David Amram has composed and recorded music of virtually every genre—and on almost every instrument. He was part of the orchestral jazz movement of the mid-1950s, the neo-beat movement of the late 1950s and an active participant in virtually every other social and music trend that followed—from Indian classical in the mid-1960s to the current folk revival.
But David also was an important figure at a time when jazz was changing. During the 1950s, jazz began to be shaped by a new set of external cultural and political forces ranging from African primitivism and the American civil rights movement to the impressionistic scores of Aaron Copland's and John Cage's chance music.
But back in the early 1950s, fresh out of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and just months after a mind-opening encounter with Dizzy Gillespie in his Washington, DC, basement apartment (see Part 1), David found himself discussing classical music, soup and Cherokee with another jazz legend:
"In 1952 I was invited by Jo Mattee, the wife of Joe Timer, to see Charlie Parker Quintet in concert at the Howard Theater. Joe Timer was a Washington, DC, drummer who started a terrific big band a year earlier that was simply called The Orchestra. The band was able to get Al Cohn, Johnny Mandel, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Potts and others to write arrangements.
The Charlie Parker concert was spectacular— incredible charts played by incredible musicians and Parker soloing the entire time. After the concert, Jo Mattee invited me to go backstage to meet Parker. I couldn't wait.
When I met Bird, he asked what I did. I told him I was a musician and part-time gym teacher. He fixated on the teacher part, and we talked about his kids and school. He asked if I liked classical music, which, of course, I did. So we spoke about all his favorite classical composers and works.
When he packed up, he asked me for a lift. We got into my 1932 car, but instead of winding up where he was going, we hung out in my basement apartment for hours. We talked and listened to music and I made him dinner—borscht and sour cream and dumplings. He loved everything and ate it all. I remember Bird looked like a farmer that night. He was heavyset, with suspenders. Very friendly and warm.
What struck me was how Parker could think contrapuntally—on so many different levels at the same time. He could talk, listen intently to music and think about something else simultaneously. He was deep into his own world, but he was aware of everything around him. He was one of those people who was into being creative every second of every day, no matter what.
Bird came over again soon afterward. He was playing at the Howard Theater for a week. During this period, I had been rehearsing with a group that included flute, bassoon, me on French horn, and a rhythm section. We had transcribed Bird’s songs—Cool Blues, Now’s the Time and Ornithology. Two of the guys in my group played in the symphony.
When Bird came over, we played his songs for him, and he loved it. Bird was a one-man encyclopedia of music. He was also interested in many other types of music. He started asking the bassoon player to run all of his favorite classical pieces. It was as if the bassoon player was at an audition!
On another night, he came over with the cream of Washington's hip underground and hangers on. But Parker distinguished between people who were groveling over him and his mythical status and people who loved him as a person and human being. He lived in the world of being human—what you see is what you get. He felt strongly that life and art must be as closely connected as possible. It's a philosophy that I've tried to live by ever since.
I wasn’t into the cool scene then, even though so many people were. I was just hugely passionate about what I was doing. I may have made an excuse for not being cool, or maybe Bird just sensed that I didn't feel with it. To console me, Bird said something I’ll never forget. He said, 'David, the hippest thing is to be square.'
I asked how he could play some of those songs he played. He took out his alto and showed me. He said he'd play through a tune straight and then play triads—the first three notes of a chord. He'd embellish by playing either a major, minor, augmented or diminished triad. I asked him about the basis of Cherokee. He showed me the chord pattern. It was based on that simple formula, with perfect execution, of course, and that sound.
With Bird, just one note and you knew who was playing—like one note from the great violinist Jascha Heifetz. So many musicians today overlook the importance of developing a singular, incredible sound. When Bird played, each note was so clear and distinct no mater how complicated the melody or how fast the tempo.
What I got from Parker is that when playing jazz, you don't have to give up melody and harmony and counterpoint and a beginning and an end. After Parker left my apartment, I realized that some day I wanted to reach a level where I could understand and deal with all the different things that happened that night. I'm still working on it."
In November, when David Amram returns from tour, I'll pick up his 1950s jazz story—including recording dates with Julius Watkins, Charles Mingus, Oscar Pettiford and Kenny Dorham.
Wax tracks: In 1952 and 1953, Charlie Parker played in Washington, DC, with Joe Timer's The Orchestra. Some of those later dates were recorded and are now available on CD. The album is called Charlie Parker: The Washington Concerts and it's truly exceptional. The remastered CD can be found here.
Not only is the band terrific, but the arrangements are clearly years ahead of their time, which is likely why Bird bothered to make the trip to Philadelphia and play with the band. That and the fact that in 1952, Parker was recording regularly for Verve in big band and strings settings. Bird may have accepted numerous dates with The Orchestra as tune ups or simply because he was becoming increasingly comfortable fronting a big band.
For those who want to hear more of Joe Timer and The Orchestra, go here for a Japanese import, Willis Conover's House of Sounds Presents The Orchestra (1953).
Wax clips: While you may have seen this clip of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie before, it's worth seeing again. The TV appearance is from 1952, right around the time Bird was in Washington, DC, playing with Joe Timer and The Orchestra.