Charlie Parker and I

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Bird of Paradise – Charlie Parker

I have written a few times about my lazy relationship with my saxophone, a Boosey & Hawkes silver alto made in 1935 with a Selma C mouthpiece holding a Rico Royal Reed of 3 & 1/2 usually.  The reed produces the sound and they come from a plant called Arundo donax, or giant cane.  

Saxophone_reeds-alto,_tenorAny saxophone player worth her salt (like Charlotte Glasson for example) would find a 3 reed way too soft to play.  That’s one reason why I say lazy.  If you rehearse every day, even for an hour or two, you’ll need to put in a harder reed sooner or later.  The numbers refer to the thickness : one is very soft and easy to play, five is tough, needs to be licked on for a minute and you have to blow like a bastard to get any sound out of it, or at least I do.   Then again, all mouthpieces are different and eventually you find the reed that suits you.  I wrote about my early screechy  days with this instrument in My Pop Life #19 then discussed my struggles with tuning and pitch in My Pop Life 80 when I was playing with school band Rough Justice.  Later I discussed a disastrous audition for old school chum and Pogues drummer Andrew Ranken in My Pop Life #149 when he was putting together a band called The Operation while I was playing with a group called Birds of Tin.  And perhaps my finest saxophone memory was busking Stan Getz, glowingly reminisced through rose-tinted glasses in My Pop Life #68.

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This entry will have to join those stumbles around my chosen instrument if only through omission, because I have never attempted to play any Charlie Parker.  Why would I willingly submit to such humiliation?   It may, indeed, have been familiarity with those early sides on Dial Records from 1946-7 which prompted me to become an actor rather than a musician.  The mountaintop just couldn’t be seen let alone climbed, and I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to practice for 8 hours a day just to play to a handful of aficionados in a darkened cellar for hardly any money while hooked on heroin.

Then again, as my T-shirt says, it’s never too late to start wasting your life.

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Someone must have told me that Charlie Parker played the same instrument as me.   A purely superficial likeness, because I could never even play a single bar of music like Charlie.  But I bought an LP with his name on it in my early 20s and played it to death.  It was called Bird Symbols and he recorded the sides in 1947.  It’s called bebop music, and it broke the mould of jazz, which was in the late 30s & the war years, big-band swing music.  Young pups like Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and others reduced the band size down to five or six and stretched the possibilities of phrasing, rhythm, harmonics and even sound itself, producing a schism in the form which then divided fans, critics and musicians alike.  Louis Armstrong for example was not a fan of bebop.

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Charlie Parker playing his alto early 1940s

Jazz took the high road after this and exploded into a thousand different forms.  I knew nothing of this when I bought it, I just listened to a young man playing the alto saxophone and held my breath because what he was doing sounded impossible to play, and for me it still is.   There is something so totally confident here, so stretched and bold and strong that I cannot conceive of really being in that space.  The opening four tracks of the LP are perhaps his signature sides : Moose The Mooche, Yardbird Suite, Ornithology and A Night In Tunisia pretty much defined early bebop and Charlie Parker, the new demon of the alto sax.  They are strange twisted mad tunes, spinning on their axes, interrupted phrases leading to staggering solos, bewitching breathless runs like excited thought patterns as the instruments have conversations with each other, debating the tune, arguing its merits, raising objections, re-iterating the main melody again.  They are short explosions of music, all under three minutes long, all totally original, all thrilling. But for me they are all a little theoretical, perhaps too esoteric.  The energy is fantastic, the playing beyond impressive.  But they don’t make me swoon in the end.

Bird of Paradise is track seven, or track one of side two when you flipped the vinyl over.  It is a different beast altogether, slower, contemplative, sweet and gentle and it stole my heart. There is something about the way Parker plays the opening phrase, he kind of falls into it, blowing like he is simply breathing out, making each fluid cadence sound perfectly natural, using the final four bars to sum up a whole universe of feeling which doesn’t resolve but just opens the door for the trumpet (not Miles Davis on this track but Howard McGhee) before pianist Dod Marmarosa turns the beat upside down with a clever phrase that tickles my ears every time.   I don’t know how to describe perfection, especially not in jazz, but I have been obsessed with this tune since I first heard it.  I have never tried to play it, probably wisely.  But there’s still time.

