BIRD GETS THE WORM (plus an enthusiastic salute from fellow altoist PAUL ZEC)
In the mid-1950s I had embarked on what became a lifetime’s devotion to jazz.
It all started in 1955 (I was aged 15), when my uncle, Nat Taylor, arrived at our home carrying a black case; inside there were roughly three dozen 78 rpm records. Uncle Nat said that I might find these records interesting. They were in fact masterpieces by Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Teddy Wilson et al.
I was immediately hooked. To this day I still can’t explain how Uncle Nat intuited that I’d fall in love with the music. Perhaps he had noticed me responding to one or two musical moments in a way characteristic of a potential jazz lover. I also didn’t know then that Nat was a competent jazz clarinettist and in his youth had shared a tutor with none other than Ronnie Scott.
I always had a nice musical ear: from toddler-hood I was attracted to classical music; but I could never resist the fascination of improvisation. Eminent European musicians had long engaged in improvising, as well as ‘formal’ composing (Bach, Mozart and so on).
As a (Jewish) devotee of jazz I cannot ignore the remarkable similarities of cultural experience that characterize both African-Americans and Jews. Much of that is demonstrated in the world of music; from the musical form of the 12-bar blues (the universality of the Black experience) to the 32-bar structure typical of ‘standards’ (the ubiquity of the Love Song in the “Great American Songbook”). Both of these formats present irresistible challenges to the jazz improviser.
Throughout the 1950s I lived with, and loved, the beauties of jazz: the inexhaustible material that enraptured me - blues, standards and other spellbinding Invitations to Improvise.
Then, in 1960, I ‘met’ alto saxophonist Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, through new friendships with people who were already initiates into the world of Bebop. Quite by chance, my first taste of modern jazz arose from the loan of an lp of the Parker Quintet on Savoy recorded in 1947. One track was titled: Bird Gets the Worm.
I’d had absolutely no experience of exposure to music played at such a breakneck tempo (approx. 400 quarter-notes [crotchets] per minute). Neither could I even begin to guess at the ‘architecture’ of the piece being played: much later on I realised that it was a total improvisation on the chord sequence of Lover Come Back to Me by Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II. Given this start, I was fortunate to avoid dismissing ‘Bird’ as some kind of charlatan or show-off, rather than what he was: possibly the greatest of all improvising soloists in jazz history (and, perhaps, one of the pre-eminent figures of 20th Century western music).
‘Bird’ was in love with harmony: although my first exposure to him (Lover Come Back to Me) was, to be sure, uncomfortable, I quickly realised that his playing of standards by such songwriters as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern etc. furnished abundant evidence of that love of harmony. This is what drew Parker to playing standards.
Early on, Parker was attracted to the idea of increasing the range of tone colours available to which the improvising soloist could respond. There is evidence that Parker suggested to Norman Granz (the impresario) the possibility of recording the alto saxophone with a backing of a chamber orchestra (strings and wind) as well as a rhythm section. ‘Bird’ is quoted as saying “I asked for strings as far back as 1941; and then, years later, when I went with Norman, he okayed it.”
The idea of recording Parker with strings, however, generated no little controversy: Granz liked it, on the grounds that an accompanying orchestra of symphonic musicians could only increase the prestige of the featured soloist. But accusations were levelled at Granz, and even at Parker himself, of attempting to “popularize” or “commercialize” Parker’s music by surrounding it with orchestral, perhaps even ‘easy-listening’, ensemble work.
The album, Charlie Parker with Strings, based on 5 recording sessions from 1949 to 1952, came out on the Verve label, has since been re-released several times and is currently easily available.
What do I think of the ‘Strings’ Project?
Firstly, the combination of ‘Bird’ on alto saxophone with rhythm section and small orchestra of high-class symphonic musicians meant that Parker was in very good musical company. His response to being in such company produced solo playing of superb quality by Parker. And we shouldn’t forget that all of the tracks on ‘Strings’ are "standards". We don't look for exact reproductions of the melodies - how could they have been? ‘Bird’ was a congenital improviser and the album is full of beautiful, spontaneously-composed phrases that enhance, rather than interfere with, Parker’s theme statements.
Charlie Parker died at 34, three years after the last ‘Strings’ recording session. Mozart died at 35. As a Mozart obsessive, I cannot but reflect on the wealth of unimaginable musical treasures that the premature departure of both geniuses has denied us.