Pairing Charlie Parker with strings began as an accident but quickly became an artistic stroke of genius. By combining bebop and mood music, producer Norman Granz stumbled upon a jazz-classical format that he would use successfully dozens of times throughout his career. For Parker, recording with strings and woodwinds between 1947 and 1954 legitimized his bebop vision. In fact, the alto saxophonist so enjoyed the orchestral sound that he performed live during this period frequently with a scaled-back string-and-woodwind ensemble. For Granz, Parker's recordings with strings helped sell bop to a wider audience, boosted record sales and strengthened the record-distribution deal he had signed with Mercury Records in 1948.
Of all Parker's sessions with strings, one of the most intriguing was his recording of Stella by Starlight in January 1952. Though Parker's earlier date with strings in November 1949 had produced Just Friends, his biggest jukebox and radio hit, the heightened, sweeping tension of Stella by Starlight remains among his most provocative and gripping.
The marriage of bop and strings began as a fluke at the end tail end of 1947. With a second American Federation of Musicians' recording ban looming, Granz began recording around the clock to stockpile Clef records for release during the pending strike. One of these projects was a six-disc 78rpm album known as The Jazz Scene. The album was to be a high-end sampler of jazz recordings by a range of cutting-edge jazz artists. At $25 a pop ($220 in today's dollars), the early "box set" of 78s was to be marketed to flush consumers, many of whom were classical music aficionados who also were curious about jazz.
To widen the album's appeal, Granz decided to include orchestral jazz as well as small-group pieces. In December 1947, as bandleader and arranger Neal Hefti [pictured] rehearsed his orchestra on the main stage at Carnegie Hall prior to recording for Granz, Parker wandered in. He had been recording The Bird for Granz's album project elsewhere in the building.
As the story goes, Parker liked Hefti's modern-sounding piece so much that he asked if he could solo. Sensing the commercial appeal, Granz [pictured] happily agreed. But Hefti had no time to rewrite the large piece so it would fit into the three-minute 78-prm format. So they agreed that the orchestra would play the piece alone first, and then play it again with Parker soloing. In other words, the composition would simply be repeated. Hence the song's title, Repetition.
But Repetition was not released until 1949, either because The Jazz Scene compilation had not been completed or because Granz was using it as bait to entice Mercury to cut a distribution deal. When the disc was issued in 1949, the record instantly legitimized bop and made strings much hipper as a backdrop for jazz. From Granz's viewpoint, the synergy and potential were enormous, elevating in one stroke a nightclub genre to a concert-hall art form. After Repetition was issued, Parker soon recorded multiple sides with strings and woodwinds in November 1949 and July 1950.
Then in early 1952, with his Mercury distribution due to expire the following year, Granz again recorded Parker with strings, hoping for a hit. According to Bill Kirchner's superb liner notes for the reissued CD, Charlie Parker: Big Band, all of the songs for release were purposefully kept short:
"There were two reasons for this: One was that these sides were no doubt intended for radio and jukebox play, which required brevity. The other was that the years from 1950 to 1952 were part of a transitional period in the recording industry, marking the twilight of the 78-rpm era and the gradual introduction of the LP in various sizes. (A typical 10-inch 78 had a maximum playing time on each side of roughly three minutes.) All of the recordings on this [CD] were originally released as 78s, but later found their way to LP."
Charlie Parker arrived at Reeves Studios in New York on January 22nd and recorded four tracks, acing the master takes relatively quickly following a few false starts. The four tracks captured that day were Temptation, Lover, Autumn in New York and Stella by Starlight. Granz would have his hit in Autumn in New York, which became Parker's third biggest seller (behind Just Friends and My Little Suede Shoes). But for me, Joe Lipman's arrangement of Stella by Starlight remains the most fascinating.
The arrangement opens with the band playing three slashing eighth-note downbeats followed by five measures of strings
and brass coloring the song's theme. Parker's tone, which sounds sharp on the earlier three sides, is warmer here, and his attack smooth and less agitated. His solo soars, with the orchestra dramatically swelling behind him.
What you hear in the orchestra is no longer mood music of the day; instead, it's more ambitious and somewhat akin to an early-1950s movie soundtrack. Which makes complete sense since Lipman by 1952 had already been working as an arranger for West Coast studios.
Parker appears to be enjoying himself, so much that he mistakenly continues when he was supposed to drop off. His run-on is barely audible but you can hear it on a careful listen. Once Parker does drop out, the orchestration builds with string flourishes followed by a brief piano solo by Lou Stein. Parker then returns, adding a smart blues touch to the wind-down. When Parker ends, there's a brass fanfare that closes out the tune. [Photo: Esther Bubley]
According to Bill Kirchner's notes, neither Lipman nor Granz ultimately were happy with the sound:
"Surprisingly, both Granz and Lipman seem to have had reservations about these recordings. 'Even after the album was released, Norman Granz didn't seem happy with it,' Lipman says. 'And I wasn't happy with the engineer. I wanted a sound like they got at Capitol Records in California. The engineer didn't quite give it to me; the sound wasn't compact. Each section was not distinctive to me; it sounded like a big room with too much echo."
Maybe so. But Lipman's arrangement for Stella by Starlight retains its drama. What's most fascinating about the score is the reversal of roles. On this track, the orchestra assumes the role of envelope-pusher, aggressively provoking Parker at every turn. But Parker won't have any of it. Instead, he turns in a beautiful, calm and mellow reading.
And that record distribution deal? Mercury didn't renew it, forcing Granz to form Norgran Records in 1953 and eventually Verve in 1956.
JazzWax tracks: You will find Stella by Starlight on several
Charlie Parker albums, most notably Night and Day and Charlie Parker: Big Band. Both are available at iTunes. Big Band is available on CD here.
JazzWax clip: I cannot read Japanese, so I have no idea when and where this clip posted at YouTube was recorded. What I can tell you is that it's a band playing a transcription of the Joe Lipman arrangement for Stella by Starlight and Parker's solo...