NEW YORK, NY - CIRCA 1946 (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Yardbird: 100 Years of Charlie Parker

Dominic Green looks at the immortality of jazz saxophonist, Charlie Parker

Artillery Row

As with John Keats, you wonder what Charlie Parker might have achieved had he really got going. Parker, who died in 1955, would have been 100 years old this year. The idea of Parker the centenarian is almost as preposterous as the idea that Parker would, on the occasions when both he and his alto turned up at a club at the same time, rewrite the vocabulary of American popular music, transform jazz into a modern art, become both famous and penniless, and die in the New York apartment of a jazz-fancying Hungarian baroness with the attending doctor, unaware that the corpse before him had combined the facility of Paganini with the harmonic intelligence of Beethoven, guessing that the deceased was 65 years old. He was in fact 35, and already immortal.

LOS ANGELES – CIRCA 1945: Charlie Parker (Photo by Ray Whitten Photography/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Much of Parker’s life remains obscure, but everything suggests the legend is more or less true. He really was a heroin addict from the age of 15. He really did come late to the saxophone, and he really wasn’t much shakes at first. The young Parker really did struggle when he sat in with Lester Young and other members of the Basie group in Kansas City, and Jo Jones really did throw a cymbal at his feet to stop him playing. He really did take up the alto as second-best to tenor: apart from Lester, Parker’s other idol was Leon “Chu” Berry, after whom he named his son. After not just the statutory woodshedding but also an inner communing with the harmonies that no soloist had yet managed, he really did appear as if from nowhere in New York City and make jazz a modern art form. And he really did turn up at Stravinsky’s house in Los Angeles in the middle of night and have the door slammed in his face.

To mark Parker’s centenary, Craft Records have reissued the recordings Parker made with his first label, Savoy. Recorded in New York City between September 1944 and September 1948, these six studio sessions were Parker’s first studio work and the first to reach the public; a further single track was recorded live at Carnegie Hall. Savoy issued the sides chronologically as 78 rpm singles, but between 1948 and 1950 the label repackaged them into four ten-inch albums, Modern Music, Volumes 1-4, each with six to eight tracks. The reason for this was that while the Savoy singles were announcing Parker as a sensation, Parker was recording with the Dial label and also on live recordings for Norman Granz’s Verve Records. To slice the salami thinly, Savoy jumbled the chronology of the recordings. They remain jumbled in aspic on Crate Records’ lovely time-capsule box of reissues.

Then and now, the Savoy artefact gets in the way of Parker’s art. To understand the chronology of his development, you have to jump between these Savoy albums when you’re not replicating the original listeners’ experience by jumping up and down to flip the discs, each side of which contains less than 12 minutes of music. The first side of Volume 1 begins with a demure take on Parker’s signature tune, “Now’s The Time”, from the second recording session (November 1945). The sequencing jumps forward to the third session (May 1947) for “Donna Lee” and “Chasin’ the Bird”, with Miles Davis having replaced Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet and the quintet firing on all cylinders. Only then do we hear “Red Cross”, from the revealing first session of September 1944, in which Parker was awkwardly paired with the conventional Swing of guitarist Tiny Grimes’ quartet.

Parker’s solo on ‘Red Cross’ sounds like a message from the future. His opening phrase strikes flattened fifth, the quintessence of discord, on the downbeat; not an unusual move at all, in fact quite traditional. So is the impeccable Kansas City blues of its resolution. But where a blues or Swing player would simply repeat this move from discord to concord, Parker slides sideways across the chords, substituting chromatically as he goes. “It is an essentially Romantic paradox,” Charles Rosen wrote, “that the primacy of sound in Romantic music should be accompanied, and even announced, by a sonority that is not only unrealisable but unimaginable.”

You can hear the quartet’s relief when Parker stops. Should you wish to repeat this awkward but instructive experience, “Tiny’s Tempo”, the other track from this session, is somewhere on Volume 3.

He really did appear as if from nowhere in New York City and make jazz a modern art form

The second side of Volume 1 resumes chronologically with “Ko-Ko” and “Warmin’ Up a Riff” from the November 1945 session, but then leapfrogs to the fourth session (August 1947) for “Half Nelson” and “Sippin’ at Bells”. This session was effectively a Miles Davis date, with Parker playing second fiddle, in this case tenor saxophone. When Parker plays tenor, he reveals a debt to Lester Young, the apogee of Swing style, that is less obvious when Parker is on alto. The same might be said of Sonny Stitt, except that he sounded like Parker when he played alto. If you want to hear more of Parker’s tenor, “Milestones” and “Little Willie Leaps” are on Volume 2, jumbled with two tracks from the November 1945 session (“Billie’s Bounce” and “Thriving From a Riff” with Dizzy Gillespie (November 1945), two from the May 1947 session (“Cheryl” and “Buzzy”, with John Lewis replacing Bud Powell on piano) and two from the fifth session (December 1947), now with Duke Jordan on piano.

