When Parker's imposed stay at Camarillo State Mental Hospital near Los Angeles ended at the bottom of January 1947, he returned to the West Coast jazz scene briefly, recording for Dial in February and performing at the Hi-Di-Ho Club in March. Upon his return to New York in April, he recorded for Savoy in May. But in August, a strange thing happened: Parker was suddenly a sideman playing tenor sax on a record session led by Miles Davis. For the back story, I turned to Phil Schaap, a Charlie Parker authority and host of Bird Flight, the longest-running weekday radio show on WKCR that's devoted to Parker's music.
This week, in the days leading up to Parker's 90th birthday on August 29, I asked Phil questions about several major events and recordings in Parker's career. Today, Phil talks about the Milestones recording session of August 1947 and Parker's Mood of September 1948:
JazzWax: How did Miles Davis wind up being the leader on the modernist Milestones session of August 14, 1947?
Phil Schaap: It’s a confluence of several things: If you’re Herman Lubinsky at Savoy Records and you’re going to record Miles as a leader with Bird on the date, you have to change the way the records sound from those Miles recorded as a sideman with Bird. Even more important, by August 1947, Dial Records’ owner and producer Ross Russell had arrived in New York and told Lubinsky that he was going to sue him. Herman had recorded Bird on Donna Lee, Chasing the Bird, Cheryl and Buzzy, which Russell contended was a breach of his exclusive contract with Parker.
JW: How does the threat of a suit play into Davis recording with Bird as the leader?
PS: If you look at when the earlier Savoy records were issued, Lubinsky releases two of them and then waits a long time before issuing the other two. He’s genuinely afraid of being sued and losing. So hiding Bird by having him switch to tenor sax and making him a sideman to Miles does the trick. As for the music itself, it’s Miles’ music and has a completely different flavor from what he was playing with Bird previously.
JW: Was Bird resistant to Miles adapting Gil Evans’ cooler approach?
PS: Actually you may have the cart and horse reversed.
JW: How so?
PS: Bird was hanging out at Gil Evans’ West 55th St. apartment before Miles. I’m not saying that Miles wasn’t there. But Gil [pictured] certainly already knew Bird personally and may have known Miles at the time as well. Gil told me that Bird was at his apartment early on. Of course, what are now known as the so-called Birth of the Cool sessions were still off in the distance in the summer of 1947—they're a year and a half away.
JW: So what’s the significance of the Milestones session?
PS: It’s ultimately Miles’ music and direction. It’s also one of the first times earlier take numbers were chosen as the masters. Previously, producers tended to choose later takes for obvious reasons: They were more perfect, which is why additional takes were requested in the first place. Here, Miles picked the early takes. Vernon Davis, Miles’ brother, confirmed that for me. Miles felt earlier takes had the right energy and excitement and that later takes only polished the edge off what made the recordings special.
JW: And yet the Milestones session has a cooler, fresher feel.
PS: Yes, Miles is already coming up with an antithesis to bebop’s thesis just at the moment the music was new. That approach is part of Miles’ chameleon-like stripe. On the other hand, perception is in the ears of the listener.
PS: That the music is what it is. I can play the songs recorded on the Milestones session in my Juilliard class 1,000 times and no one would discern what’s bebop and what’s not quite bebop. It all would sound like one thing. Students would probably just wonder who the tenor player was.
JW: But the material clearly is cooler sounding. Are you saying it isn’t?
PS: Oh, no. The tracks certainly are the zygote of cool and clearly embryonic to what’s coming. But it’s a bebop record date, too. This is what Miles and pianist John Lewis were about at this point in time. Their thinking was, “Let’s do bebop but with Lester Young’s phrasing.”
JW: Speaking of phrasing, what’s the story behind Parker’s Mood recorded in September 1948? And how does Parker come to deliver one of the greatest sax solos of all time?
JW: I know, I know you’re probably going to argue with that, but…
PS: Well, no. Parker’s Mood is one of the definitive masterpieces in the history of music. But if we’re talking about Charlie Parker, I would expect him occasionally to hit it out of the park every once in a while. Wouldn’t you? If he's as great as we believe him to be, you'd have to assume there would be moments of astonishing brilliance.
JW: Why the word “mood?”
PS: Using the word mood was a big Savoy Records thing then. It’s one of the ways in which record companies attempted hipness. That Bird is going to play a blues on the date makes sense. Why it takes on the dirge quality is simply the feeling the musicians had at that moment.
JW: Was it supposed to be a quartet recording?
PS: Not intentionally. Miles Davis was there earlier on September 18 with Bird recording Barbados, Ah-Leu-Cha and Constellation. But then he had to leave. Miles was wrapping up his gig at the Royal Roost at the time with the first performances of his Birth of the Cool nonet and probably had to get ready.
JW: Was Parker put off by King Pleasure’s version in December 1953 of Parker’s Mood, which featured lyrics that seemed to foreshadow Parker’s death?
PS: I don’t know—and I don’t know if it has even been documented. King Pleasure’s recording was made at the end of 1953 and became a hit in 1954. When Bird dies in March 1955, that’s when the double meaning of the lyrics was noticed. While Parker is alive, the lyrics were simply a sad story being narrated by a singer, similar in many ways to the lyrics to the St. James Infirmary.
Tomorrow, Phil talks about Charlie Parker's live Royal Roost recordings in late 1948 and early 1949 and Charlie Parker with Strings in November 1949.
Radio note. WKCR's Lester Young and Charlie Parker around-the-clock joint-birthday broadcast will begin on August 27 and run through August 29. Go here to listen live on those dates.
JazzWax tracks: For the Miles Davis-led Milestones session (Milestones, Little Willie Leaps, Half Nelson and Sippin' at Bell's), with Charlie Parker on tenor sax, you can find the tracks on The Complete Savoy and Dial Master Takes at iTunes or here. You'll find Parker's Mood on the same set.
As for King Pleasure's Parker's Mood, you'll find the track on King Pleasure Sings/Annie Ross Sings at iTunes or here.
JazzWax note: For more on Phil Schaap, there are two excellent profiles. One is by David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, here. The other is by Paul Hond in Columbia Magazine, which is published by Columbia University, here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Charlie Parker in September 1948 playing what has become one of the most remarkable saxophone solos in jazz history for its blues passion, lyrical improvisational statements and fluid ideas...