Yesterday was Charlie Parker's birthday. Bird would have been 87 years old had he lived to this ripe old age. Instead he collapsed on March 12, 1955, in Baroness Pannonica's suite at the Hotel Stanhope on New York's Fifth Ave. at age 34 following years of drug abuse.
In celebration of Bird's birthday, the album I chose to listen to all day yesterday was Night and Day (Verve)—available on iTunes as the Genius of Charlie Parker Vol. 1: Night and Day or Charlie Parker: Big Band. The album features Bird backed by a powerful big band, which included Danny Bank on baritone saxophone.
Bank is probably the last surviving member of this date, and I had the good fortune to speak with him yesterday. But more about Bank in a minute.
The Parker album is fabulous. It ropes together three different recording sessions that featured different big band configurations—some with strings, some without. That's because these sessions were originally recorded for 78 rpm release, and the platters were issued individually. The album brought them together.
The high point for me are four tracks recorded on March 25, 1952—Night and Day, I Can't Get Started, What Is This Thing Called Love and Almost Like Being in Love.
I've always liked these recordings better than the rest because a big band alone is backing Bird (sans syrupy strings), and the Joe Lipman band arrangements sound so crisp and early 1950s—before recording techniques got cute.
You can almost hear the old gunmetal recording studio reverberate as the band explodes with each brassy crescendo. The recording gear back then just barely captured the charts and ferocity of the musicianship. The guys on this date included Flip Philips, Al Porcino, Oscar Peterson, Freddie Green, Don Lamond and other top club, session and studio players in New York at the time.
March of 1952 is an interesting period for another reason. The West Coast hadn't emerged yet as the TV and recording mecca it would become, and New York still retained much of the musical and old-guard engineering talent. This was a major transition period for the recording industry, as 78rpms gave way to the longer playing 33 1/3 LPs. As a result, this recording has a nice, warm leathery sound.
When I took the album out yesterday morning and looked it over, I spotted Danny Bank, the baritone saxophonist, in the personnel. I had heard he was still around, which meant he was probably the last surviving member of this March 1952 recording date.
So I picked up the phone and tracked down Danny, who is now 85 and as sharp as a tack. He graciously spent time on the phone with me reminiscing about the date.
First a word about Bank. He was one of the leading session baritones of the 1940s and 1950s, appearing on almost every major big band album of the period. To name a few, his session discography includes Charlie Barnet's early 1940s band, Artie Shaw's bop band of the late 1940s, Miles Davis and Gil Evans Miles Ahead orchestra of 1957 and Gene Krupa's all-star studio band of 1958—which recorded baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan's arrangements. That alone tells you how Mulligan felt about fellow baritone player Bank. On every recording I own with Bank on bari, he's exceptional.
Bank was one of those session musicians who could walk into a studio minutes before a recording, sit down in front of an unfamiliar chart and ace his part on the first take—no matter how tough the writing. And back then, with bop in vogue, these charts were tough to read, let alone read cold.
Bank also had one of the firmest tones. His instrument's every grunt and bark can be heard cutting through the rest of the brass on every album. Which is why I've always loved Danny's playing. As you can imagine, it was a joy to speak with him finally.
Here's how Danny remembered Bird and the March 1952 big band date:
"By the time we recorded those four tracks, Charlie [Parker] was already a friend. We first met at a club that's now gone called Charlie's Tavern [on 51st St., between Broadway and 7th Ave.]. Many jazz musicians hung out there after playing on 52d St. I'd often have a beer with Charlie and talk, and I'd give him lifts home to his apartment on the Lower East Side after gigs.
"I've always been a big band player, a session guy. I was working so often back then I'd get called to play on several recording dates a day. They'd hire me because I was a strong reader. I saved them overtime. They didn’t have to deal with extra costs because I didn’t make mistakes. I also was close friends with one of the busiest copyists in New York at the time. The copyist was the guy who wrote the sheet music for each player from the arranger's score. Whenever there was a big date coming up, he would tip me off.
"One day I said to Charlie, 'If you ever get to do a big band date, call me.' So in 1952, he did. When I walked into the Reeves Studio that morning at around 9 am, Charlie was the first one there. He was the sole person in the room. Charlie only had his alto sax and a couple of sheets of paper with names of the tunes and the order and how much time each one would last. No music. He didn't need music.
