Jazz Institute of Chicago

Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker
by Stuart Nicholson

The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve Vol 4
Verve 837146-2
Parker (alt); Mitch Miller (ob, possibly eng h); Bronislaw Gimpel, Max Hollander, Milt Lomask (vln); Frank Brieff (vla); Frank Miller (cel); Myor Rosen (hrp); Stan Freeman (p); Ray Brown (bs); Buddy Rich (d); Jimmy Carroll (cond, arr).
New York City
30 November 1949
Just friends. Everything happens to me. April in Paris. Summertime. I didn't know what time it was. If I should lose you.
Parker (alt); Hank Jones (p); Ray Brown (bs) Buddy Rich (d).
New York City
Early April 1950
Star eyes. Blues (fast). I'm in the mood for love.
Dizzy Gillespie (tpt); Parker (alt); Thelonious Monk (p); Curly Russell (bs) Buddy Rich (d).
New York City
6 June 1950.
Bloomdido. An Oscar for Treadwell (2 versions). Mohawk (3 versions). My melancholy baby (3 versions). Leapfrog (5 versions). Relaxin' with Lee (3 versions).

The Complete Charlie Parker On Verve Vol.6
Verve 837149-2
Miles Davis (tpt); Parker (alt); Walter Bishop Jr. (p); Teddy Kotick (bs); Max Roach (d).
New York City
17 January 1951.
Au privave (2 versions). She rote (2 versions). K.C. blues. Star eyes.
Parker (as); Walter Bishop Jr. (p); Teddy Kotick (bs); Roy Haynes (d); Jose Mangual (bgos); Luis Miranda (cga).
New York City
12 March 1951.
My little suede shoes. Un poquito de tu amor. Tico tico. Fiesta. Why do I love you? (3 versions).
Red Rodney (nee Robert Chudnick) (tpt); Parker (alt); John Lewis (p); Ray Brown (bs) Kenny Clarke (d).
New York City
8 August 1951.

Blues for Alice. Si si. Swedish schnapps (2 versions). Back home blues (2 versions). Loverman.
The first six titles of (vol. 4) with a small string section appeared as three 78s in a binder which became a hit album for Parker, with "Just friends" going on to become his best selling single. Such commercial success was quickly branded as selling-out and the critical opprobrium with which they were greeted in the 1950s has influenced subsequent generations of fans to the extent that the 'with-strings' sides are often dismissed when his work is considered in the round. However these recordings, along with the subsequent 'with strings' sessions from the summer of 1950 and January 1952 by no means deserve such a fate; on the contrary, they are an important documentation of Parker's great talent.

With his quartet, quintet, and sextets it is fair to say that much of Parker's repertoire boiled down to probably no more than a dozen basic chord structures played in standard keys, with the blues representing the basis for a sizeable number of his compositions. Further, the emotional climate of these small groups was biased towards a hard blowing format which in turn tended to follow a predictable rotation of solos within the head-solos-head format.

In contrast, the strings concept allowed Parker express a romantic sensibility that struggled to find an outlet with his various small groups. With his 'strings' ensemble he addressed a variety of compositions from the American Popular Songbook with their sophisticated chord progressions set in a range of keys against an emotional backdrop quite different to his other work.

There is a parallel to be made here with the Lester Young/Billie Holiday sides. Just as Young was constrained within Basie's big band to arrangements that were similarly set in standard keys based on less than half-a-dozen basic chord structures, his work with Miss Holiday (often, of course, under Teddy Wilson's leadership) similarly took him through a variety popular songs with their differing chord progressions, often in unusual keys and, in addition, he found himself in a quite different musical climate to that of a hard-blowing big band, enabling him to express himself across a far broader emotional spectrum.

