A Breath of Fresh Air from 1954! or, Bird Gives You a Summer Listening List

Bird with Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter 1952

In the early 1950s, a jazz disc jockey named Leigh Kamman had a show on WOV in New York City called, “The 1280 Club.” One day while on the air he called Charlie Parker at home for a surprise impromptu interview. The audio of this new interview surfaced on YouTube recently and what a treat it is to hear! Out of the blue, in this painful and difficult year 2020, we get a loud and clear message from Bird about an artist’s priorities .

It’s critical to know how this interview fits into the context of Bird’s life. From 1952 through 1954 Bird experienced intense hardships in his family life and in his business and artistic career. This time capsule of an interview comes in the midst of difficulty and pain that must have felt never-ending. [My blog partner YouDoErnie is working on a thoughtful and informative post that will vividly illustrate the scene.]

In spite of this, Bird turns this interview into an opportunity to guide us to some music and musicians that he wants us to be familiar with. It’s as if Bird is calling out to us across the gap of over 60 years to remind us to seek out and experience new and challenging music, and to listen closely to young talented musicians. He’s reminding us that no matter what else is going on, this is part of an artist’s work.

The four musicians that Bird name checks, trumpet players Clifford Brown and Chet Baker, drummer Lennie McBrowne, and alto saxophonist Frank Morgan were all 24 years of age or younger at the time of this interview (in fact, McBrowne and Morgan just turned twenty in 1953). When he describes these youngsters he uses language like, “very, very encouraging… great technique combined with natural jazz talent… he’s coming along… tremendous thing to hear!” What was Bird discerning in their music? Hear it for yourself!

Clifford Brown in 1953

Chet Baker in 1953

Frank Morgan in 1955

Lennie McBrowne in 1956

Then there is the following exchange:

Kamman: “What are some of the outstanding sides in music that have been produced recently?”
Parker: “Jazz?”
Kamman: “Yes, I’m speaking of jazz, and anything else you’d care to touch on.”
Parker: “Well, you know I have quite an appetite for semi-classical music.”
Kamman: “You have? Well, what would you recommend our listeners going out and relaxing to, or listening to?”
Parker:Bartok is my favorite composer I think. In the meantime they can listen to Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Histoire du Soldat, The Firebird, The Rite of Spring, Orpheus, Jeu de Cartes, Dumbarton Oaks, quite a few masterpieces.”

Bird lays out this exciting list of Stravinsky compositions for us to check out. (Don’t be distracted by his label, ‘semi-classical’ for this music. Let’s assume that in the early 1950s that term was a way to distinguish this music from the 18th and 19th century European musical canon.) If you have time this summer, click on the links to experience some sounds that Charlie Parker is specifically asking you to get to know. Remember that in Bird’s day, studying this music involved going out to hear the music played live in concert, or broadcast live, or stacking up your 78rpm discs in drop-automatic sequence on your record changer. Back in my day you could also borrow scores from the local public library. Nowadays you can get started instantly by clicking the links above. Where possible, they take you to videos of live concert performances and full ballet performances.

The good old days

Passing along Bird’s homework assignment was the hook for getting you to read this post but the real challenge I think he gives us is this: when this call comes in from out of nowhere he creates a very thoughtful and coherent message to the future about what matters in music: 1) actively seek out the richest, most interesting music you can find, and 2) explore how young musicians are learning the language and carrying it forward. Now here’s a thought: how would you complete the circle? Imagine that Bird calls you up out of the blue and asks, what pieces of music and what musicians represent our best in the year 2020? What would you say?

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