The chronology is a little straighter on Volumes 3 and 4, which are almost entirely composed of recordings from the fifth and sixth sessions (December 1947 and September 1948). But by then, the Savoy sessions no longer contain the whole story. Between March 1946 and September 1947, Parker recorded dozens of tracks for Dial Records. These include quintessential Boppers like ‘Moose the Mooch’, ‘Yardbird Suite’, ‘Ornithology’, ‘A Night In Tunisia’, ‘Scrapple From the Apple’; ballads like ‘Lover Man’ and ‘The Gypsy’, which are superior to the sole Savoy ballad, ‘Parker’s Mood’; and the West Coast sessions that followed after Parker’s release from mental hospital in California in 1947, which produced ‘Relaxin’ at Camarillo’.

To really understand the Parker chronology — how the Savoy sides sound so strong, and why this uncommercial music was repackaged so mercilessly — you have to look beyond the Savoy recordings, and in both directions. Unless you were living in New York City in the early Forties and frequented a few clubs after hours, Parker really did explode from nowhere. Between 1942 and 1944, wartime rationing meant that no new discs were printed in the United States. This meant that Bebop, like the atomic bomb, was not launched upon an unsuspecting public before it had been tested. The crucial innovations were worked out in semi-privacy. After finishing their paid gigs, Parker, Gillespie and a small group of intrepid experimenters reconvened to jam at clubs like Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem.

NEW YORK – CIRCA 1947: The Charlie Parker Quintet (L-R) Tommy Potter on bass, Charlie Parker on saxaphone, Max Roach on drums (hidden), Miles Davis on trumpet and Duke Jordan on piano perform at the Three Deuces circa 1947 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)

Almost all of the core Minton experimenters appear on the Savoy sessions. The pianist Bud Powell worked out how to voice substitute, extended and chromatic chords. The bassist Tommy Potter worked out how to follow Powell. The drummer Max Roach, instead of pumping out the beat Swing-style on kick and snare, divided its elements polyrhythmically among the parts of the drumkit, thus freeing both kick and snare as supporting artillery for the soloist. And of course Dizzy Gillespie, whose subsequent fame proved the old adage that if you’re going to attempt something clever on stage, you’d best play the jester.

It was Parker who forged the union of jazz, European Romanticism and Hollywood romance, a union which everyone knows

Missing is the first modern jazz guitarist, Charlie Christian, who died of tuberculosis in 1942. Christian was moonlighting at Minton’s from Benny Goodman’s sextet, which had pushed small-group Swing to its limit. In the few partial recordings that survive from the proto-Bop years, you can hear Christian working his way across the narrow harmonic bridge of chord extensions and chromaticism. The same chasm is displayed here on Parker’s recordings with Tiny Grimes, which were recorded after the Minton’s tapes but sound much older.

At the time, the harmonic division between ancients and moderns consumed much ink and produced much vitriol. Then again, Norman Granz successfully packaged Parker with Swing players at the Jazz at the Philharmonic shows of January and April 1946, though the wariness of both parties can be heard in Parker’s cautious first chorus on “Oh, Lady Be Good” at the Philharmonic Coliseum, and the interpolation of a drum solo between Parker’s solo and Lester Young’s. Now, our ears thoroughly attuned to Parker’s revolution, the similarities between Swing and Bop improvisation, and Bop’s formal reliance on much older styles, are more striking than their differences. The Savoy recordings, like all avant-garde art, sound behind the pace as time passes. This too is a Romantic paradox.

The chromatic intimacy between Lester Young’s ‘Tickle Toe’ (1940) and Parker’s substitutions at the end of the bridge of his solo on ‘Red Cross’ is what made Modern Jazz modern — and what had already made the Romantic chromaticism of Liszt and Chopin modern. The solo on ‘Red Cross’ is chromatic, but the harmonic chassis is that of Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’ (1930). In the blizzard of Parker’s notes on ‘Donna Lee’, the opening phrase of Waller’s ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ (1929) flies by at lightning speed; Parker also used ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ as the chordal basis for ‘Scrapple From The Apple’.

On this first version of ‘Now’s The Time’ — the better one being the later recording for Verve — Parker’s solo begins within the bounds of Kansas City, and Miles Davis is still young enough to play vibrato. In the third bar, a jabbed flattened fifth and a rimshot in reply suggest an imminent detour into one of Parker’s pealing descants. The second chorus follows this pattern, a logical progression from the known to the unknown. The third ends with furious double-time, only to tie up with a decorative lick in the rococo manner of Johnny Hodges. On ‘Ko-Ko’, Parker plays the head accompanied only by drums, exposed to the ear at top speed. Again, his solo emerges from the slalom of the changes and, as if coming up for air, hits and holds a high note with a tremulous peal like Hodges. We are closer to the terrain of Chu Berry, the ornamental blues, than to age of Chuck Berry and the revenge of the three-chord trick. The Savoy recordings may not tell the entire story, but they do hold the secret of Bebop’s creation, misfires and all.