It is a measure of Parker's desire to expand his artistic horizons that the idea of the strings concept was his own, and was not, as conventional wisdom would have it, foisted upon him by his record producer Norman Granz. In his liner notes to the Complete Charlie Parker on Verve, Phil Schaap quotes Parker twice: "When I recorded with strings, some of my friends said, 'Oh, Bird is getting commercial.' That wasn't it at all. I was looking for new ways of saying things musically. New sound combinations" and "Why, I asked for strings as far back as 1941 and then years later, when I went with Norman, he okayed it."[i]

Doris Parker in in a letter to Robert Reisner says: "Norman Granz did not conceive the idea of Charlie working with strings. This was Charlie's dream...Norman did it only to please Charlie."[ii]

While on the West Coast with Gillespie in 1946, Parker had seen the trumpeter make four sides using strings with an orchestra directed by Johnny Richards (Phoenix [A] LP4) and throughout the 1940s, popular bandleaders had taken to adding a desk or so of violins and violas to their ensembles. It was a concept very much of the times; certainly Earl Hines was considering adding them to his own big band when Parker played for him in 1943.

Also, Parker was a great lover of the European tradition of classical music, citing works by Stravinsky, Bartók, Prokoviev, Hindemith, Ravel and Debussy that clearly impressed him; indeed at the Royal Roost he would play the opening phrases of Hindemith's Kleine Kammermusik Op. 24 No. 2 to recall his sidemen to the bandstand. Strings, with their connotations of classical music, seemed to represent a step towards conferring the kind of artistic respectability Parker sought for his art.

Parker's efforts to deal with this static and sometimes uncomplimentary setting were often highly successful. Perhaps the best example is "Just Friends", which includes one of his finest solos that even the saxophonist himself, notoriously self-deprecatory, acknowledged as one of his favorites. The song is a 32 bar ABAB1 form and from the scheme alone it can be seen that Parker's role is far more extensive than that with his small groups:

[Rubato inst prelude] [4 bar intro: Parker] (Parker: 8 + 8 + Inst: 8 + Parker: 8) [oboe:4](Parker: 8 + 8 + 8 + 8) [inst: 2] (pno: 8 + 8 + Parker: 8 + 6) [coda Parker: 8]

This is not the Parker of the head-solo-head format that dominates his discography. Here the whole performance is built around him to an extent that there are only thirty bars where his alto is not heard. His entry is literally Bird-like as he flies through the four-bar introduction in a squall of semiquavers and it is immediately clear that in contrast to small group performances, he has adopted a softer, more expressive tone, which he manipulates fluidly throughout.

The chord sequence makes extensive use of the II-V-I progression, and Parker's handling of it provided a reference source for generations of aspiring jazz instrumentalists. During the first AB section, he embellishes and paraphrases the melody, but does not allow it to emerge as written, creating a subtle tension since we expect to hear the theme presented at the beginning of the song and not in variation. Although he teases us with fragments of melody, it is not until the second AB1 section that this tension is resolved when the theme emerges, revealed first by the ensemble and then Parker, an effective touch by arranger Jimmy Carroll.

The centerpiece of this performance and one of the highlights of Parker's discography, is his 32 bar solo after Miller's four-bar modulation. Played with a double-time feel, it sparkles with rhythmic vitality and variety. Interspersed with wide interval leaps and frequent semiquaver triplets, there is a headlong, tumbling feel throughout, almost as if he could not get his ideas out quickly enough. Yet his solo is impeccably constructed and making use of chord substitutions and rhythmic complexity his ease of execution makes the listener feel as if his improvisations on the repeated coda vamp continues long after the recording finished, an endless stream of ideas offered into space.

On "Everything happens to me", "If I should lose you", and "Summertime" Parker largely restricts himself to melodic statement and embellishment, although on "April in Paris" and "I didn't know what time it was" he offers short, but effective partial choruses. On subsequent 'strings' sessions Parker would contribute some absorbing improvisations, such as "Dancing in the dark" and the overlooked "Out of nowhere", which, together with "Just friends" remain important exhibits from this period of experimentation.

