Young Jazzman Of `Promise' -- Just 16 But Ready To Take Jazz World By Storm
Special To The Times
Hear Aaron Parks play
To hear a selection from "The Promise," call The Seattle Times' Infoline at 206-464-2000 and enter category PARK (7275). It's a free call in the Seattle area.
Aaron Parks was 10 years old when he sat down at the piano in his Whidbey Island home and started to explore its 88 keys, "just to see what noises they made."
Fascinated, he strung together some sounds that reminded him of the wind boiling up, outside his window over Puget Sound. Before he knew it, he had composed an entire piece.
"I called it `Storm Cycle,' " says the somewhat bashful but self-assured Parks. "Looking back, I guess you'd say it was kind of avant-garde, like modern classical music."
That was six years ago. Today, at 16, Parks is a jazz major at the University of Washington, having leap-frogged from seventh grade to college. His debut CD, "The Promise" (JazzKey), comes out next week. Two major recording labels have expressed interest in signing him.
Parks' disc is named after a composition by the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. But it is an apt title for a musician who is proving to be the most remarkable jazz prodigy ever to come out of the Northwest.
"He's a natural," says his instructor at the UW, Marc Seales, a nationally respected jazz pianist. "Everything he plays is super articulate, and he's really focused. I am really excited about him."
Parks celebrates the release of "The Promise" at 8 p.m. Dec. 6 at the downtown jazz club, Dimitriou's Jazz Alley. His talented younger sister, Anja, 13, will sit in on trumpet. A pre-release party is scheduled Dec. 3 in Port Townsend, at the Joseph F. Wheeler Theater at Fort Worden State Park.
Parks already has been playing all over town, most recently at Stars, Tully's and Seattle Center. A three-minute "Currents" segment featuring his trio has been running on KCTS-TV, as well.
At a recital last week at the UW music school's Brechemin Hall, the young keyboardist displayed a maturity and depth far beyond his years. Wearing a sport coat that was a trifle too large, and standing up to announce each tune with a charming lack of stage presence, Parks performed complex compositions by jazz masters such as Sam Rivers, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner.
Leaning his ear into the piano - like one of his musical idols, Keith Jarrett (others are McCoy Tyner and Duke Ellington) - Parks played with remarkably fluid technique and an uncannily natural feel for melodic line. Unlike a lot of kids who learn to improvise jazz licks in school, he seemed to be speaking transparently through the instrument, as if he were looking for - and finding - the right sounds. This is the mark of musical genius, the kind of story-telling feel one gets from players such as Stan Getz and Jarrett.
"I just play for the sound and ideas, so I can express what I have to say," says Parks, sitting backstage after the recital at Brechemin.
Seattle high schools recently have been turning out a wealth of hip young jazz musicians, among them Garfield High School's Anne Drummond and Roosevelt's Jumaane Smith. But Parks has come up a different route. A National Merit Scholar with an interest in math and computer science, he was pulled out of Langley Middle School on Whidbey Island by his mother when he was in sixth grade, so she could home-school him in a college-prep program she started herself.
His first exposure to jazz wasn't anything hip and modern, but rather Glenn Miller's "In the Mood." When his teacher, Barbara Dunn, discovered that Parks could improvise new melodies to the tune on the spot, she referred him to Seattle jazz pianist Murl Allen Sanders, who in turn helped him learn his parts in a big band sponsored by the Imperials, a nonprofit service group now called Music Works Northwest.
"I couldn't read music and I couldn't keep time," recalls Parks, "but my mom, who had once played french horn, sat behind me and pointed out the bar lines. Murl would help me with the charts (arrangements)."
After a year-and-a-half of private lessons and home-schooling, Parks decided he wanted a bigger challenge. He was admitted to the Early Entrance Program (EEP) at the University of Washington.
That first transitional year, his mom got up at 4:30 a.m. and ferried him to Seattle, along with his sister, who had been accepted into the Washington Middle School jazz band. Midyear, the family moved to the U District and in 1997, at 14, Parks entered the UW as a freshman.
He says being that young on campus wasn't as weird as it sounds.
"All the `EEP-ers' hang out at Guthrie Hall," he explains, "so I was hanging out with people my own age. It felt really natural. It wasn't like people would look at you and say `What are you doing here?' "
His trio - UW students Evan Flory-Barnes (bass) and Eric Peters (drums) - are 21 and 22, respectively, but have no trouble seeing him as an equal, especially when he starts playing. Since going to the UW, Parks has augmented his studies in the summer by attending the Bud Shank Jazz Workshop at the Centrum arts education center in Port Townsend. When his instructor there, the great New York pianist Joanne Brackeen, encouraged him to go east, he made up his mind he wanted to be a professional jazz musician.
"He is a marvelously talented kid, both as an improviser and from the standpoint of technique," says Shank, who has seen quite a few teenage musicians come to his workshop, among them Diana Krall and Kenny G.
Parks also has the kind of drive one needs in the notoriously tough music business.
"He's a take-charge guy," says Seales, the UW instructor. "He'll hear something and he'll just go work on it. And it'll work into his playing real quickly. It's so cool to have somebody so excited about everything. I just love that. He's like a sponge."
A polite, well-spoken youngster with an open face and a broad smile, Parks seems to be handling his prodigy status rather well.
"Sometimes, all the attention is a little uncomfortable," he admits, "but being busy so much helps my playing."
Behind Parks' busy schedule is some extra horsepower - one of the most completely unabashed, but surprisingly disarming stage moms to hit this area in quite some time.
Judie Stein - she retained her given name after marriage - has a doctorate in psychology and used to teach at Western Washington University. Parks' father is a software consultant. For the past six months, Stein has been managing her son's career from her cell phone. Before she decided to self-produce Parks' album, she cold-called Blue Note Records, in New York.
"I said, `I'm with JazzKey Records," she recounts. "Of course I didn't say I was his mom. I just told them, `You need to hear Aaron Parks.' "
A few weeks later, after sending Blue Note an advance copy of "The Promise," Stein and her son were standing in the Manhattan offices of Bruce Lundvall, one of the most powerful men in jazz.
"They were concerned that he was so young," she admits, "but at the very beginning of the conversation, he said, `He's brilliant. He needs six months playing with musicians in New York. But we're interested in the long run.' "
Many a young career has been spoiled by an overzealous parent, but Parks insists he hasn't been pushed.
"This is something I want to do," he says, firmly. "I'm lucky to have my mom as my manager."
Where that luck will take him next probably is the Big Apple itself. In December, Parks auditions for the Manhattan School of Music, where he hopes to study with piano masters Kenny Barron, Fred Hersch and Barry Harris. He already spent a session there this past summer, "working my butt off," he says. If he gets in, the whole family plans to move. (Sister Anja already has been assured entrance into New York's La Guardia High School for the Performing Arts.)
Parks seems to know that, as good as he is, he still has a long way to go, and that coming up as an apprentice to older and wiser musicians - as Lundvall (and Seales) advise - is the right course. As with his playing, he shows a surprising amount of maturity.
"I don't want to be a flash in the pan," he says.
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