Several decades ago I was looking for a specific book. This was before the internet was known outside the military-academic complex, and so obtaining an out-of-print book was somewhat complicated. In those days, if you wanted to find a rare book, you approached a rare book dealer and made a request. He would tell you that for some amount of money he would “make inquiries.” The amount was usually nominal, because the chance of obtaining the book was so low.
The book I was looking for was Bird Lives!: The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker by Ross Russell. This may seem like an easy “get” these days because amazon.com claims that it was published in 1996 as a “first edition.” But Amazon is selling a reprint by Da Capo (which did not exist when I was originally looking for the work). In fact the book was originally released in 1973, published by a quirky British independent press called Quartet Books Limited, whose website claims it was founded on socialist principles. A search of its web presence reveals no institutional memory of having published Bird Lives!, but it is quite proud of having published the same year The Joy of Sex when others refused it. (I would guess the sales of the book floated the company for quite a while. Even in socialists circles sex sells.) It was that book (Bird Lives! not Joy of Sex) that I spent much time looking for. And I eventually found it. Not because I paid $5 to the used book dealer (who 30+ years later seems not to have found a one), but quite by chance at a used book sale (which particular one it was I don’t remember).
Once I had the book, I, for some reason, decided not to read it. There was much discussion by the circle of jazz “experts” I then travelled in that Russell was quite sloppy and the work was inaccurate. (I suspect part of this had to do with a record producer stepping out of his element into the rarefied world of writing.) Since I am easily dissuaded from launching on a new endeavor this nonspecific criticism was enough to make me simply put the book on the shelf for later review at a date when all the masses of unread books on my shelves would be read.
Well, this week I took it up again, and I made two interesting discoveries. First, the book in my possession has an inscription by Peter Pullman (an engineer and production guy for Verve and Mercury Records) giving the book to Max Roach! Occasionally one finds odd comments by Roach throughout the book. (He seems to have given up before he himself shows up in the story.) So I now own a copy of the work that was once owned by Parker’s greatest drummer. (One of the three or four greatest jazz drummers ever.) So the book has an “authenticity” that I never imagined. And while Max has nothing good to say about either Dean Benedetti or Ross Russell, he never contradicts any factual statement in the book (at least as far as he got).
But more importantly, whether the book is accurate in factual details or not, it contains surprising insights into the work of Bird. As for the rest, who knows? And frankly, what is there to know in the details anyway? Bird was a troubled personality, self-absorbed, driven, and addicted. Many of the problems he suffered from were imposed on him by the racist society he had to endure. It is not useful to debate whether he added to those problems by defects in his personality or conduct. It was simply too much to expect anyone to overcome the arbitrary limits that society imposed on African Americans then. Music was one of the few avenues an ambitious and talented young black man could pursue. Of course, it had to be popular, or more specifically “race” music, because other avenues were cut off. Russell tells the story of one of Parker’s early band leaders; in fact, the first one after Parker bought his first real saxophone. His name was Tommy Douglas, and he became one of the major Kansas City band leaders after Count Basie left. Douglas was known as perhaps the most knowledgeable musician around. He not only could play all the reed instruments, but he understood music theory. He had somehow obtained a scholarship to attend the Boston Conservatory of Music. He applied himself for four years, working summers in the dance bands of Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington, and after he graduated he even got an interview by a major symphony orchestra. But once he appeared, he couldn’t hide the fact that he was black and did not get the job. It was not a hidden fact that no classical orchestra in the country had a single African American member. So he came back to Kansas City whee he faced the opposite prejudice. Jazz musicians thought he was “dicty”—too “uppity” for his fellow “race” musicians. He was subject ot minor indignities for having stepped outside his circumscribed pale. He spent the rest of his life playing night clubs and social events in Kansas City and nearby Topeka and St. Joseph, and he never spoke of Boston Conservatory.
