Jann Parker, the jazz vocalist and composer whose magnetic vocal stylings captivated audiences from Harlem to Europe, died in New York on February 18.
A memorial service was recently held in Harlem at Benta’s Funeral Home. In the program, Parker’s birthdate was intentionally omitted per her request—she believed that age could not be defined by numbers and time.
Parker was known as a warm and giving human being. Her singing ability was an after-thought to her friends and family. But when she did commence to song, her understated timbre filled the room with smokey notes that merrily lingered through up-tempo pieces and ballads, like one of her signature songs: “You Go to My Head.”
She developed a cult following in Gotham even before she began leading her own groups, which led her to being a first-call vocalist. She was a featured vocalist with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, the Rahn Burton Trio, and Larry Ridley’s Jazz Legacy Ensemble. She was called upon for special performances and/or recordings with the likes of T.K. Blue, Charlie Persip, Steve Turre, Ron Carter, Don Braden, and Joe Lee Wilson.
Randy Weston called on Parker for the celebration of his 50th anniversary concert recording of “Uhuru Afrika.” It featured a 23-piece orchestra and vocalists Parker and Gregory Porter. She was often the guest vocalist for the HARLEM WEEK VIP receptions at Gracie Mansion, as well as performing at the Showman’s Café, Lenox Lounge, Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium (CBJC), and Jazzmobile. While performing regularly throughout New York City, she was also a welcomed international performer for audiences in Greece, Paris, Portugal, Finland, and the Caribbean.
The songwriter and arranger took on the status of producer for the recording of her album “Voicings,” and co-producer of her album “Masterpieces Live” at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in 2004.
Parker, a longtime resident of Harlem, remained devoted to her hometown roots in New Bern, North Carolina, where she founded the Jazz Preservation Society in 2003.The following year, she was honored with the key to the city.
Janet (Jann) Elizabeth White Parker was born to James White and Inez Dudley White in New Bern, N.C. In elementary school, she won her first talent contest, singing the song “Don’t Fence Me In.” The song’s title became somewhat of a mantra for her: “Don’t fence me in, don’t categorize me, I am a singer whatever genre it may be.”
Parker earned her BA degree in speech and drama from North Carolina Central University. While she was a student, she performed at local venues in the Raleigh/Durham area, where she met Robert Parker, whom she married in 1969. The couple made their home in Harlem, where their daughter Marsha was born.
“Jann Parker will forever be my sister, friend, and comrade in music! She recorded several of my original compositions—‘Thru The Rain,’ ‘The Lady In White,’ and ‘A Prayer For Us,’” said saxophonist and composer T.K. Blue, who performed at the memorial. “I recommended Jann for the soundtrack recording of the film ‘Queen City’ by Peter McGinnes. Jann did a voiceover for the jazz singer character played by actress Vivica A. Fox. My heart is broken and I’ll always keep Jann close to my heart with fond memories.”
Over the years, I had the opportunity to interview and converse with Parker on many occasions. Her understated singing style, which often verged on the likes of Nancy Wilson and Shirley Horn, will be missed.
Parker is survived by her daughter, Marsha Parker; her former husband, Robert Parker of Philadelphia; four sisters, Lind White, Clarissa Covington, Debbie Dominguez, and Judy White, all of New York; and a host of other loving relatives.