My Pop Life #203 : Bird of Paradise – Charlie Parker

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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.

My Pop Life #162 : The Way You Look Tonight – Teddy Wilson & Billie Holiday

The Way You Look Tonight   –   Teddy Wilson & Billie Holiday

Someday, when I’m awfully low, when the world is cold

I will feel a glow just thinking of you

and the way you look tonight

While I was studying law in London in the late 1970s I was also improving my musical education.   The record shops of Soho in particular were a ten-minute walk from Fitzroy Street where I lived, and bulged with unknown treasure that I saved up for, dipped into and splurged on.  Like a child in a sweet shop I wanted to sample everything.  I felt ignorant about music, like I had huge holes in my knowledge – particularly classical, anything not in English or jazz.

One of the first ever jazz records I bought was a white double LP from Columbia Records called Masters of Jazz  –  Billie Holiday Volume 1 : 1933 – 1936.   It felt like an LP that may have some answers.  I also bought a Duke Ellington LP in a similar package – one of a series.  I imagined, no doubt that the other volumes would follow.   I thought jazz might be ‘a bit difficult’ – but that couldn’t have been further from the truth and I couldn’t stop playing both records.   Totally by luck I had hit bullseye first shot – the Billie Holiday / Teddy Wilson songs are both eternal and perfect, simple and complex, they reveal more and more layers of joy with each listen – and still do some 40 years later.   Over the years of loving these songs – now collected on another “complete” Columbia series which are for me the pinnacle of 20th century pop – I’ve come to really adore the piano playing of Teddy Wilson.

Billie Holiday was 18 when she recorded her first sides, with Benny Goodman – the 2 songs from 1933 are the first on this LP.  Then she did a recording with Duke Ellington in 1935 called Symphony In Black which I wrote about in My Pop Life #34.  I don’t know what she did from 18-20, aside from live dates, I guess the pop vocal world was pretty competitive back then and Billie was already seen particularly by producer and early champion  John Hammond as a jazz stylist rather than a pop singer.  Nevertheless in 1935 she cut her first sides with swing maestro Teddy Wilson for the Brunswick label and had a hit with What A Little Moonlight Can Do.   The resulting five years produced the incredible music which I stumbled onto in Soho back when I was a callow youth.  Extraordinary music.  Each song a glittering diamond of the art.

Ben Webster, Billie Holiday, Allen Reuss, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson kneeling NYC 1936

Jazz standards they’re called now, some of them have become part of The Great American Songbook, others are pop songs of the day played by an ace swing band under the twinkle of Teddy Wilson.  The players were legendary themselves : Lester Young on the tenor sax, whom Billie Holiday called Prez.  He in turn anointed her Lady Day. On this song – Ben Webster on the tenor, another top player. The mighty Gene Krupa on drums from the Benny Goodman Trio, where Teddy Wilson had been one of the first black players in a prominent integrated band back in the early 1930s.

All of the numbers follow the same architectural pattern, which nowadays would be considered musical suicide.  The vocal doesn’t come in for at least 2 minutes usually.  (Hmm perhaps resembling House Music from the 1980s).   First, a shuffle is established and the melody is played by clarinet, tenor saxophone, trumpet or piano.  A full verse is played, followed by an improvised verse, followed by more of the same.  All the lead instruments get a turn, then finally, around halfway through the song, Billie sings.  The result is simply breathtaking.  You hear the greatest players of the day riffing over the sweetest songs, reigned in by the rhythm section and the melody and producing some of the most sublime music known to man – then Billie Holiday takes it home.  Always behind the beat, sometimes thrillingly in-between the beats, singing a song of her own inside the song.  She is another jazz instrumentalist, using her voice and the words as her tune.  Very few singers can pull this off – this level of structural awareness, to stretch the song beyond it’s confines to another level of syncopation and genius.

Many listeners like the God Bless The Child side of Billie, the later material on Verve from the 40s when she probably had a cigarette dangling from her mouth and was singing weary blues and jazz with great heart-wrenching and pitiful emotion and of course – it’s better than great.  She wrote the extraordinary Strange Fruit in 1939, her initial unwillingness to sing it apparently coming from memories of her father’s death.  Her talent was huge, her life was tragic.  She poured it all into the music until she simply couldn’t be bothered, wrecked  with heroin, drink and everything else and died in destitution from liver failure in July 1959.

I prefer these early sides from the late thirties to the bluesy broken Billie.   Musical people at the height of their game, playing exquisite pop music on disc.  Carefree beautiful music, written by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Sammy Cahn.

But check out the piano of Teddy Wilson.  Syncopation and a loose tightness, rolling phrases, moments of strange determination and bloody-mindedness, lyrical beauty.  It reminds me of Artur Rubinstein playing Chopin (see My Pop Life #9) and there can be no higher praise from me.  I’d love to hear Teddy Wilson playing Chopin.  Purists may scoff (oh go on, please) but examples abound of the jazz/classical crossover, from Aretha Franklin singing Nessun Dorma when Pavarotti fell ill in 1988, and Benny Goodman playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in 1949.  Different disciplines, sure, but same instrument.  Anyway, Teddy does it for me as a pianist.  Something very quality going on.  He became known as the ‘Marxist Mozart’ in New York thanks to his leftist sympathies, people don’t like to distinguish between shades of red do they, if you’re vaguely left you’re a commie.  For example Teddy chaired the Artist’s Committe to Elect Benjamin J. Davis, black Communist leader who was elected to the NY City Council in 1943.

This song was written by Jerome Kern with lyrics by Dorothy Fields, originally sung by Fred Astaire in the film Swing Time, and winning the Oscar for best original song in 1936.  It’s a corker of a tune.  Similar in theme to Don’t Ever Change from the 1960s.  A wonky piano backflip takes us into the clarinet melody over a brisk shuffle, played straight just once, followed by eight bars of improvisation before the trumpet takes us through the second verse and we slide gloriously back to the piano genius of Wilson before Billie finally, reluctantly, joins them, singing her song inside theirs.   All these sides from these sessions – mainly cut in New York, but also recorded in Chicago and Los Angeles – are for me the very stuff of joy itself.

These days it is possible to listen to Billie Holiday in rehearsal, phrasing, trying stuff out, ordering drinks, flexing her vocal instrument, arguing.  Too much information?  For some people yes.  They prefer to receive the art in finished condition, these overheard bootlegs of conversations feel intrusive, reductive.  Others, including me, want everything.  When I started collecting Beatles bootlegs, I relished every overheard word, every joke and quip, every false start and breakdown.  It was like gold dust.

Billie Holiday : A female jazz artist in a male world : 1939

This song was recorded on October 21st 1936.  Astaire had already recorded it, and many others would follow – Parker, Sinatra, Art Blakey, Ferry, Coltrane, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee….

No particular memory, just a lifetime’s pleasure.