A detailed examination of the strings ensemble in concert is provided by The Complete Legendary Rockland Palace Concert 1952 (Jazz Classics [A] CD-JZCL 5014), a 2 CD set of some 106 minutes that documents Parker's concert at Rockland palace on 26 September 1952. The fidelity is surprisingly good and reveals two arrangements that Parker did not record for Verve, "Stardust" and Gerry Mulligan's "Gold Rush" also known as "Turnstile", plus "Ornithology" and "My Little Suede Shoes" adapted for the larger ensemble.

Here, Parker is the Bardic voice unable to stop story-telling. Relaxed, his level of invention never flags over the whole concert, but perhaps more important, he was totally at home in the strings environment to the extent that when he occasionally returned for a blow with his be-bop rhythm section without the strings (Walter Bishop (p); Mundell Lowe (g); Teddy Kotick (bs) and Max Roach (d)) the familiarity of the standard bebop ensemble appears limiting. In contrast, it is the string ensemble which today seems to be posing the greater creative challenge to Parker, who in order to make such an unusual liaison work, responds with improvisations of soaring majesty.

The early 1950 session with Hank Jones was shelved by Granz, who did not like it. Yet the interplay between Rich and Parker on "Blues (fast)" is tight, particularly on the abrupt two-bar tag that ends the song, despite its being worked up through 12 takes. The arrangement of "Star eyes" is less effective than the January 1951 version and despite an elegant 24 bars by Jones and a full chorus by Parker seems to lack the rhythmic poise of the latter, largely because of the stylistic divide between saxophonist and drummer.

Although "I'm in the mood for love" is another example of Parker's exemplary handling of a ballad, he restricts his improvisation to a somewhat desultory 16 bars, entering hesitantly and going off mike once or twice, as if he was expecting the take to be ended at any moment, bearing out producer Norman Granz's notes on the files for this session: "not very good."[iii]

Rich again appears on Parker's next studio date, this time to some controversy. The occasion was Parker's first reunion with Dizzy Gillespie in a recording studio since 1945 while simultaneously providing the only opportunity to hear Parker perform with Thelonious Monk. The pianist was not among the most helpful accompanists in jazz; he was lean and often obtuse (his use of dissonance behind Parker's solo on "Mohawk", for example) and posed something of a puzzle to Rich, often prompting him to greater and greater but ultimately superfluous industry.

Although his swing era style had undergone changes that acknowledged some of the conventions of bop drumming (as exemplified by his solo in "Bloomdido"), he nevertheless displays a lack of sympathy on many numbers.

Granz has stated that Rich was not his first choice drummer for this particular session, but the best available at the time.[iv] However, he is certainly not the most inappropriate drummer to work with Parker and today, these sessions do not sound quite as marred by his efforts as was felt at the time of their original release. Indeed, the emergence of countless airchecks with all manner of drummers bashing away behind the saxophonist[v] without appearing to trouble him in the slightest has positively inured all but Parker purists to rhythmic imperfections of this date.

Parker and Gillespie were such secure players that they remained untroubled with any imperfections in the rhythm section. Parker's four choruses on "Bloomdido" are bright and fresh, and contain a phrase at the end of the second chorus that would again fall under his fingers in the July 1953 "Now's the time" solo, although most of the second and third choruses emerge as fine, cliché-free examples of Parker's creativity within the blues idiom.

Take 3 of "An Oscar for Treadwell", an "I got rhythm" contafact, is marred by an fluffed ending, on the following take (the master) Gillespie, removing the cup-mute he uses in ensemble, contributes two well executed choruses that are a reminder of how his very real contribution to jazz was overshadowed by Parker's subsequent martyrdom. "Mohawk", another blues line, contains Monk's somewhat puzzling accompaniment behind both the head and Parker's solo, although such moments are more than compensated by his highly individual introductions which give this date a quite specific character. Even so, "Melancholy baby" emerges as either parody or mediocre, depending what day of the week you listen to it.

