Jazz Institute of Chicago

Bird with Strings: My gig with Charlie Parker

Bird with Strings:
My gig with Charlie Parker
by Kenny Fredrickson

I was working at Ju Ju's Glass Show Lounge, a strip joint on the West Side with drummer Guy Viveros and Gene Esposito, who played a lot of trumpet back in those days. We didn't have a bass player, although lots of them came to sit in during the two years I worked there.
Some of the girls complained that they couldn't dance to tunes by Charlie Parker, Monk, Dizzy G. and Miles. If they complained too much, Ju Ju, or his lieutenant, Pat Delano, got rid of them.

I staggered home one night after the gig, hit the sack, and was sleeping soundly when who should call at 6 a.m. but Leroy Silverman. Leroy, a tenor player, emulated Prez to the best of his ability—and did a pretty good job of it. He always carried Prez's picture in his wallet—never left home without it.

"Kenny," he lisped in his breathy voice, "Would you like to work with Bird?" I muttered something about it being too early in the morning for jokes, but he persisted. "Al Haig left the gig suddenly because of the violins." I had to say "Yes." He told me to pick up the charts at the Croyden Hotel.

Kenny Fredrickson

I ran over to get them and spent the next several hours woodshedding. Beautiful changes. Great tunes. "If I Should Lose You," "Dancing in the Dark," "How Deep is the Ocean." (I'm looking back a half century.) "Repetition" was one of the jazz tunes. Gerry Mulligan and other top arrangers contributed to the book.

We played the Blue Note to packed audiences. Roy Haynes was the drummer and Curley Russell the bassist. Bird had two violins, viola, cello and oboe plus a harp player who was struggling with the charts—usually he just played one chord at the end of each tune. Bird used to yell "Now!" when it was time for his chord.

Bird treated everyone with gentlemanly courtesy, including yours truly. He played brilliantly and didn't get high during the entire gig, which lasted several weeks. After Chicago, we played Detroit for a week or so, then on to Philadelphia where we were opposite Slim Gaillard.

Slim came in three days late, but once he got on the stand he brought the house down with his humor. Even the Italian club owner, who initially was ready to break his head, wound up hysterical with laughter. It was called (the joint, that is) Club Harlem. Bird played his heart out to predominantly Black audiences who yelled "Blow, Bird, blow!" and other encouragements.

One night Bird's driver took off in the Caddy with Bird's horn in the trunk. Everyone, including Bird, was getting frantic. Slim Gaillard stalled the crowd, then finally asked if anyone had an alto sax that Bird could borrow. Twenty minutes later, a cat brought in an old beat-up sax with no case. Bird put rubber bands and tape on the horn to hold it together, then he got up on stage and blew just as well as he did with his regular horn.

Some random recollections. On one gig Bird didn't feel well and decided to rest during breaks on a tractor in another part of the building. Another night, just as the oboe player got up to take a solo, a beautiful brunette in a red dress—really stacked—walked in. He played a solo from a different chart! Bird, and the rest of us, fell out laughing.

One day, during rehearsal, Bird announced that only he and the rhythm section would be playing a special concert at a black high school. Things were getting a little hairy by this time. Bird had been chastising Roy Haynes for "laying down on the job." I guess the violins were cramping Roy's style. He wanted to play with Bird and the rhythm section only on some of the numbers—at least that's what I think was happening.

At that same time, Bud Powell was in town visiting his mother (it was said he had recently hit her over the head with a hammer—although I don't think Creedence Clearwater would have believed that hoary tale of violence—I was skeptical myself). Bud was a perfect gentleman when I'd invited him and a few friends up to my 'crib' at Jack Worth's 20-room mansion. We played Bud's trio records he made with Max Roach and Curley Russell and Bud broke up laughing at the great things he and Max and Curley were playing. In fact, Bud laughed throughout the whole album.

I suggested that Bird ask Bud to play with him at the high school. I didn't have to twist his arm as he loved Bud. They played the gig, but I had a date with a beautiful Spanish chick. Now I curse myself for missing the best musical action on the planet. To my knowledge, Bird and Bud never played together after that. They tried again at Birdland, but got into an argument and Bud split, never to return that night. In my opinion, Bud Powell—not Bird—was the grand master of Be-bop. Al Haig (according to Bud, the "perfect" piano player) and Al Cohn, among others, all said that Bud was where bebop was at.

During the weeks I had the pleasure of working with Bird I heard never-ending perfection pouring out of his horn, I decided that he was the world's greatest player on an E-flat alto sax. He was the stylist of the century—this or any century.

Most jazz piano players come out second best in comparison with horn players, who, after all, are out front leading the assault on rock and roll. (Unfortunately, all to no avail. Idiocy, I'm afraid, is firmly entrenched. They're being enshrined in a "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," or should I say, "Hall of Infamy!")

I'm thrilled to hear young jazz musicians of today playing the same standards, and bebop classics, that we played in the '40s, '50s and '60s. If it weren't for them, today's youth would never hear Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Rodgers and Hart (Hammerstein), George Gershwin, Kern, Lerner and Lowe, and dozens of other great composers.

Getting back to Bird with Strings. I broke my prescription glasses and left the gig before the New York opening at Birdland—I couldn't get replacements fast enough. Bird asked me to play anyway, but I was pissed off at his old lady, Chan, for telling me that Al Haig was Bird's favorite pianist. Also, I could see the music from one inch away but was embarrassed to have people say, "Who in the hell is that?" Me with my nose up against the charts. It just wouldn't look good.

Bird ran off with the money from that gig and got taken to the union by Curley Russell. Curley later told me, "He may the great Bird to you, but to me he's just Charlie Parker, E-flat alto saxophonist."

Kenny Fredrickson just arrived back in Chicago, on March 1, after a long absence. He hopes to start gigging again soon.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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