Recorded 1944 – 1948, various locations; mainly Hollywood or New York
Charlie Parker (alto sax)
Various additional musicians including:
Miles Davis, Dizzie Gillespie (trumpet)
Dodo Marmarosa, Errol Garner, Bud Powell, John Lewis, Duke Jordan (piano)
Red Callendar, Tommy Potter, Nelson Boyd (bass)
Max Roach, Roy Porter (drums)
Over 60 Master takes on 3 discs.
Despite his seminal position in the development of jazz, sourcing a meaningful selection of Charlie Parker's groundbreaking recorded output for the Savoy and Dial labels is not as straightforward as it should be. Budget compilations come and go; recording quality varies; many sets contain numerous takes of the same tracks. However, this Savoy Jazz collection of the master takes from these sessions avoids these pitfalls and is strongly recommended.
Charlie Parker came out of the same vibrant Kansas City jazz scene that had produced Count Basie and Lester Young in the ‘thirties. He grew up musically in the Kansas City clubs where improvisational skills were tested in the kind of head to head contests that rappers take part in today. In 1939, at the age of nineteen, he had set out on the road via a stint in the horn section with the Jay McShann Orchestra and within a few years he had arrived in New York where the key players in the development of bebop were coming together.
In jam sessions at Minton's Playhouse, a club in Harlem, he joined trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (John Birks Gillespie), pianist Thelonious Monk, drummers Kenny Clarke and Max Roach and guitarist Charlie Christian in working out the language of a new music - bebop. These sessions were a deliberate protest against the restrictions of the Swing era in which the arranger was all important; what became bebop started as a demand for individual musicians to be able to experiment and express themselves more fully and more individually and ended up as a fully fledged new music. Perhaps more fundamentally, it was a demand for musicians to be able to freely improvise and to freely intellectualise about their music. Newcomers would complain that the music was “weird” and “unlistenable” and the reply from the beboppers was: “If you don’t like it, don’t listen to it!”
This battle, lived out here in jazz would be soon repeated in the development of rock music – you only have to think of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s refusal to record the inane “How Do You Do It” and their insistence that they could write something at least as good – “Please, Please Me” – to pinpoint the moment when rock music began to move away from the “professional” writers of "Tin Pan Alley” towards the freedom of musicians to write and perform their own music that would lead to the achievements of Jimi Hendrix and all those that have followed. But this was 1942 and a generation before that.
Minton’s Playhouse soon became a beacon for up and coming performers who wanted to taste the new freedom in music that bebop offered. More established performers like Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge would sit in when free from their paid gigs uptown. A new music was born that became the touchstone for the future of jazz. Thelonious Monk was at the heart of its radicalism; Dizzy Gillespie was central to its harmonic development and Kenny Clarke and Max Roach were at the root of its rhythmic sophistication. Charlie Parker, "The Yardbird" or just plain "Bird", was the improvisational genius who took the music to its greatest heights, signposting the way for Miles Davis, John Coltrane and the great jazz that followed. In many ways, he was the Jimi Hendrix of his day.
No surprise then that the music quickly became the music of choice for the radical intellectuals of the Paris Left Bank (Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet, Simone de Beauvoir .....) and then the US Beat wtiters and poets (Alan Ginsberg, Laurence Ferlingetti, Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey......)
On the more personal level of his musical and personal relationship with the great man, Miles Davis makes sharp observations on Charkie Paker in those times in his autobiography."It was playing with Bird that really got my shxx going.....We didn't never have too much to say to each other. We liked playing with each other and that was it. Bird didn't never tell you what to play. You learned from him by just watching him, picking up the shxx that he did...Dizzy (Gillespie) liked to talk a lot about music, though and I picked up a lot from him in that way. Bird might have been the spirit of the bebop movement, but Dizzy was its "head and its hands," the one who kept it all together......Bird could be a lot of fun to be around, because he was a real genius about his music, and he could be funnier than a motherxxxxxx, talking in that British accent that he used to use. But he still was hard to be around because he was always trying to con or beat you out of something to support his drug habit..... Anyway, that's the way Bird was; he was a great and a genius musician....."
