By Hannah Fell
Music has been at the heartbeat of Longineu Parsons ever since he was a child. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, the School of Music Ph.D. candidate grew up listening to all kinds of music on a turntable in his home. He learned to play the trumpet when he was 11, and his passion for jazz music grew as he got older.
Parsons is now 62 and a tenured associate professor in the Department of Music at Florida A&M University. Critics have hailed him as one of the world’s finest trumpet players. In addition to trumpet, he performs on recorders, flute and percussion and is a vocalist. He is the protégé of the great cornetist, Nat Adderley, and his compositions include orchestral works and chamber music as well as jazz and world music.
Despite these accolades and having performed around the world, Parsons approaches each performance with the same level of dedication and pride. On June 23, 2014 he performed for the second time at Carnegie Hall in New York as one of the soloists in The Black Stars of the Great White Way Broadway Reunion. The all-male tribute honored jazz musicians Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan, Duke Ellington and Paul Robeson.
“When I went on stage [at Carnegie], I knew I was in the zone,” says Parsons who holds a Bachelor of Music from Florida A& M University and a Master of Music in classical trumpet from UF. “When I walked out there I knew it was my time.”
Parsons’ history with UF goes back to 1966 when he came to the university to attend a music camp directed by Richard Bowles, the legendary conductor and former director of bands at UF who wrote the current arrangement of the Gator fight song and who inspired Parsons with his kindness and integrity.
Parsons had faced many racial inequalities growing up in the south and having been one of only 10 African-Americans selected for a gifted program at the “whites-only” school, Jean Ribault High School in Jacksonville. Parsons says as he looked around at that music camp and saw kids of different races talking and laughing with each other, he couldn’t help but notice that this school was different than the others.
“All I could do was say, ‘If this is what this school is about then I want to be a part of it,’” he says. Going to camp at UF was one of the highlights of his summer and the driving force in his decision to return for his graduate studies.
When Scott Wilson, UF assistant professor in jazz, first heard Parsons playing trumpet one afternoon in the Music Building a few years ago he couldn’t help but notice his musical versatility. “He can play everything from modern to bebop, which is very rare,” says Wilson. “He just switches back and forth effortlessly.”
Wilson, who taught Parsons during jazz band, says that he is extraordinarily talented. “When you have a talent like that you don’t consider him a student,” says Wilson. “He was my consultant. He is the quintessential modern-day musician. He’s a musical genius and the whole jazz program thinks so.”
Part of what Parsons loves about jazz music is that it can be used to tell ones story. “Jazz is sometimes hopeful and sometimes hurtful, but during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s it was about where musicians wanted the world to go,” says Parsons.
Parsons has long admired Louis Armstrong, famous for the song, “What a Wonderful World,” which was released during a time in which the world was not wonderful for all people, for the way he encouraged the human race to make a choice. “It’s about what the world could be if we choose to make it that way,” Parsons says. “We can choose to fight each other, be bitter to the end or we can say, ‘Enough is enough.’ How about spreading love and embracing our differences instead of fighting?”
It is this philosophy of love and hope that Parsons channeled during his recent Carnegie Hall performance and that he wants to resonate with every note he plays for the rest of his life.