Every great story has turning points, and the life of Charlie Parker is no exception. Among the many events that helped shape the direction of Parker and jazz in the late 1940s was the departure of Miles Davis from Parker's quintet in December 1948 and Parker's recording of Charlie Parker With Strings in November 1949.
After Davis gave notice, his replacement, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, became a force and Davis' experimentation and influence on jazz in the early 1950s expanded. As for the strings album, Parker's jazz-classical fusion became a formula used repeatedly by jazz musicians to express a more relaxed, pop side and extend the music's reach.Today, Phil and I discuss these two events:
JazzWax: In December 1948, Miles Davis decided to leave the Charlie Parker All Stars. Why?
Phil Schaap: The straw that broke the camel’s back was Parker’s selection of pianist Al Haig [pictured] to replace Duke Jordan.
JW: Who did Davis want?
PS: Miles wanted John Lewis, and he told Parker. Bird said, “If you want John Lewis to be the piano player, get your own band.” Miles had already made headway toward forming his own band with his nonet, which had played the Royal Roost and was due to record the so-called Birth of the Cool session for Capitol in January. Of course, John Lewis was on piano.
JW: What did Parker have against John Lewis?
PS: Nothing. Look, if you’re going to choose one piano player, does that mean every other piano player sucks? It doesn’t.
JW: But it does mean that you hear something special in one pianist over another.
PS: Bird had heard Al Haig before. Haig had recorded with Bird as early as May 1945. He and Dizzy went nightclubbing often and heard him many times. Haig also is in California at Billy Berg’s with Bird and Dizzy. Haig is who Bird likes and wants, so he hires who he wants. [Photo: Al Haig and Miles Davis]
JW: Was there ever any hard feelings by Lewis toward Bird over his selection?
PS: None whatsoever. I interviewed John Lewis about Charlie Parker fairly frequently. John said he would have accepted the job, but there was no ill will. If you were to bear a grudge against every leader who didn’t hire you, every sideman in the world would hate 98% of the leaders.
JW: Does the Charlie Parker with Strings session in November 1949 successfully link modern jazz and pop?
PS: It has a lasting effect in this specific sense: the concept that Parker envisions becomes a door-opening device that allows jazz improvisers to this day to seek a lush background texture. The albums these artists create are then considered pop records by the marketplace. Stan Getz, Johnny Hodges, Chet Baker, Harry Carney, Clifford Brown, Wynton Marsalis and many others recorded albums with the same concept Bird pioneered.
JW: What does Charlie Parker With Strings do for jazz-pop?
PS: It's the creation of a new slice of the jazz pie. The result becomes an offshoot of the pop field at a time when jazz was no longer the center of the pop idiom.
JW: Did the Charlie Parker with Strings concept originate as something of an accident?
PS: How so?
JW: In December 1947, Bird’s recording of Repetition with Neal Hefti is really the basis for Charlie Parker With Strings,
PS: I don’t think so. I think Bird tells us in interviews that it’s not. Repetition was an opportunity for Bird to come in the back door on making a record he tells us he had already envisioned. When he hears Hefti conducting his orchestra on Repetition, he hears his concept and wants in.
JW: And Charlie Parker With Strings?
PS: It’s a great album because Bird wants it to be that way. Remember, the album is his concept. Later, other jazz artists piggyback on his invention.
JW: Such as Clifford Brown with Strings in January 1955?
PS: Clifford Brown With Strings is among the most profoundly beautiful jazz music ever played. But Brownie is locked into a concept on there. With Bird, since it’s his vision, there’s much less limitation on what he wants to try on what is ostensibly a bebop record with strings.
JW: So does Repetition in 1947 have absolutely nothing to do with Charlie Parker With Strings?
PS: That's correct. It’s an early outcropping of Bird's desire to make a strings album.
JW: But Parker wandered onto the main stage in Carnegie Hall, heard Hefti and asked to play a solo over Hefti's orchestral chart.
PS: Bird asked in and joined Hefti’s concept. It was an opportunity to express himself by joining Hefti’s record date. He does so because he can envision the possibility.
JW: But isn’t he hearing the effect that his alto and the strings are having together?
PS: Yes he is. He understands what the merger is going to sound like. But he didn’t get the idea by lucking into a guest appearance with Hefti. He already had the vision, which perhaps grows over the next two years. For Bird, Repetition may indeed be the first example of the experience.
JW: So Repetition for Parker is the first experience of hearing his alto against strings.
PS: Yes. But producer Norman Granz didn’t want to record Charlie Parker With Strings in 1949.
JW: Why not?
PS: Why would anyone want to spend extra money on something that might not work? And that it did work is the genius of it all and why the concept continues to be repeated to this day.
JazzWax tracks: Miles Davis recorded with Charlie Parker in New York in November 1945 and in February and March 1946 in Los Angeles. Davis became part of Parker's working quintet in May 1947 and remained with the group through December 1948. Between 1949 and 1953, Davis recorded occasionally with Parker.
The Parker-Davis recordings can be found on The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes (Savoy) at iTunes or here. But for those who prefer a more in-depth listen, The Complete Savoy and Dial Recordings: 1944-1948 (Savoy) features eight discs and includes all of the master takes, alternate takes and false starts. Liner notes are by James Patrick, Bill Kirchner, Ira Gitler and Orrin Keepnews. The box set can be found here.
Charlie Parker with Strings, recorded in November 1949, is available on Charlie Parker With Strings: The Master Takes at iTunes or here. Or you'll find it on Charlie Parker: The Complete Verve Master Takes here. Both include the additional studio strings sessions of July 1950 and January 1952. Parker also was recorded live with strings on multiple occasions during the early 1950s at clubs and in concert.
JazzWax notes: WKCR's Lester Young and Charlie Parker Birthday Broadcasts starts today (as you are reading this) and runs through Sunday. To listen live from anywhere in the world on your computer, go here... If you're in New York this weekend, the annual Charlie Parker Festival will be held on Sunday at Tompkins Square Park starting at 3 p.m. For more information, go here.
JazzWax clip: Everyone has their favorite Charlie Parker with strings recording. My favorite is the Jimmy Carroll arrangement of Everything Happens to Me. Listen to the drama Carroll creates with the orchestra—from the opening pizzicato, to the harp glissandi to the tick-tock ending. All of this frames Parker, who delivers a beautiful and joyful rendition of the standard...