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Charlie Parker watches Lester Young playing tenor

Charlie Parker grew up in Kansas City, Missouri.  Background notes : the local jazz scene had an R’n’B-influenced swing sound using blues shouters like Jimmy Rushing fronting Bennie Moten‘s Kansas City Orchestra.   When Bennie died in 1935, Count Basie formed his own band with some of the players, including Rushing, and innovative stylists Jo Jones on the drums (who started using the hi-hat to keep time rather than the bass drum) and tenor saxophone player Lester Young.  Young had a sweet sound when he was backing Teddy Wilson & Billie Holiday (My Pop Life #162) but when he played with Count Basie in Kansas City his long flowing melodic lines, ear-catching pauses and his harmonic & rhythmic daring caught the attention of the teenaged Parker, and every other saxophone player in America.   Parker played the Basie sides on his parent’s Victrola over and over again until he had learned every single Lester Young solo by heart.  That’s dedication and that’s what it takes to be a great player!  Various stories of his early life include getting lost in a solo and losing track of the key changes playing live in a jam session.  The drummer – Jo Jones – threw a cymbal at his feet to make him leave the stage but it only spurred him on – an incident grossly misrepresented in the film Whiplash by the way.

Charlie Parker was quoted as saying that he practised in those days up to 15 hours a day.

Not lazy, young Charles.

He was unfortunate though –  following a car accident when he was hospitalized and given morphine he discovered that he rather liked the feeling and sought it out in the form of heroin for the rest of his life.

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Early picture of Count Basie in New York City

Charlie Parker moved to New York City in 1939 and hooked up with Dizzy, a very young Miles Davis and heroin, and started to practice with bass player Gene Ramey, trying out harmonic innovations in his time off from the gigs he had with the Jay McShann Orchestra.  Other instrumentalists were doing similar things – Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Charlie Christian and Max Roach and others were all seeing what they could invent, imagining a different sound, then trying to find it.  Eventually a group of them moved to Los Angeles where these tracks were recorded in 1946.

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Charlie Parker

There is a good film about Charlie Parker called Bird, starring Forrest Whitaker and directed by jazz aficionado Clint Eastwood.  The talent of the man was immense but so was his appetite for being high.  That cat was high.  Personally speaking, if I even have a joint I find playing music rather more difficult.  Especially the piano.  What is that note?  A?  It all becomes rather vague.  And drink – well one is fine, perhaps another at the interval, but any more than that and I’m playing like a dick.   I’ve always maintained that there are two types of people in the world : People who maintain that there are two types of people in the world, and everyone else.  Not but seriously – those who seek oblivion, and those who fear oblivion.  I am of the latter persuasion, once I go over my limit, once I start to Lose Control, I stop.  I don’t want to wake up in the gutter with one shoe.  I don’t want to see what happens if we all go down to the pier and jump into the sea.  No.  I’m a control freak in that sense.  Maybe I’m missing the point but I cannot stand in the shoes of Charlie Parker and imagine what it was like to play those solos while high as a kite.  Envious ?  Sure, a little.  But I wouldn’t trade places with him I don’t think, even though I would say he is probably the greatest saxophone player I have ever heard.  I have other favourites – Lester Young for sure, Stan Getz every day, but Parker, when he IS high and he plays a ballad like Just Friends for example from his ‘sax plus strings‘ era on Verve Records, or like this tune Bird of Paradise, well, there simply is no one finer.  Listen to him here and melt.

 

an incredible stoned version from 1947 called All The Things You Are with Miles Davis, Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter and Max Roach.  It’s the same tune.

12 thoughts on “Charlie Parker and I

  1. Great read.

    By a nice coincidence, I A-listed Ella Fitzgerald’s version of All the Things You Are two weeks back and one of the line’s I had to edit away from the final piece was:

    Charlie Parker used the ‘you are the angel glow’ line from All the Things You Are to create Bird of Paradise.

    I took that from this very good wiki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_the_Things_You_Are

    Since that article was written, I have Bird of Paradise on repeat; it makes me feel light and happy.

  2. Good read. I have no discernible musical ability whatsoever and (I have just realised) no Charlie Parker CDs in my collection either. Currently eyeing up a Verve 5 disc collection which includes “Bird and Diz” since a few people have recommended that one as a good place to start.

  3. Thanks guys. I am not an expert. But I do know that like Billie Holiday and others there are distinct periods on different labels so you’ll never get an overview. You have to pick n mix. The early sides on Dial are compressed onto the LP Bird Symbols which is a perfect introduction to the explosion of bebop in 1945-47. Happy hunting !