"The guy was a genius. If he heard something once, it was right there in the tips of his fingers. There was no rehearsal that morning. Small labels couldn't afford it. If you did rehearse in the studio, the union required that we get paid the same as the record date.
"I remember, Charlie stood across the sax section, on the other side, near the altos. I was near the door. When the session started at 10 am, we read through and played each of the four songs a few times. I think we completed all four songs in a little over an hour. Then we were gone for lunch, and I was on to my next recording session. This was a big moment for all of us there. We were all in awe. Proud to be there. That was a great day for me.
"Bird had some ear. He and I used to stay at same hotel, the Bryant on 54th St., which is no longer there. Bird would stay there when he gigged especially late and didn't want to go home downtown. In the mornings, I used to practice on the clarinet and flute in my room. Those instruments are perfect for practicing on in small rooms. The baritone is much too loud.
"One morning, sometime in 1951, I think, I took out one of the Sonatas for Woodwind by Hindemith and used it to practice. That night, after I played on two or three recording dates that day, I went to Birdland to hear Charlie play.
"As soon as he saw me come into the club, he started to pay the Hindemith Sonata I had played earlier while laughing through his mouthpiece. Bird had been listening to me through the walls! His ear was so amazing that he played what I practiced from memory when he saw me that night.
"One day, not long afterward, I remember driving Charlie home at about 4 am. As we’re going downtown, I said, 'Charlie, how come you don’t play the clarinet, like Lester Young? He plays beautifully. Do you play?' Charlie said that he did, for himself. I asked why he didn't play the clarinet in public or on an album. He laughed. 'Well, man, I like to play jazz on my alto, sometimes on the tenor. But I don't like to play up here,' he said, using a squeaky high voice [laughing]. He loved to play in the middle register."
To give you a sense of how influential Bank's hotel room playing of Hindemith was, Parker not long after the 1952 recording date insisted that Clef Records put together a session inspired by Hindemith's Kleine Kammermusik, according to Nat Hentoff in an interview in the January 28, 1953 issue of Down Beat.
So arranger Gil Evans scored four songs for a classical woodwind quintet (flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and French horn) and a jazz rhythm section. Dave Lambert wrote for a small chorus that was added. As Bill Kirchner says in the liners notes from the Charlie Parker: Big Band re-issue (1999), "it was an interesting failure."
Bird had trouble playing along with the vocal group, which wound up sounding too marshmallow mainstream and sappy hip. However, the sessions are fascinating and are part of the Charlie Parker: Big Band CD, complete with false starts so you can hear firsthand what a struggle those dates were.
If only Bank had chosen a different practice book at the Bryant Hotel!
Wax tracks: If you don't want to buy or download Charlie Parker: Big Band from iTunes, download Night and Day, which is cheaper. Or at least download Almost Like Being in Love. This track is from the March 1952 date.
Listen to the punch of that band! And listen for Bank's growling baritone . Bird is razor cutting all the way through, as the band becomes more ferocious, almost competing with Bird to see who can send the recording needles into the red zone. The track runs 2 minuets and 33 seconds, but it's all solid. And dig Don Lamond's driving drums.
Wax clip: While there are no video clips of Bird with this big band, you can get a sense of Danny Bank's versatility from this clip of The Duke. It's remarkable rehearsal footage from the 1957 Miles Davis-Gil Evans Miles Ahead session for Columbia. Clearly Gil forgave Bank for turning Bird onto Hindemith!
The clip opens on a blackboard with the musicians' names written in chalk. Watch carefully as the camera pans—you'll see Danny Bank's name listed under "Wood Winds." Bank is sitting just to conductor Gil Evans' left, on bass clarinet. This was a major run-through session, which produced one of the first jazz concept albums and a breathtaking orchestral suite perfectly married to Miles' contemplative style.
If you own an album of a major band or orchestra from the 1940s or 1950s, Bank was almost certainly there. Check your liner notes. His importance and contribution cannot be underestimated. I'll have more with Danny Bank down the road. There's a lot of ground and history to cover with him.
Happy birthday, Bird!