The themeless "Leapfrog", despite an exciting exchange between saxophonist and trumpeter, more than any other number exposes Rich's shortcomings within the bop idiom, particularly during his exchange of fours. While his drumming often reverted to swing era type, it was ironic that the final number of the session, "Relaxin' with Lee" should have been based on the chords of the old swing era war-horse, "Stompin' at the Savoy". While this session has its flaws, with Rich and to a lesser extent Monk the culprits, Parker, with a perversity that was not an entirely unknown personality trait, shone. It is in such circumstances, where lesser men might falter or be deflected from their path by others, true genius reveals itself.

At the time of the 17 January 1951 session, Parker had only recently been discharged from New York Medical Arts Hospital. Without a set working group, he put together an ad hoc ensemble that is interesting because of Davis's inclusion, who had left Parker's employ in high dudgeon on 24 December 1948. Now back in New York after a brush with the law on the West Coast, he was due to make his debut on Bob Weinstock's Prestige label later the same day.

Once the gauche straight-man to Parker's flights of fantasy, his playing had matured considerably since the 1945 "Koko" session when he was forced to give best to Gillespie. Here, his tone is better centered and his technique somewhat closer to bridging the gap between aspiration and execution, although on both takes of "Au privave" he experiences problems articulating the theme.

On the more assertive master take he stays well behind Parker in the mix, so as to camouflage any botches, but emerges to produce a well constructed solo, even borrowing a descending arpeggiated phrase at the end of his first chorus patented by Clark Terry, with whom he was close during his upbringing in St. Louis. He uses a cup mute for "She rote", which combines chord sequences from "Out of nowhere" and "Slow boat to China", and it is interesting to note that parts of his solo are subservient to scales, rather than the specific harmonic logic offered by the underlying chords, a harbinger of the modal based lyricism that would absorb him as the decade closed.

Parker himself is splendidly assured throughout. A strikingly aggressive player, he handles the theme of "Au privave" with great aplomb and intensity. His solo on the master take produces a motif at the beginning of chorus three that would return in fuller form as the much quoted entry to his 1953 "Now's the time" solo.

It has often been said that his compositions were like one of his solos that had been written down, but, like all sweeping generalizations, this was only partly true. Whereas it might be the case for some compositions, such as "Donna Lee", "Cheryl", or "Barbados", numbers such as "Chasin' the Bird", "Billie's bounce" and here, "Au privave" and "She rote", are full of complex and often abrupt syncopation and stabbing staccato phrases, contrasting the forward momentum of his solos, which created a tension and release effect between theme and improvisation.

"K. C. blues" is a superb example of Parker's mature style. With longer performance lengths about to be made available on record through the growing popularity of the LP, recorded jazz solos would grow to fill the space available, their profundity, however, not always directly proportionate to their length. But Parker, even in live performance, seldom played more than two or three choruses. It was almost certainly a result of his formative experience in big bands, where solo length was strictly rationed to fit arrangements. To make ideas count, the finest big band musicians became remarkably focused in their solos, a trait Parker inherited. Even today, his playing remains a valuable lesson in getting to the point quickly and making every note count.

Just how effective he could be in just two 12-bar choruses is illustrated perfectly on "K. C. blues". He enters after Bishop's four-bar introduction and states the theme, following it with two powerful, cogently constructed choruses, a relentless flow of dramatic, yet interlocking ideas that grow into one of his most enduring statements in the blues form. In the 1970s it was harmonized across the brass and saxophone sections of the Don Ellis big band (Autumn Columbia 63503), his poetic eloquence standing firm even when revealed in a very different light.

Such was the emotional force of this solo that it completely eclipsed those that followed by Davis and Bishop before Parker returns with another improvised chorus, this time alluding to the 1947 Savoy Bluebird with Roach anticipating the finish at the end of 12-bars. However, Parker continues for a final chorus, this time paraphrasing the K. C. theme and ending with a slight ritenuto in the final bar.