If anything Russell does not emphasize enough the real obstacles to those who tried to contribute to an art form that could not escape from mob control, drug infestation, official racism and other pathologies of the underworld. He is not interested in investigating that pathology, beginning with the political corruption and mob connections of political boss Tom Pendergast, who by virtue of being Chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party dominated the Kansas City clubs where jazz was played. Perhaps Russell could not completely investigate the exploitation of Parker, because he himself, as record producer of his own label Dial arguably participated in it. He after all was the one who produced the record of Lover Man, where an utterly strung out Bird struggled to even play his notes, rendering his solo an agonizing listening experience. That night Bird set fire to his mattress, was arrested and spent six months in California’s Camarillo State Mental Hospital. Russell stood bail for Parker on his release and is reputed to have put Parker under an exclusive contract as his part of the deal. Even if that were true, and even if russell squeezed Parker’s royalties as a result, it probably would have not even amounted to a misdemeanor in the record industry. Jazz musicians made almost nothing for their recordings.
But nobody would read Bird Lives! if he were interested in an academic biography. (Those interested in academic biographies probably would not be interested in Charlie Parker.) The main interest is finding out how someone, born dirt poor with essentially no break given by anyone, clawed his way into the center of what is now considered one of America’s great cultural achievements—modern jazz, which Parker along with Dizzy Gillespie and one or two others essentially invented. The answer, as the headline of an article published yesterday in the execrable New York Post proclaimed: “Charlie Parker’s heroin addiction helped make him a genius.” (If Sigmund Freud were black, the New York Post would tell us that Cocaine helped Freud invent Psychoanalysis.) The answer is found how he drove himself to seek out whatever music theory he could, from band leaders, fellow musicians, and especially by memorizing the music he heard on records, particularly the solos of Lester Young. Because of the vagaries of record production in the days of Parker’s coming of age, particularly the strike by the American Federation of Musicians which precluded record making by its members (including Parker) from 1942-1944, we have no recorded document of his (or any of the Bebop pioneers’) development right before the breakthrough. But occasionally Parker left a bit of evidence. And here it is that Russell is particularly perceptive. So let me give a little example. It comes from a record date on April 30, 1941 in Dallas.
Decca records had agreed to record six “sides” (songs of about 3 minutes which fit two to a side of a 78 rpm recording) of the Jay McShann orchestra in Dallas as part of a tour it was making throughout the South. Jay McShann was a band leader who filled the void that Count Basie left when he moved from Kansas City north as part of his deal with the race label of Columbia. McShann (who was still playing in New York, albeit it with a small group, and who I heard in New York four decades later) was the perfect successor to Basie as foremost proponent of the Kansas City jazz style. He could evaluate talented musicians, he himself was a competent pianist, and he could handle all the business necessities of keeping a big band employed which required negotiating the tricky business of observing all the Jim Crow rules of the South when the band was on the road. Not the least of this required a repertoire of music that spanned the variety that audiences across the Midwest and South might take to. the bulk of McShann’s music was riff-based Kansas City inspired music (much as it was for Count Basie’s orchestra). But he also had a sizable collection of ballads, on which Al Hibbler sang, backed by obligatos of Parker, and another batch of pure Kansas City blues, which were the bailiwick of blues singer Walter Brown.
Decca was not Columbia, but it was nonetheless the big times. It was big enough to ensure that its records would be included on juke boxes around the country, which was the principal means of exposure in the days before radio took over that role. The recording coincides with the first maturation of Parker as a musician (at a time when he was entirely unknown in the country at large.) One of the six sides was a blues that Brown sang on, “Hootie Blues.” the song was destined to be the B side of the song that Decca (rightly) hoped would be a best-seller, Brown’s “Confessin’ the Blues.” But “Hootie Blues” had a twelve bar solo by Parker, which, Russell says, “sent a shock wave” through the jazz musicians who discovered it. Short as it is, it has almost all the characteristics that Parker’s music would have for the rest of his life. It is liquid and crystalline at the same time; lilting but firmly rooted in a particular structure. In short, it has the characteristics of something that was thrown off without thought but at the same time it strikes one for its inventiveness. The harmonic inventions were still largely in the future, and they were a crucial (perhaps the crucial part of the bebop revolution). But given how radical those departures would be and how much resistance established jazz musicians, older critics and record companies would be to those advances, it was essential to sell the music with an beguiling tone and rhythmic approach, and Parker provided that, as did other key figures in the jazz upheaval of the 1940s, notably Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk. This brief solo shows how early Parker acquired his signature approach, and how assured he was even in early 1941, a time he had never been heard on a major lable. Here is how Russell describes the solo:
To all intents and purposes Hootie was another Walter Brown vehicle. Sandwiched in between the opening orchestral chorus and the lyric are twelve bars if alto solo, occupying an interval of about thirty seconds (metronome♩= 100). Those twelve bars were heard as a sermon from the mount. The sinuous line and the stark, pristine architecture of sound reveal a totally new jazz concept. There are seven cadences, a line of buoyant updrafts and tumbling descents. with the rests not on odd or unusual intervals of the scale but on the very common ones for jazzmen, the third, the fifth and the tonic, arrived at in a new way. Each note is shaped, and the plastic quality of the sound is unique. True pitches are more often suggested, or just touched upon, than played. The loud/soft dynamics are manipulated against the carefully controlled variations of pitch. And, as a final stroke, Charlie brings the line to rest at precisely the point required to cue the vocalist into the first line of the lyric. Hootie is a miniature, yet a performance so rounded, assured, and musically right, that it constitutes a landmark among the literature of jazz. It is a Pandora’s box of things to come.
