Appreciation: Band leader, clarinetist Skip Parsons ‘did it all’

Skip Parsons’ Riverboat Jazz Band is shown at the Fountain restaurant in Albany in February 2006. Performing are Skip Parsons, clarinet (in red sweater vest); Mo Rancourt, cornet, trumpet; Woody Strobeck, trombone; Eddie Kebabjian, banjo; Rich Skrika, keyboards; Rich Downs, acoustic bass; and Tim Coakley, drums. (Cliff Lamere photo)
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Skip Parsons’ Riverboat Jazz Band is shown at the Fountain restaurant in Albany in February 2006. Performing are Skip Parsons, clarinet (in red sweater vest); Mo Rancourt, cornet, trumpet; Woody Strobeck, trombone; Eddie Kebabjian, banjo; Rich Skrika, keyboards; Rich Downs, acoustic bass; and Tim Coakley, drums. (Cliff Lamere photo)

George “Skip” Parsons, Dixieland and traditional jazz clarinetist extraordinaire, died last Thursday, April 21, after suffering a stroke the previous Monday. He was 86. For all the legions of fans of his Riverboat Jazz Band, the Capital Region’s music scene will not be the same. Because for Skip, music was his life.

“Absolutely,” said longtime drummer Tim Coakley. “The band was his lifeblood. He was always busy. He managed the band. He got the guest soloists often from New York City like Doc Cheatham, Warren Vache and Ken Peplowski to come up. He sent out the mailings and kept in touch with the venues. He did it all.”

Born in Albany, Parsons started clarinet around 9 years old and by high school he was booking dance jobs and attending jam sessions, especially for early jazz. Occasionally, he’d play soprano or baritone saxophone and even sing.

“He enjoyed playing the music he grew up on,” Coakley said. “It’s the first of what he heard.”

Those were tunes like “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” “Muscrat Ramble,” and “Basin Street,” which formed the repertoire of not only his early six-piece Riverboat Six that he formed in 1956 when he was 20, and which Parsons expanded to his seven-piece Riverboat Jazz Band soon after.

He also opened a music store in Delmar in 1978 to repair and sell instruments, especially to local high school musicians as well as maintain a home repair shop over his garage. The store closed in 1998.

As a music freelancer and especially as a band leader, Parsons knew he had to find the bookings to keep paying the bills, and that’s something Coakley especially appreciated.

“He found hundreds of places to play: cruises, jazz brunches, Mardi Gras gigs, restaurants, pubs in Vermont, New Jersey, Syracuse. I enjoyed that band,” he said.

of the biggest spotlights came when Riverboat Jazz Band was named the official jazz band of the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics. ABC Sports literally projected the band’s sound around the world on television. Longtime bass player Ernie Belanger remembers that event well.

“We had gotten bored one night so three of us went to a bar and started jamming,” said Belanger, who retired from the United States Postal Service in 2000 but still gigs regularly around. “Skip said ‘Hey, that’s a good sound.’ That’s how Clarinet Marmelade started.”

It gave Parsons flexibility. If a venue couldn’t afford a full band or a smaller group was needed, Parsons could bring Clarinet Marmalade as a trio or make it a quartet, he said.

Belanger recalled another great story of Parsons’ ingenuity and the flexibilty musicians need to have.

“Skip booked cruises that came from Rhode Island, sailed up the Hudson River to the Erie Canal and then went back,” he said. “He did this for years. We’d play an hour gig at one of the locks and they’d let us off at the next lock. But one time they docked on the other side of the river. So they put us into a row boat — and I had been playing a sousaphone — and rowed us back to where our cars were.”

Just one of the unexpected moments in what Belanger said was “always an upbeat experience.”

But steady gigs are always best and one of the longest was at The Fountain restaurant in Albany, where the band played each weekend for 48 years until 2019. It’s where Cliff Lamere, one of the band’s longtime fans, first met Parsons.

“It was during the 1970s, and someone had recommended me to go hear the band. I liked his music,” Lamere said.

But years would pass before he went back again, and this time he began to go almost every weekend.

“I loved the music because it had a melody and the guys were all friendly,” he said.

He became such a regular that he got a front side table, the “guys greeted me, and I’d get a pizza for them for their breaks.” He also began taking pictures of the band and Belanger would give him everyone’s name. In time, Lamere started a website (skip.clifflamere.com) devoted to Parsons, which now includes everything from historical shots, to players’ bios and lists of the band’s many CDs.

Although Parsons was a “diligent practicer and had a wide-ranging repertoire,” Coakley said, in recent years he’d had health issues, including heart bypass and vertigo. But the band kept performing, most recently at McGeary’s Pub in Albany. On Sept. 7, 2019, Parsons and the Riverboat Jazz Band were honored by Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan with a plaque proclaiming it as their Band Day with a performance at the Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival. And on Oct. 18, 2021, the band was one of seven inductees for an Eddies Award.

Parsons will be missed.

“He was one of my best friends,” Berlanger said. “I will really miss him.”

Coakley said, “He leaves a big hole in the community. He was the only one playing this kind of music. He had an extensive repertoire and was easy to work with. Very knowledgeable. He used to say, ‘Dixieland is a place not a music. We play traditional jazz.’ ”

Parsons will have a funeral Mass Thursday (April 28) at 10 a.m. at St. Thomas the Apostle Church at 35 Adams Place, Delmar. Clarinetist Ron Joseph, who often played with the band and was a close friend, will perform the solo “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”

Parsons is survived by Linda, his wife of 49 years, of Feura Bush, his daughters, Stacey Plante and Jill Wilson, their husbands, David Plante and Gregory Wilson, and grandsons Alex and Josh Plante.

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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