It is almost as redundant to sum up bebop in a few words on the formal style of the music as it is to say that Jimi Hendrix’s music was blues improvised around pentatonic scale structures; it is the sense of danger and risk taking that is as relevant to Jimi Hendrix as it is to Charlie Parker. But speaking formally, the music that emerged from Minton’s was based on sophisticated chord changes based on chord substitution in standard blues and other well known progressions (e.g. George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”). So for example, by using chord augmentation and diatonic substitution, the chord progression C-C-G7-G7 can be expanded to Cmaj7-Em7-Am7-Em7-Dm7-G7-Bm7b5-G13. And via triatonic substitution ("tritone" substitution) those G chords could be replaced by Db / C sharp chords. By further extension almost any variant on these chord types could be taken, as required, with for example the introduction of minor chord, augmented or sustained chord variants in this chord sequence. The point being that from a basic set up, a quickly expanding pallette of variations can be built up, refreshing the perhaps over familiar patterns, such as the basic twelve bar blues form and its more immediate variations.
There is a strong emphasis on improvisation as solos are played over the often rapid chord changes in such progressions. This is complex and difficult since essentially the only way of maintaining melodic continuity is to recognize the need over certain sequences of chords (for example II-V transitions) to play in a new key (a new scale) – playing the changes. For example, Duke Ellington's 'Satin Doll" features II-V transitions from five different keys (C, D, G, Ab and F). At the blistering intensity of much bop, this is challenging indeed. And of course beneath this there is a new rhythmic sophistication based on polyrhythmic drum features.
What in all this makes Charlie Parker stand out? It is not just the intensity of the musical ideas that seem to be burning off him; formally, Charlie Parker played with a kind of sixth sense that allowed him to play the changes off the top of the modulation, more or less before it has happened; this gives his music that sense of prescience that highlights its intensity and points to its relevance not just up to now but for years to come.
Fast forward to 1946: Charlie Parker was now recording with Savoy as “ Charlie Parker’s Reboppers” with a band that featured Dizzie Gillespie, Max Roach and a nineteen year old Miles Davis and had recorded the classics “Now’s the Time”, “Billie’s Bounce” and “Ko-Ko”. But with the ending of the Second World War, the New York City authorities were seeking to close down the ill-reputed clubs on 52nd Street that included most of the venues where the jazz fraternity could work. Dizzie Gillespie formed the “Rebop Sextet” which included Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Max Roach and set off for a gig in Holywood at Bill Berg’s Club. Achieving little success, the band returned to New York, but minus Charlie Parker. He stayed on and, via LA trumpeter Howard Magee, signed with Dial, a little known label run by Ross Russell as an offshoot of his record store. Emry Byrd (aka “Moose The Mooche”) emerged as Charlie Parker’s agent, taking fifty percent of the Dial royalities and, by most contemporary accounts, continuing with his more normal activities as a drug pusher and supplier of the heroin to which by this time Charlie Parker was addicted.
In four sessions (interrupted by a breakdown and a stay at the Camarillo State Hospital) in March 1946 through to February 1947, he produced the first of the Dial recordings, backed mainly by West Coast musicians, including Howard Magee and the excellent pianist Dodo Marmarosa. When Charlie Parker eventually returned to New York in mid 1947, both Dial and Savoy claimed to have him under contract. A legal dispute might have ensued; however, the American Federation of Musicians was about to launch a ban on commercial recordings and, perhaps fearing that a prolonged ban might result in Charlie Parker’s now fragile and dependent state not allowing him to survive, the decision seems to have been arrived at that he would record for both Dial and Savoy. Forming the "Charlie Parker Quintet" with Miles Davis (then twenty-one) and Max Roach (then twenty-two), three further outstanding sessions were produced in New York for Dial (yielding “Scrapple From The Apple”, “Bird of Paradise” and “Klacto-oveeseds-tene” amongst much else). Meanwhile, essentially the same band, recorded as the “Charlie Parker All Stars” or the “Miles Davis All Stars” for Savoy. (Surprisingly Charlie Parker switched from alto to tenor sax for the “Miles Davis All Stars” sessions). The Savoy dates produced further classics – “Donna Lee”, ‘Chasin’ The Bird”, “Ah-Leu-Cha” and ‘Constellation” amongst many others. The Dial contract was completed in December 1947 and the Savoy contract in September 1948. Charlie Parker moved to Verve where Norman Granz set him upon the safer road that led to “Bird With Strings”. However, by 1955 he had died, making the four years of the Savoy and Dial recordings the most productive of his life and the finest achievement of bop that set the course for jazz right to the present day.
In short, these recordings are the foundation of the music and just about essential for anyone who has anything more than a passing interest in jazz. Significantly, when Ross Russell released the Dial album "Bird Blows The Blues" in 1949, this was the first jazz LP.