  4. What a treat! Never thought I’d live to see Bird on the Spill. But if anyone was going to put him up here it had to be Magic, amazing. What’s also amazing is that sitting on my desktop ready to go is the Duke Ellington equivalent post, I wrote it and made a playlist about a week ago and I’m not sure what was holding me back from posting it except I’m waiting for Wyngate to clear his system. So I’m glad I didn’t, we’ll let the air clear a bit first. Funny detail, my post features the main challenger to Bird, Johnny Hodges another claim to world’s greatest crown. Never rains but it pours.
    OK, so in 1942 I was obsessed with Louis Armstrong and New Orleans jazz, the real stuff. The first time I heard Charlie Parker I absolutely couldn’t stand it, I thought he was awful and I’d never ever hear him again. But here I am a few years later and he rates as one of the top jazz players in my collection. As I read this I thought that I had all of Bird’s albums, everything on record and then Magic floors me with that first one, Bird Symbols’, I’ve never heard of it! But I do have a few that I can recommend, so oddballs, like Supersax, an LA group of sax players who were so devoted to Bird’s improvised solos that they formed a group to play only transposed versions arranged for 4 or 5 saxes, they’re wonderful. And then there’s King Pleasure who took the sax solo from Parker’s Mood and wrote lyrics to it, also great, plus there’s others, I’m sure if I look I’ll find both on youtube.
    And then in the early 60’s soon after I arrived here I saw an ad for a theatrical production in Hollywood, it was called ‘The Connection’ by Jack Gelber. It was staged in what looked like a large restaurant with a stage, on the stage was a jazz group and about 5-6 actors who did little more than get agitated as their [heroin] connection was slow to show. One of the actors constantly carried a Bird LP and looked for a turntable, the jazz group would play occasionally. At the intermission the director addressed the audience who were all sitting at tables a la a restaurant, he explained that these were not actors but real junkies and that they would probably harass the audience for money. Please don’t give them any, we have an arrangement where supply their needs. And sure enough they swarmed all over the audience demanding money; I believed it. Well finally the connection did arrive, everyone was happy and the guy with the LP found a turntable and we heard Parker’s Mood. It was so realistic that I returned the following Friday for a repeat performance.

    Here’s Parker’s Mood.

    Here’s King Pleasure

    And here’s Supersax

    Just a another treat, The Norman Granz Jam Sessiion, the Charlie Parker sides.
    1952 on Verve. Unbelievably Bird with Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges plus Ben Webster, Flip Phillips, Barney Kessel, and Oscar Peterson.

    • I cannot I’m afraid GF, none of us know enough to spot any error in there, well speaking for myself of course !! Great contribution ! I had no idea – apart from the huge number of bootlegs out there – that Parker had left such a subculture behind him.

      • “I had no idea – apart from the huge number of bootlegs out there – that Parker had left such a subculture behind him.”
        “I had no idea – apart from the huge number of bootlegs out there – that Parker had left such a subculture behind him.”
        He did indeed! I once did a 2 hour radio program devoted to all the various worldwide artists who picked up on the single piece “Parker’s Mood” and then played their own changes on the tune. And then there were those who picked up on the first generation and then added another layer, ad nauseum. That’s how in part it was so easy for me to find 3 versions on youtube, there’s dozens more.
        Google ‘Supersax’ to see all their albums devoted only to orchestrations of Bird’s solos; they’re an LA band and I used to see a lot of them. Still got all the albums.

  5. Great post Magic!

    The only Charlie Parker record I have is the “Bird Symbols” one you mention above, but I have to confess I haven’t really listened to it much. It was one of the first jazz records I bought when I was exploring this “new” genre a few years ago and I remember listening to it a few times when I first bought it and deciding that it wasn’t for me and I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about Charlie Parker.

    I’ve just pulled it off the shelf for the first time since those first few listens and will give it another go tonight with the renewed insight only the best ‘Spill posts can give!

    • Well, I’ve given it a couple of listens and it was exactly as beautifully described above. The1st side was lively and exciting, but I felt the same in that it didn’t really speak to me. I much preferred the more contemplative Side 2 of the album and will definitely be going back for many more repeat listens. Thanks for helping me get to know my own record collection!

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