At 7 PM on January 23rd, 1954, Charlie Parker (Bird) was interviewed by John McClellan on his WHDH radio show, Top Shelf. A feeling of déjà vu was inevitable, because Bird had been interviewed by McClellan the previous June, during a one-week engagement at the Hi Hat club. Bird was back in Boston for another run at the Hi Hat, from January 18th through 24th, 1954, and was once again invited into the WHDH studios for an interview. Someone involved may have tried to prevent history from repeating itself, because the previous interview had been a debacle of sorts. To put it charitably, there was a distinct lack of chemistry between Bird and McClellan.
It would be fascinating to know who decided to bring in Paul Desmond and why. Desmond was in Boston that same week, playing at Storyville with Dave Brubeck, and perhaps the intersection of two famous alto saxophonists in Boston was reason enough to bring them into the studio together. Neutralizing McClellan may have been a fringe benefit. Whatever the reasons, it resulted in the best Bird interview we have.
We finally have Bird at ease and willing to speak freely about his life, sheltered (partially) from McClellan’s inane questioning. We can only assume that Bird was willing to lower his guard out of respect for Desmond, whom he treats as an equal. Desmond, of course, sees Bird as a god, and his awestruck attitude becomes an impediment itself, at times. Bird tries to cajole him out of it more than once.
Toward the end of the interview, Desmond jokingly refers to Bird, 33 years old at the time, as “grandfather Parker“. Mathematically young, Bird was an old man by any other measure, and about fourteen months from his own death. 1954 would prove to be a catastrophic year, beginning with the death of his two-year-old daughter, Pree, on March 6th. He would commit himself to Bellevue, seeking psychiatric treatment for depression and alcoholism, and the white medical establishment there would issue a diagnosis of “undifferentiated schizophrenia.” By year’s end, his marriage and career would be in ruins, and his self-destruction would go unchecked until his own death on March 12th, 1955.
This gives the interview added importance. It’s a snapshot of Bird as he approaches this precipice, one that offers an opportunity to assess his state of mind. He is just months away from his diagnosis of schizophrenia, and one would expect to find significant signs of mental illness, or at least emotional instability, or even just character flaws. What I find is warmth, humor, intelligence, awareness, modesty, generosity, empathy, and honesty.
In addition to providing an audio clip of the complete interview, I am including a partial transcript with my own (frequent and annoying) annotations, as a way of putting Bird’s remarks into a larger context. At times, I have edited out the phrase “you know”, which Bird uses reflexively as a verbal comma, and also some of the “ands” he uses reflexively to connect his sentences.
[The interview is already in progress as recording begins.]
DESMOND: …the style of the alto is so different from anything else that’s on the record, or that went before. Did you realize at that time the effect you were going to have on jazz — that you were going to change the entire scene in the next ten years?
PARKER: Well, let’s put it like this, no. I had no idea that it was that much different (laughs).
[I think Bird is quite sincere about this. His playing was very much rooted in what came before, and I don’t think he intended to start a revolution. Hence his insistence, here and in the previous McLellan interview, that this was simply how he “felt it should go”.]
McLELLAN: I’d like to stick in a question, if I may.
[This phrasing implies that someone had instructed McLellan to keep his pie-hole shut.]
I’d like to know why there was this violent change, really.
[This refrain is familiar from the previous interview, including the adjective “violent”. It strikes me as a weirdly inappropriate way to describe any form of jazz. The real violence lay in the extreme reactions to the new music, whether from critics or other musicians, who couldn’t see it as a natural step in an ongoing evolution. It’s worth remembering that Bird had to endure all manner of rejection and hostility early in his career, which hurt him deeply. ]
McLELLAN: After all, up until this time the way to play the alto sax was the way that Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter played alto, and this seems to be an entirely different conception, not only of how to play that particular horn, but of music in general.
DESMOND: Yeah, how to play any horn.
[This question is hopelessly nonspecific, essentially asking why any artist develops a personal style that moves their art form forward.]
PARKER: That, I don’t think there’s any answer to, strictly speaking, John. That’s what I said when I first started talking, that’s my first conception, man, that’s the way I thought it should go, and I still do. I mean, of course it can stand much improvement. Most likely, in another 25, maybe 50 years, some youngster will come along and take this style and really do something with it, you know?
[I don’t see how Bird could have meant this literally. It’s true that no one had yet come along with a brand new conception, and his style was still being imitated far and wide. On the other hand, change was in the air and he felt this himself. And, of course, jazz was less than five years away from its next revolution.]
[Bird now proceeds to give us the most distilled summation we have of his goals as an artist.]
But I mean, ever since I’ve ever heard music, I’ve always thought it should be very clean, very precise. As clean as possible, anyway, and more or less to the people, something they could understand, something that was beautiful. Because there’s definitely stories and stories and stories that can be told in any musical idiom, you know?
[He pauses here, dissatisfied with his own words.]
…You wouldn’t say idiom, either. It’s so hard to describe music, other than the basic way to describe it: music is basically melody, harmony and rhythm. But, I mean, people can do much more with music than that. It can be very descriptive in all kinds of ways, all walks of life. Don’t you agree, Paul?
