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ClassicsOnline Home » PARKER, Charlie: Mellow Bird (1949-1952)
CHARLIE PARKER Vol.3
Original Recordings 1949-1952
Charlie “Bird” Parker was one of the most significant jazz
musicians of all time. He was such
a brilliant soloist on alto that even his throwaway phrases became the
vocabulary of jazz. Bird could
play perfectly coherent solos at ridiculous tempos and he was very advanced
harmonically yet was also a masterful blues player. His prime period (1944-54) was relatively brief yet he came
up with so many innovative ideas during his short life that he permanently changed
the mainstream of jazz from swing to bebop, transforming a music that was
considered part of the entertainment field into one universally thought of as
an art form.
Born in Kansas City, Kansas, on 29 August 1920, Charlie
Parker grew up in Kansas City, Missouri.
As a young teenager he began playing the alto sax and dropped out of
school at fourteen to become a professional musician even though he was not
ready yet. After being essentially
laughed offstage a few times, he spent several months one summer working hard,
woodshedding on his horn, studying Lester Young records and building up his
mastery of the fundamentals. By
the time the summer was over, Parker was strong enough to impress his fellow
musicians. He worked with Jay
McShann’s Orchestra off and on during 1937-42, making his recording debut,
visiting New York with the band and jamming with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie for
the first time.
Parker and Gillespie worked together frequently during
1943-45, as sidemen with the Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine Orchestras, on 52nd
Street and in a series of recordings in 1945 that stunned the jazz world. Their brilliant techniques, adventurous
ideas and knack for improvising over the chords of songs were at first
considered quite controversial.
However within a couple years they were hugely influential, moving jazz
far beyond Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller.
Parkers' life was adversely affected by his addiction to
heroin, which he had acquired as a teenager. In the fall of 1945, he traveled with Gillespie to Los
Angeles, introducing bebop to a West Coast audience that proved largely
indifferent to the music. Although
he made some classic recordings while in Los Angeles, the lack of a reliable
drug connection resulted in Bird trying to fight his addiction by drinking
excessively. He suffered a mental
breakdown and spent six months confined at the Camarillo State Hospital. After his release in January 1947, he
returned to New York and had a particularly productive period, leading a
quintet that featured the trumpeter Miles Davis. He was in peak form during the next few years, even as he
resumed being an addict.
In 1949, Parker realized a dream he had long had, to record
with a string section. The “Bird
With Strings” sessions would be his most comm-ercially successful
recordings. While some of his fans
considered these dates to be too restrictive and the music rather conservative,
emphasizing swing standards rather than new bop originals, Parker initially
loved being in the setting.
This present collection has all of the music from the first
two “Bird With Strings” sessions, a couple of small group numbers and a final
string date that also includes a big band. Parker began his string project with a true classic, Just
Friends. This recording is one of
the few where every note (and there are many) is perfect. Bird’s improvisation is simply
stunning, creating some brilliant variations and fresh ideas; note that the
brief oboe spot is played by future record producer Mitch Miller. Parker plays beautifully on the other
selections from this session, even if he sticks fairly close to the themes; his
If I Should Lose You is the second most famous performance from this date. Listeners who were confused by bebop at
its most radical (asking “Where’s the melody?”) found little to complain about
with these performances. Jimmy
Carroll’s arrangements for the five strings, harp and oboe are straightforward
and lush, forming a backdrop for Parker’s distinctive tone, while Stan Freeman
contributes a few interludes on piano.
My Melancholy Baby is quite a bit different. Taken from a reunion session by Parker
and Gillespie, it teams Bird for the only time on record with pianist
Thelonious Monk and offers drummer Buddy Rich an opportunity to play with the
giants of bop; bassist Curly Russell is excellent in support. This version of the vintage dixieland
standard is both a bit tongue-in-cheek and delightful.
For the second “Bird And Strings” set, the backing group has
the addition of a French horn and the violin section expanding from three to
five. Joe Lippman’s arrangements
are similar to Carroll’s in that they are as suited to middle-of-the-road pop
music as they are to jazz. This
time around pianist Bernie Leighton and Edwin C. Brown on oboe provide the
interludes between the ensembles and Parker. One’s chief attention is focused on Bird, who is in
particularly fine form on Dancing In The Dark (which has a similar framework as
Just Friends) and Out Of Nowhere.
In general Parker is a bit more adventurous on this date than the
initial string session and he had settled more into the role of playing above
Star Eyes is taken from a reunion session with Parker’s
former sideman Miles Davis, one of only two that took place after Davis’
departure in December 1948. Bird’s
playing on this song (which was introduced by Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra in 1943)
is so memorable that Star Eyes became a jazz standard due to this recording.
By 1952 when the final “Bird With Strings” date took place,
the concept had run its course.
Parker had performed live with a small string section on a few occasions
during 1950-51 but found the setting rather confining. Because the strings could not
improvise, if the arrangement called for Bird to take two choruses, that
situation could not be spontaneously changed. Parker was so frustrated that he soon chose to return to
play exclusively with a more convent-ional combo in clubs. The last of his record dates with
strings differs from his first two in that the string section (which unfortunately
has always been unidentified for this session) was expanded and is joined not
only by flute, oboe and a rhythm section (with pianist Lou Stein) but a harp
and ten horns. There are
occasional short spots for a trumpeter (most likely Bernie Privin) and,
although Bird is again the main voice on these selections, the horns make the
music much more jazz-oriented than previously. The uptempo version of Lover that closes this set of Mellow
Bird is particularly memorable.
Charlie Parker was only 31 at the time of his final set with
strings but his career and life were nearing its end. He became increasingly unreliable, he remained a heroin
addict and, although he could play brilliantly when inspired (including at the
famous 1953 Massey Hall concert with Gillespie and Bud Powell), his mental
state became increasingly shaky.
His body finally gave out on 12 March 1955 at the age of 34. But although his life was short,
Charlie Parker’s legacy lives on through his recordings and the tremendous
impact that he made on jazz.
– author of eight jazz books including Jazz On Record
1917-76, Bebop, Swing and Trumpet Kings
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PARKER, Charlie: Mellow Bird (1949-1952)