earl Palmer, who was a studio drummer in L.A.
DD: He played on a lot of hit records.
FP: Oh, you better believe it. So I was always in good company. Before Ed Blackwell moved to New York, he was around New Orleans, and there was Weedy Morris and a guy named “Hongry.” Musicians had a way of getting together when they got off work. We would meet at certain clubs, and there would be maybe 15 drummers together, and tenor players together, and trumpet players, and so on. Someone would pass the word where we would meet the next night and the drummers went there.
DD: Who are some of the other notable drummers who started out in New Orleans or are there now?
FP: James Black, Johnny Vodackovich, “Zigaboo” Modeliste, who played with the Meters, and Jonathan Moffett. Idris Muhammad is doing very well in New York; he was a rhythm & blues drummer with Jerry Butler before he moved up there. The guys are flexible down in New Orleans. They play the blues. They play for weddings, marches, and nightclubs. You may play five or six different gigs in a day, and each one can call for a different type of drumming. So if you are flexible, you can make some money.
DD: Tell me why you left Fats Domino’s band.
FP: We were playing some pretty big concerts at the time. Fats gave me a two-dollar deposit, and when we played the job, he gave me nine. So I said, “Fats, what’s this nine dollars for?” He said, “Well, I gave you a two-dollar deposit before we played this job.” Then I said, “Fats, you’re getting too big to work for this kind of money. You’ve got two hit tunes going for you, ‘They Call Me The Fat Man’ and ‘Detroit City,’ so you should be making more than this.” He told me that, if I wasn’t satisfied, I could give the money back. I kept the money, but I told Fats that I wasn’t going to work with him the next day, which was the Fourth of July. When he asked me who he could get, I told him to call “Tunu”—Cornelius Coleman. So the next day, Tunu worked with Fats on the holiday job, and the day after that, Fats got his recording contract from Universal Studios in New York with a tour already set up. Tunu stayed with Fats for 17 years! When I see Fats now, he always says, “You left one day too soon.” [laughs]
DD: How long have you been with Preservation Hall?
FP: Since 1980. Before I worked with Preservation Hall, I formed a trio with my late wife. We worked for two years at the Mariott Hotel in New Orleans and for five years at the Fairmont Hotel, also in New Orleans. The Fairmont Hotel brought in great entertainers, so I had a chance to go over on intermission or visit the dressing rooms after the show. I had some beautiful, long talks with some of the greatest.
DD: How does the Preservation Hall Jazz Band select material for each different audience?
FP: Well, there’s no set routine, because the sets are based on how the crowd reacts to certain tunes. We play for a different audience each night, so it’s how they react and how we react.
DD: Do you do mostly one-nighters?
FP: Yeah. Last January, we were in San Francisco at the Fairmont for two weeks. That’s the longest we have ever worked in one place.
DD: You spend a lot of time on the bus.
FP: Oh yeah, quite a bit, but we travel all types of ways.
DD: As we speak, it is about ten minutes before the show, and you are sitting on a stool tapping your fingers. Do you have any routine for warming up?
FP: No more than what I’m doing now.
DD: When you play every night, I guess there is not much warming up to do.
FP: No, not really.
DD: You’re as warm as you’re going to get.
FP: [laughs] You’d better believe it. The way we work, I’m very fortunate to be able to play night after night and not have to wait until the weekends to play, you know.
DD: How long do you stay out on a tour between breaks?
FP: We’ll stay out from four to six weeks. The guys used to stay out longer before I joined—maybe three months—but they began to get older and it was too much on them. So now we stay out about five or six weeks and then go home. Of course, when we are home, we work Preservation Hall. When all four groups are in town, we alternate so there is music there every night.
DD: After your other experiences, did you adapt easily to playing traditional jazz?
FP: It’s just a matter of being flexible. A guy like Percy Humphrey has been working Preservation Hall since ’62 when it opened, so he and some of the others have seen a lot of musicians come and go. Some have passed on in that time, but every now and then a new bird like me will come in. Before I moved to Los Angeles, I sort of grew up hearing this music. I’ve been into a lot of rock, R&B, and contemporary jazz. Coming into traditional jazz is a little bit different. The average drummer isn’t going to come in and play this type of music. You have to discipline yourself, throw a lot of things out of your mind, and just work with these guys. You’ve got to be dedicated to this music, too, just to be able to work with them, because they’ve always been hearing one thing. Why come in and let the world know that you can play like Max or Buddy?
DD: How would you describe the main function of the drummer in traditional jazz?
FP: Being able to hold the time, for one thing. No matter what happens out front, you’ve got to hold that time so they can fall back on something. That’s the whole secret.
DD: Do you play straight fours on the bass drum?
FP: I play four at Preservation Hall, mainly, and out here I play two and sometimes four on the out-chorus. A lot depends on how the guys are feeling. I study them from night to night and see if they are going to move up a notch. Then I know what to do. These guys are up in age, and I can’t push them; I’ve got to work with them. If I see that there is some spirit there that they want to get rid of, I’m there to help them. I just work with them. That way, I make it easy for myself—and I also keep a friend. When I’m working somewhere else and I want to stretch out a little—and I’m in that type of company—that’s a different thing.
DD: Do you get the chance to sit in with other bands often?
FP: Oh, yeah, traveling around. In certain hotels where we stay, there will be a group working in the lounge, and I’ll go down and sit in. I’ve made a lot of friends just sitting in. They always seem to be surprised that a person playing our type of music is open enough to come in and play with them. I keep my ears open. I buy a lot of different records so I can hear what I want to hear.
DD: What music do you listen to for relaxation or inspiration?
FP: Everything. I was listening to some space music by John Abercrombie this morning before I went to sleep. It was like a 3-D movie or something: You were there. You could see yourself floating in space. I listen to everything. If it’s good and I’m enjoying it, then that’s all.
DD: Have you done any recording recently?
FP: With Dave Barthlomew, who used to write for Fats Domino and still does occasionally. He’s a very good trumpet player with his own band, and he works Preservation Hall every now and then. I’ve also recorded with Michael White and with Wallace Davenport, who used to play for Basie. That’s about all that I’ve had time to do. I’d like to do more of it, but I haven’t been approached.
DD: What keeps you out on the road?
FP: Because I’m making a living out here, and I’m working with good people.
DD: You don’t enjoy playing just a little bit, do you?
FP: Do I enjoy playing? Oh, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be out here. This is not an easy task out here, you know. Number one, you’ve got to take care of yourself. In the wild days when I was doing rhythm & blues, that was different. I have a wife and a pretty good understanding about life now, so I’m happy about what I’m doing out here. I’m working with Percy Humphrey, who went to school with my mother. I never had any idea that I would live long enough to work with him, because he knew my whole family. All you could hear at one time was the Humphreys. Then later on in life, I came along, and now I’m a drummer for one of the Humphreys. It’s unbelievable.
DD: Do you play many small towns like you are doing tonight?
FP: We play the biggest and the smallest, you know. We played the summit for President Reagan not too long ago, and we play for barbecues. It goes up and down. A small town is still a job. There are a lot of musicians living out here who never get a chance to play. So I feel honored to be able to come into a small town. And I’m still making a living.
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