In December, 1948, Charlie Parker (Bird) signed a recording contract with Norman Granz, jazz impresario and founder of Verve Records. This marks the starting point of his artistic decline. It didn’t happen immediately, and many other factors contributed, but there is still much to regret about their association, starting with “Charlie Parker with Strings”.
Bird moved to New York in 1942 and quickly fell under the sway of European classical music, something he hadn’t been exposed to in Kansas City. Over the course of that decade, he grew frustrated with the limitations of the 12 bar blues and the 32 bar popular song forms, and expressed his desire to find “new ways of saying things musically. New sound combinations.” It seems Bird was talking, long before it was fashionable, about fusing jazz and classical music. So Norman Granz doesn’t deserve any blame for the “Charlie Parker with Strings” concept. The problem, however, was in the execution, and he had much to do with that.
Bird was quite taken with Stravinsky and Hindemith, and was fond of quoting melodic fragments from their compositions in his solos. It’s possible he envisioned improvising over symphonic and chamber works of that kind. Granz deserves credit for even trying, but his desire to make the project a commercial success resulted in crippling compromises. Jimmy Carroll’s arrangements for the first recording session were dreadful. To say they were on a par with Hollywood film scores would be charitable. Their sound is closer to what became known, just a few years later, as muzak.
Despite this, Bird’s playing was very inspired early on. He took particular pride in his November, 1949, recording of “Just Friends”, and rightfully so, but inspiration gradually sank due to the cement shoes of the arrangements. Bird was seldom given more than 16 consecutive bars of improvisation, and by the time 1952 arrived, some arrangements had only melody statements, and no saxophone solos at all!
Granz’s main claim to fame was “Jazz at the Philharmonic”, a hyperventilating road show intended to simulate a jazz jam session. In terms of Bird’s studio recordings, Granz favored either grandiose projects that were parodies of themselves, or more intimate combinations of incompatible musicians. Buddy Rich almost ruined a reunion session with Dizzy Gillespie, and trad trombonist Tommy Turk provided the blemishes on another. What Granz consistently failed to do was record Bird with his working quintet, far and away the most productive setting.
All this is not to say that Norman Granz was a villain. On the contrary. He hired the greatest jazz players available for his Jazz at the Philharmonic tours, paying and treating them far better than his contemporaries, and when Lester Young emerged shattered from his year in the detention barracks at Ft. McClelland, Alabama, Granz did more than anyone else to help Lester rebuild his life.
In any case, by 1949, Bird’s career had reached a point where it no longer made sense to keep recording for Savoy and Dial, the small labels that were home to his early masterpieces (the majority recorded with his working quintet). The finances for these sessions were fast and loose. The musicians were paid in cash for their day’s work, with a small advance against royalties for original compositions. This was, to some extent, Bird’s incentive for composing, which helps explain his practice of writing eight bar themes over borrowed chord changes.
In the early ’50s, as the financial burdens of supporting his family mounted, along with various legal disputes, Bird made some attempts to go back and claim his own Dial and Savoy compositions, already regarded as classics, but there was never any real hope of that. Herman Lubinsky of Savoy was a legendary miser, and Bird had ended up on bad terms with Ross Russell of Dial.
Ultimately, Granz was proved right. If nothing else, “Charlie Parker with Strings” was a commercial success, and it brought Bird’s improvisations to people who never would have heard him otherwise. That forgives a lot.