Jazz and blues musician inspired by roots

Friday, September 11, 2015

September 11, 2015
Shelley Koppel
Staff writer/Your Voice News & Views

MARTIN COUNTY — Walter Parks is an American original. The singer/songwriter, a Jacksonville native, gives life to the music of the north Florida and Georgia swamps, but his voice is tinged with the operatic training he received. He moved to New York City to find his voice, and in a stay at a French monastery, he discovered he’d already found it in the music of his roots. He was the lead guitar player for Richie Havens for many years and now he has a one-man show. He brings that show, “Swamp by Chandelier” to the Lyric Theatre Oct. 3.

Walter Parks spoke from his home in New Jersey about his long journey back to his roots.

Parks began his musical “career” in elementary school, where he played the viola.

“I didn’t know how important it was until later,” he said. “At the time, it seemed like a friend, a place of repose, a touchstone for peace and tranquility. I loved what the instrument brought to me. I could go into my room and practice and be in a place I didn’t realize. It was as close to spiritual as I could get at that point. My early study of classical was shaping my concept of music and what was tasteful. Studying the greats, I learned harmony in ways I’d later employ.”

Peer pressure led the boy, now a teen, to abandon the viola for the electric guitar. His first group, The Parental Tears Band, was named for the fear all of the parents had that their offspring would pursue careers in music. He studied business at the University of Georgia, and while he didn’t graduate, he gained experience as the school’s concert promoter.

Parks found his way to New York City and its vibrant music scene. By the late 1990s, he was tired of touring and seeking a new perspective on his work. He spent a month at the Buddhist monastery in rural France.

“For better or worse, I realized and sort of accepted music and the guitar as an integral part of me,” he said. “My goal of a summer without music was to find out who I was without it. At first, it was pretty difficult. I always have musical ideas in my head. After two or three days, I started to turn them off, and that had a lasting benefit.
“The monastery experience helped me realize how I could reset my brain as I moved from one composition to another, or how to get a new perspective on a composition. The sense of being in the moment helps me rest energy and adjust thinking to a fresh approach.”

For the Lyric concert, Parks said audiences can expect interesting guitar playing, entertaining stories and gritty, earthy singing.

“’Swamp by Chandelier” is a metaphor to tell the story of the inhabitants of the Okefenokee Swamp,” he said. “It’s near where I came from. It seems uninhabitable, but there were always Native Americans, and in the mid-1800s, escaped slaves and people running away from fighting in the Civil War. There were white people who wanted to own a piece of land. In the 1920s, there was logging. During the 1930s, under FDR, Francis Harper came to record the ‘Georgia cracker people’ singing.

“The most interesting were swamp hollers. Listening to the tapes in the Library of congress, the music doesn’t have words. They’re melodic messages hunters would sing. They’re beautiful and there is almost a jazz and operatic quality. I started writing it out and a chill went down my spine. I might be the first to write it out. I wanted to rearrange them in a more contemporary way and maybe sing them melodically, playing chords underneath.”

The chandelier metaphor takes a bit of explaining.

“I pride myself on presenting myself as the archetype of the Southern gentleman,” Park said. “Even though it’s earthy and gritty, I try to be more sophisticated. That’s the chandelier. It’s rootsy, earthy music, but maybe I’ll be in a tuxedo, or wearing an old-fashioned hat. I won’t have an actual chandelier, but maybe a light bulb, to symbolize the minimal conditions in which people lived in the swamp.”

Parks said the entire show would not be about the music of the Okefenokee.

“There will be a lot of other music,” he said. “All of my music is inspired by my travels and upbringing in northeast Florida. It’s the sound track of growing up there. I worked really hard to find my style. It wasn’t until I came to New York and people realized (what it was.) One reason I’m glad I left classical music as a kid and went straight to the electric guitar was learning to improvise and jam. Making my way through the forest of musical notes, I had to figure it out myself. You use everything you know and you use your instruments. It encouraged me to find my style, and it took me 20 years.”

Parks will play some songs he used to play with Richie Havens. Traveling with the star, especially in Europe, was a unique experience.

“Europeans have an appreciation of American roots music, more than Americans,” he said. “Richie symbolized an exotic, worldly America. His voice was like nobody else’s, raspy and creamy. He epitomized the world and Europeans appreciated that. He was noticed in the streets and he was such a nice person, especially to strangers. He loved people. I learned a lot in that sense. He never taught me with words. I learned from observing him. I miss him and think about him all the time.
Parks is pleased that the Lyric’s artistic director, John Loesser, has asked him to perform.

“He reminds me of the spirit of an old-school promoter, willing to try new things,” Parks said. “I’m honored he’s taking a chance to present something he’s never had. If anyone is interested in guitar playing, singing and story-telling, this is a good show. We’ll have a good time. I’m very proud of it and I want to share it with people.”
Walter Parks comes to the Lyric Theatre, 59 S.W. Flagler Ave., Stuart; Oct. 3 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $35. Call the box office at (772) 286-7827 or order online at www.lyrictheatre.com.