Forty or so years ago it would not have been possible to hear this solo unless you knew of someone who had the old 78s. Brunswick in 1957 issued a 7 inch LP (bootleg?), which included the original “Hootie Blue,” but I never found that disc. The 1958 LP re-issue by Decca, called Jay McShann And His Orchestra—New York (Decca Jazz Heritage Series DL 9236) had a version of “Hootie Blue” but it was the one McShann recorded in New York the following year (and notably had Al Hibbler, not Walter Brown, as vocalist). Most record labels, even Columbia (which was the best of the lot until the 1960s), were careless with their old collections and driven by new fads, rarely issued its past library in any coherent or systematic way. Even when bootlegs began appearing in the 1970s (which provided most of us the means to understand early modern jazz), they were incomplete and the information they provided was unreliable. Spotlite Records, a British Company, in 1968 begun reissuing Bird’s Decca material (the sessions that Ross Russell produced in the second half of the 1940s). It soon branched out, but when it released the LP The Jay McShann Orchestra Featuring Charlie Parker —Early Bird (SPJ120), ostensibly covering the 1941-1943 period, the LP did not include “Hootie Blue.”It wasn’t until 1992 that I was able to get hold of this music, when at the end of the jazz re-issue craze of the 198s Orrin Keepnews had GRP re-issue the early Kansas City Bird as Blues from Kansas City (GRD-614) as part of GRP’s Legendary Master’s of Jazz series.
But nowadays it is possible to hear this music with the click of a mouse owing to the miracle of YouTube. (The miracle resides in the fact that Google hosts a platform where blatant copyright infringement is practiced on an unprecedented scale, but no one is sued, there has been no legal effort to shut it down, and no criminal proceedings have been instituted. I guess we should not pay attention to those warnings at the beginning of DVDs about how serious a crime copyright infringement is and how the FBI will prosecute it. Or maybe we should conclude that it’s not a crime when Google does it.) I have included a popup to a YouTube reproduction of the tune as well as a work from the very end of Parker’s career that shows his liquid lines and slightly acid tone remained a signature part of his sound.
On “Hootie Blues” Parker’s solo follows a four bar piano introduction and a 12-bar chorus by the band in unison. It picks up around the 38 second mark on this recording.
(Jay McShann, Walter Brown)
Buddy Anderson, Harold Bruce, Orville Minor (trumpet); Joe Taswell Baird (trombone); John Jackson, Charlie Parker (alto sax); Harold Ferguson, Bob Mabane (tenor sax); Jay McShann (piano); Gene Ramey (bass); Gus Johnson (drums); Walter Brown (vocals).
Recorded: Decca Recording Studio, Dallas, Texas, April 30, 1941. Catalogue number: Decca 8559.
The other tune is from a 1953 recording. This small group session was the last one on which Max Roach performed with Bird. You can hear the light touch of his stick on the cymbals behind the brief piano introduction. Roach was a master of nuance on all percussion instruments. The undulating, rhythmic lines with an assured sense of architecture is still a hallmark of Parker’s solos.
Charlie Parker (alto sax); Al Haig (piano); Percy Heath (bass); Max Roach (drums).
Recorded: Fulton Recording Studia, New York City, July 28, 1953. Catalogue number: Verve MGV 8005, 825 671-2