Parker's expansive version of "Star eyes" that follows demonstrates how riveting he could be, even in a straightforward exposition of the theme (a 36-bar AABA1 song, his only improvisation is on the final middle eight ). After a four-bar ostinato played by Bishop and Kotick against a cup-muted obliggato played by Davis, Parker imperiously launches into the melody in an even four, and, although keeping embellishment to a minimum (he holds back in bars two and three of the second A section, there is a slight decorative figure in the release but the final A1 section is again straight), he nevertheless remains commanding.

Davis follows with an open-horn chorus, played with almost Zen-like concentration but leaning towards the articulation of a Clark Terry or a Clifford Brown. Bishop enters for a half chorus, with Parker streaking through the middle eight in double-time before recapitulating the melody on the final A1 section, tagged by the re-appearance of the four-bar ostinato. Yet as in "K. C. blues" it is Parker's contribution that remains in the memory, even though all he had done here was, to all intents and purposes, present the melody.

The 17 January session was the first for some little while that placed him in a straight-ahead jazz environment after a series of dates with strings (see The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve Vol. 5 [+Verve 837148-2] ). Granz has pointed out that the job of a record producer was to try to ensure 'every record did not end up sounding the same,'[vi] and clearly his intention was to introduce variety to the quartet, quintet, and sextets of the Savoy and Dial discography, which he and countless fans knew well. Consequently the next session was with two Latin percussion players from Machito's orchestra.

Parker knew both of them well from sitting-in with Machito's band and they were present on the sides he cut with him in 1948, 1949, and the previous month, on 21 December 1950, the date that produced Chico O'Farrill's overlooked large-scale work "Afro-Cuban jazz suite". However here, the feel that Mangual and Miranda evoke reflects, as Phil Schaap has noted, more a Caribbean influence than a Hispanic one,[vii] and this is nowhere clearer than on "Un poquito de tu amor", with Bishop laying down a calypso vamp. "My little suede shoes", using a rhythm that is close to a tango, is based almost entirely on a series of II-V-I progressions. It became Parker's most requested number in the final years of his life and his second most popular single.

Perhaps surprisingly, the samba "Tico tico" had been a favorite of Parker's since at least 1944 when he asked bandleader Andy Kirk if he could be featured on the number.[viii] Bright and cheerful, it is played with seriousness and affection by Parker to a samba rhythm. His lively solo is followed by a chorus by the percussionists who manage to sustain interest and momentum before another improvised chorus by the saxophonist and a return to the theme to complete an off-the-wall, but nevertheless fascinating, item in his discography.[ix]

In contrast, none of the three takes of "Why do I love you?" are wholly satisfactory; on each confusion reigns of the who-does-what-when variety, which Parker seems unable to resolve satisfactorily on any of the three takes.

The August '51 session is perhaps Parker's finest for the Verve label; indeed, it ranks among his best recorded work. Although not with his regular rhythm section, their playing is nevertheless tight and in the pocket, contributing significantly to the proceedings.

Rodney, at the time recuperating in Allen Eager's mother's hotel in the Catskills, journeyed into New York specially for the date. His playing is fresh, but utilizes a surprisingly broad tone more characteristic of the preceding generation of swing-era musicians. However, he blends surprisingly well with the saxophonist's hard tone, and their statements together achieve a unity of expression that Davis often failed to achieve.

"Blues for Alice" opened the session and is a Parker composition that sounds close to an improvisation; as with all his compositions it combines melodic integrity with structural unity, despite its complexity. Free flowing, his three choruses appear a logical continuation of the ensemble passage that precedes it, and is followed by two choruses by Rodney that suggest he never got the credit he deserved as an able and interesting bop trumpeter.

"Si si" sees Parker locking-in on Brown's driving bass line, something that is a feature of these sessions. So often the saxophonist seemed to suck rhythm sections into the vortex he led, but in contrast Brown's forceful playing adds significantly to the rhythmic excitement of these performances. The climax of "Si si", a 12-bar blues variant that grafts the "Rhythm" changes into bars 1-4, is an exchange of two-bars phrases among the members of the quintet.