There has been some comment on the extent to which Charlie Parker "borrowed" from the likes of George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and the other songwriters and how far interpretation can be ragarded as an art form in itself and how far this is in the end imitative and reductive. Essentially, this misses the point. We don't think anything of taking the blues format, using its chord sequences and freely improvising new outcomes within this and then expecting the creator to claim ownership. In a strong sense this is the whole idea of the blues; it is a vehicle for innovation in which each performance is a new creation, crafted in that moment. In that sense, no two blues performances (nor two jazz performances) should ever be the same. So why not take this rationale and apply it to the basic structure of Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm"? That seems to be just what the beboppers were doing. Estimates vary but some authorities claim some thirty percent of all jazz bears a relationship to this one song. The structure provided by Gershwin has become a new kind of blues format around which to base improvisation with similar, uniquely creative outcomes for those that use it as a framework as "classical" blues provides. Charlie Parker, together with the other initiators of bebop, were the first to make this understood.
So, on the Savoy recordings, "Ah-Leu-Cha", "Chasin' The Bird" and “Steeplechase” are all derived from “I Got Rhythm” while “Constellation” and “Merry-Go-Round” are derived from a hybrid of both “I Got Rhythm” and “Honeysuckle Rose” (Fats Waller and Andy Razaf). “Marmaduke” is also based on “Honeysuckle Rose”. “Klaunstance” is based on “The Way You Look Tonight” (Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern) while “Bird Gets The Worm” is based on “Lover Come Back To Me” (Oscar Hammerstein and Sigmund Romberg). “Donna Lee” is based on “Back Home Again in Indiana” (Ballard MacDonald and James F Hanley). “KoKo” and “Warmin’ Up A Riff” are based on the chords of “Cherokee” (Ray Noble). “Meandering” is based on George Gershwin´s "Embraceable You".
On the Dial recordings “I Got Rhythm” is the basis for “Bird’s Nest”, “Hot Blues”, “Moose The Mooch” and “Cool Blues”. “Ornithology” is based on “How High The Moon” (Lewis / Hamilton). “Quasimodo” is also based on George Gershwin´s "Embraceable You". "Scrapple From the Apple" uses a 32-measure AABA form with the A section based on "Honeysuckle Rose," while the B section uses the chord changes of the B section of "I Got Rhythm." “Carvin’ The Bird” is based on George Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm”. And, as noted above, “Bird Of Paradise” is based on the chords of Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You Are”.
The music that emerges is inspirational, innovative, compelling, a high point in jazz. It is not just the almost impossibly fast bop pieces that impress, Charlie Parker's playing on the slower ballads ("Embraceable You", "Out Of Nowhere", "Don't Blame Me", "All The Things You Are", "Bird of Paradise") is intense indeed the more so since most of the Savoy and Dial takes are conceived for single release and are seldom more than three minutes long, giving a concentration of expression that has been largely lost today.
In 1965 Ross Russell published his account "Charlie Parker: His Life and Hard Times", an insider's view often criticised for sensationalising the more unseemly aspects of Charlie Parker's life. In 1988, Clint Eastwood directed the movie "Bird" which presented a more balanced picture, using Chan Richardson Parker (Charlie Parker's second wife) as a consultant and basing much of the script on her memoirs, "My Life in E-Flat". Forest Whitaker played Charlie Parker and Diane Venora played Chan Parker. The music for the film was created by reproducing Charlie Parker's real recorded playing over newly recorded backings from contemporary musicians; the questionable results were released as an audio CD in 1988 by Sony/Columbia Legacy.
It is much better to return to the original recordings. The music from the Savoy and Dial sessions is all but essential for anyone with an interest in jazz.
Star rating: *****
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Other useful information on Charlie Parker:
Details of just about every Charlie Parker record release
Complete Charlie Parker discography
Details of just about every Charlie Parker recording session
Complete Charlie Parker sessionography
Background, interviews, magazine and newspaper articles on Charlie Parker
Bird Lives.... - key resource on Charlie Parker
Comprehensive information source on Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker database at Miles Ahead
Free chord progressions for Charlie Parker compositions with listenable piano chords / drums and printable score
Charlie Parker at Song Trellis
Free chord progressions for George Gershwin songs with listenable piano chords / drums and printable score (Check out David Luebbert's jazz variants on "I Got Rhythm")
George Gershwin at Song Trellis
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