As for what happened next, the real story of Charlie Parker and European modernism is not that anecdote about Stravinsky in Hollywood, slamming the door in Parker’s face. It is the story of how Parker was, in another sense, pushing at an open door in Hollywood. There is a deep theoretical and emotional affinity between Parker’s music and the displaced music of Mahler’s followers. In the early 1940s, while Parker & Co. were working up Bebop in New York City as a revolution in popular taste, similar chromatic harmonies could be heard in the most commercial and popular art of all: the movies. We can hear it in the work of composers like Max Steiner, who was born in Vienna in 1888 and composed the soundtracks for Now,Voyager and Casablanca in 1942, while Parker and Gillespie were jamming at Minton’s, and The Big Sleep in 1946, while Parker was recording for Savoy, Dial and Verve; or Adolph Deutsch, who composed dance band arrangements in England before moving to Hollywood and writing the Schoenberg-inflected soundtrack for The Maltese Falcon (1941); or Erich Wolfgang Korngold who consummated the union of Romantic music and Hollywood by improving on Wagner for the biopic Magic Fire (1956).

It’s not just that the show tune is in large part a legacy of the lighter side of Viennese music — one of the last conventional numbers that John Coltrane recorded was ‘Vilia’, from Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow (1905) — or that Parker’s experiments in chromaticism, so baffling and alien to many jazz listeners and critics in the 1940s and 1950s, would have been old hat in the Vienna not just of Schoenberg, but also of Mahler. It’s that Parker’s music is saturated in both Romanticism and romanticism: the display of technical ambition and individual genius, as well as the intense emotionality in execution. When Norman Granz recorded Charlie Parker with Strings in 1950, the hipsters complained that the harmonies were too sweet and not Modern enough. But this was the album that Parker had always wanted to make, to combine the lyricism of the blues with that of nineteenth-century European orchestral music.

Parker’s legacy in jazz is obvious. As with the later Beethoven, there are flashes on the Savoy recordings where a phrase from a Parker solo anticipates the subsequent development of the art, as well as the careers of its critically successful practitioners. He remains the point of departure for the serious would-be jazz musician: the moment when I knew I’d never make any money from playing the guitar was when I sat down and started memorizing transcriptions of Parker solos. Yet his legacy on screen goes ignored. But it was Parker who forged the union of jazz, European Romanticism and Hollywood romance, a union which everyone knows from the Sixties and Seventies’ soundtracks of Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones and Jerry Goldsmith.

So great was Parker’s impact that he may have been the first artist to undergo exposure by outtake and bootleg. Today, no digital reissue is complete without each familiar track being dogged by its crowd of inferior ghosts. Parker’s Dial outtakes were issued in the late Fifties and his Verve outtakes in 1990 on the Bird boxset. The missing link recordings at Minton’s were bootlegged in the Fifties, and so were radio broadcasts of Parker’s gigs in dancehalls. Listening to these recordings demolishes one ideal about jazz — that solos are pure inspiration, hatched from the fingers like Dionysus from the thigh of Zeus — but it also confirms another ideal: jazz as an art of spontaneous recomposition.

When Miles Davis resolves his solo on “Bluebird” with an apparently throwaway flourish, Max Roach doubles it on the snare drum. This is not so much telepathy as mind-reading. Roach knows that the rhythm of the preceding phrases has reduced the number of likely rhythm patterns in the resolution, and he knows Davis likes to use that flourish in particular. Davis knows it too, which is why he’s able to throw it away so casually. But it’s still a gamble. The early Savoy recordings contain many moments when the gambles don’t pay off — odd silences, stutters, rhythmic and tonal collisions.

A centenarian Parker is no more possible to imagine than the meeting in 1895 between a centenarian Keats and young T.S. Eliot

They also contain the biography of signature phrases. All composers have them, and especially spontaneous recomposers. The Parker lick that would become the head of “Cool Blues” (recorded for Dial in 1947) , a descending major scale that lands Lester Young-style on a ninth, appears in November 1945 on his Savoy solo on “Billie’s Bounce”. In August 1947, Davis ornaments the same phrase in his solo on “Little Willie Leaps”. The lazy blues phrase that Parker would use in the fourth bar of his first chorus on the Verve version of “Now’s The Time” (1953) appears on Savoy in the fourth bar of his first chorus on “Another Hair Do” and again in the second chorus of ‘Bluebird’.

On the Verve “Now’s The Time”, Parker follows that blues phrase with a glissando from F to Ab and another blues lick, and then runs down the scales of the substituted chords in quavers and triplets. On “Bluebird”, however, he jumps the gears. That lazy blues phrase leads straight to the substitutions, and in double time. The comparison shows how phrasal vocabulary is reordered by improvisation. Add the outtakes and the live recordings, and we can hear how that vocabulary is rewritten in its restatement.

A centenarian Parker is no more possible to imagine than the meeting in 1895 between a centenarian Keats and young T.S. Eliot or the meeting in 1954 between a centenarian Oscar Wilde and a young Gunther Grass. Fate and style are not supposed to permit this sort of mingling. But, just as Keats operated in a literary London shaped by Augustan solidities as much as Romantic experiments, so Parker rewrote the book of Jazz in the world not just of Benny Goodman and the Dorsey Brothers, but also the world of Louis Armstrong and the Kansas City blues. As Keats reconnected English literature to Shakespeare, so Parker framed his Romantic innovations four-square in the blues. And Parker, like Keats, is with us forever. There swung one whose name was writ on vinyl.

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