Sadly this remains something of a rarity in jazz, even though it sustains the momentum of a performance in a way that fours and eights often fail to do. The challenge 'twos' present is one of continuity of line rather than one of contrast that exchanges of longer duration often become with their inherent tendency towards competition. 'Twos' provide textural contrast without fragmenting what is usually the climax of a performance, avoiding the all too often displays of 'anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better'.

In contrast to "Blues for Alice", "Swedish schnapps" is one of those themes full of short, syncopated phrases that throw into sharp relief the headlong rush of Parker's ideas as he emerges from the ensemble. Particularly effective on this "I got rhythm" variant, his soaring improvisation in the middle eight makes it a 'release' in the literal sense. "Back home blues" contains some elegant playing by Parker, particularly on take 1, the take that appeared on LP, where he is in splendid form, taking, for him, an extended solo of four choruses. Even at the bright medium tempo, Parker manages to imply double time at the end of his first chorus, highlighting the ease, speed and clarity of ideas that characterized his work.

Perhaps the most controversial number from this session was his version of "Loverman", a 32-bar AABA song. Lewis has said this was done as a personal favor for Granz, while in contrast, Rodney said Parker had always been angry with the version put out by Ross Russell in 1946 and wanted to do it again.[x] Whatever the situation, there is none of the subjective angst that so endeared the Dial cut to fans but even so, this later version almost manages to step out of the shadow of the earlier version with its focus and emotional directness.

Lewis traces pianist Jimmy Bunn's original introduction and once again it is Parker's imperious way of presenting a melody that instantly grips the listener. For the first 16 bars he liberally embellishes the theme, often using chromatic neighbour tones, but in bar 3 of the middle eight he tosses in two successive semiquaver triplets that presages a dazzling double time sequence in demisemiquavers (or 32nd notes), in other words eight notes per beat, capping with a stunning flourish in the last bar where he crams in an incredible 14 notes in a grouping of 5 and 9 in the second beat followed by two groups of six on the penultimate beat, an incredible 26 notes in just two beats, and all perfectly articulated.

He then returns to the melody for the final 'A' section, in turn followed by two 'A' sections, one by piano and one by trumpet with a Parker obbligato before an abrupt ending with Parker's overused, and by now tedious, quote from Percy Grainger's "Country gardens". With the exception of the double-time passage in the middle eight, his performance stayed close to the melody as written, yet changes its meaning utterly, something all the great jazz musicians succeed in doing even when playing a melody more or less straight.[xi]

i. Liner notes to the Complete Charlie Parker on Verve (Verve 837149-2) by Phil Schaap, pp 32-33.
ii. Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker by Robert Reisner (see Bibliography) page 174, letter from Doris Parker dated 31 December 1956.
iii. Liner notes to the Complete Charlie Parker on Verve (Verve 837149-2) by Phil Schaap.
iv. Conversation with SN, February 1994.
v. A partial list in no particular order might include: Jack Noren, Cornelius Thomas, Neil Michel, Billy Graham, Sylvester Payne, Zutty Singleton, Jimmy Pratt, Marquis Foster, Morey Feld.
vi. Conversation with SN, February 1994.
vii. Liner notes, The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve (Verve 837149-2).
viii. Ibid.
ix. Quite what to make of the fact "Tico tico" was a favourite of Parker’s, or indeed, that a favourite saxophonist of his was Jimmy Dorsey, is another matter entirely.
x. Liner notes, The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve (Verve 837149-2).
xi. A point I am grateful to Max Harrison for suggesting to me.

Stuart Nicholson is the author of five books on jazz and is the only European jazz writer to have received two Notable Book of the Year citations from The New York Times Review of Books. His latest book Reminsicing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington is published by Northeastern University Press. He is also co-author of The Essential Jazz Records Vol. 2: Modernism to Postmodernism with Max Harrison and Eric Thacker.

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