Features and Reviews
Knocky Parker: Legendary Pianist
By Bill Mitchell
Editor's note: In 1977 John "Knocky" Parker, Ph. D., was paying an extended visit to the Los Angeles area, on sabbatical from his teaching job in Florida, recuperating from a couple of heart attacks. He was warmly welcomed by the Southern California ragtime and jazz communities, for he was one of the most famous of the post WWII ragtime/jazz pianists, having recorded prolifically as both soloist and bandsman. I taped an interview with him on April 6, 1977, at my home in Downey. It was transcribed by Paul and Pat Affeldt. Paul was editor and publisher of Jazz Report, which ran the interview in Vol. 9, numbers 4, 5, and 6, and Vol. 10, number 1. Paul never dated his mimeographed magazines (they were issued irregularly), but internal evidence indicates that the series ran from 1977 to 1980. Paul and Pat did the best they could to interpret Knocky's "gumbo-thick southern drawl," but they admitted that at times they had to guess a word or two. The interview was reported verbatim as much as possible; consequently the prose is not polished, and is at times even a bit unclear. Still and all, Knocky had some interesting things to say, and I hope you will enjoy meeting him in this and subsequent articles
Bill: I have a few things to ask you.
Knocky: Please do.
B: One was your nickname...how you happened to be called "Knocky." I suppose you've told that story so many times?
K: Yes, and I don't know which is truth anymore, as there are two stories. One is they were calling me "Nookie" and I tried to say it and couldn't say anything but "Knocky" and the other is that a piano key hit me in the face. I think that piano key really did hit me. I think I can remember that, but I'm not going to argue about it.
B: And you are just naturally musical I gather, and learned by ear when you were a kid?
K: Yes, I can remember this, I think, that our piano was the newest thing, the newest acquisition of furniture we had. We lived out there on the farm and it was the center of our entertainment. It was in the parlor. We didn't have a radio, we didn't have a phonograph, we had this player piano and I loved the player piano. As a child I would cry when the music stopped and at the other houses, at my aunt's house, they'd put on a record and I'd hush then. I'd try to pedal it when I was too small to do so and rub big sores on my back, and then my uncle made a little include lean-to and my aunt made a little pillow to fit it and I could attach that to the bench and I could lean back on that pillow and just pump, pump, pump with all my weight and just play that piano. Bad kids would threaten then to let the player piano roll go off or pull it off, and I lived in terror that they might ruin those precious player piano rolls, you know, and I'd have to fix it or throw it away if it couldn't be repaired. So then they had a game, teasing the little kid and all, a ridiculous little thing. But those were mine and I grew up with them and I watched very carefully the keyboard; and the very constant, restricted area, just doing nothing but studying the keyboard and watching it so I could make the same harmonic notes go down, fifths and thirds and all, and do the same and hold it for the same length of time and associate the sound with the movement of the keys. I'd make the same movement with my hands and that's how I learned to play.
B: And then you played with some of the itinerant musicians?
K: All we had then were farm workers and pianists would come by the house and play there, and I would see what they played and these people would know maybe just each player would have just one tune that was his. If you'll notice, so many of these, Joe Jordan, and even Scott Joplin for that matter, will repeat and repeat, others even more so. Like "Cow Cow Blues" is all "Cow Cow" Davenport ever played with some variation, but it's still "Cow Cow Blues" and these people played their own old blues, and I'd learn them then. We'd go to Dallas with Daddy and we'd go into the Lone Star Saloon and there'd be these musicians there, and I got to meet all of them. That's Black musicians in Dallas in the early 1920s and they were very, very, very good. I started playing with them as I grew up more and more, but by the time I was eight I guess, I was able to substitute for them on working jobs.
Part II »