[Bird is trying to get Desmond to express his own thoughts, but hero worship derails this effort.]
DESMOND: Yeah, and you always do have a story to tell. It’s one of the most impressive things about everything I’ve ever heard of yours.
PARKER: That’s more or less the object, that’s what I thought it should be.
[Of course, Bird’s idol, Lester Young, always spoke of “telling a story,” so it’s safe to assume that Bird adopted this philosophy early on, while still in Kansas City.]
DESMOND: Uh-huh. Another thing that’s a major factor in your playing is this fantastic technique, that nobody’s quite equaled. I’ve always wondered about that, too, whether there was– whether that came behind practicing or whether that was just from playing, whether that evolved gradually…
PARKER: Well, um, you make it so hard for me to answer you, you know…
[Bird is clearly hinting that he would prefer not to be idolized.]
… because I can’t see where there’s anything fantastic about it all. I put quite a bit of study into the horn, that’s true. In fact, the neighbors threatened to ask my mother to move once, when we were living out west. They said I was driving them crazy with the horn. I used to put in at least 11 to 15 hours a day.
[This has to be an exaggeration, and it’s hard to reconcile this with his marriage at age fifteen to Rebecca Ruffin, although the two aren’t mutually exclusive. But Bird obviously practiced a great deal at some point during this period, and 11 to 15 hour days are plausible if you factor in Bird’s fondness for Benzedrine. ]
DESMOND: Yes, that’s what I wondered.
PARKER: That’s true, yes. I did that for over a period of three or four years.
DESMOND: I guess that’s the answer.
PARKER: That’s the facts, anyway (laughs).
[Bird is drawing an interesting distinction here.]
DESMOND: I heard a record of yours a couple of months ago that somehow I’ve missed up to date, and I heard a little 2 bar quote from the Klose book that was like an echo from home… [Desmond hums the passage.]
PARKER: Yeah, yeah. Well, that was all done with books, you know, naturally. It wasn’t done with mirrors this time, it was done with books (laughs).
[This is a good example of Bird’s dry wit.]
DESMOND: Charlie, this brings us kind of up to when you and Diz started joining forces — the next record we have coming up. When did you first meet Dizzy Gillespie?
PARKER: Well, the first time, our official meeting I might say, was on the bandstand of the Savoy Ballroom in New York City in 1939, [when] McShann’s band first came to New York.
[It’s puzzling that Bird is so unreliable with dates, given his photographic memory. He consistently dates events two or three years earlier. It is beyond dispute that the Jay McShann Orchestra played the Savoy in February, 1942.]
I’d been in New York previously [THAT was 1939] but I went back west [to Kansas City] and rejoined the band and came back to New York with it. Dizzy came by one night, I think at the time he was working with Cab Calloway’s band, and he sat in in the band. I was quite fascinated by the fellow, and we became very good friends and, until this day, we are. And that was the first time I ever had the pleasure to meet Dizzy Gillespie.
[There is a consensus that Bird and Diz met a couple of years before then, although versions of the story differ. All agree they played together, although in some stories Diz was playing piano. It would seem they formed no bond whatsoever. Some say Dizzy didn’t get what Bird was doing at all, others say he came away profoundly shaken internally. It’s interesting that Bird uses the term “official meeting” to describe their encounter at the Savoy, as it suggests that they had indeed met before. He also takes the opportunity to stress their ongoing friendship, refuting the continual rumors about bad blood.]
DESMOND: Was he playing the same way then, before he played with you?
PARKER: I don’t remember precisely.
[I’m pretty sure Bird is being evasive here, on Dizzy’s behalf. Desmond is taking the opportunity to ask the burning question that still occupies us today: who influenced whom the most? We now have vastly more information than Desmond did then, in the form of live recordings from the early 40s. Bird never, ever claimed to have invented modern jazz himself, although there was an argument to be made. In any event, he refuses to play this game.]
I just know he was playing, what you might call, in the vernacular of the streets, a boo-koo [beaucoup?] of horn, you know?
PARKER: You know, just like all of the horn packed up at once, you know?
[Skipping ahead slightly.]
PARKER: In ’42, Dizzy was in New York and formed his own new combination in the Three Deuces, in New York City, and I joined his band there, and that’s when these records you’re about to play now… we made these in ’42 in New York.
[Bird wildly misdates these events (1944) and recordings (1945).]
DESMOND: Yeah, I guess the first time I heard that group was, you came out to Billy Berg’s?
PARKER: Oh, yes, but that was ’45, that was later. We’ll get to that (laughs).
[Ay, caramba! How can he get THIS date right and not the others?]
DESMOND: I’m just illustrating how far I was behind all this.
PARKER: Oh, don’t be that way.
PARKER: Modesty will get you nowhere.
DESMOND: I’m hip (laughter).
[Again, Bird is hinting that he would prefer that Desmond consider himself an equal.]
DESMOND: You said at that time, New York was jumping in ’42?
PARKER: Yeah, New York was, well, those were what you might call the good old days, you know, Paul. Gay youth.
DESMOND: Tell me about it.
[I think Desmond is using hipster jargon here, as he does in other places, “tell me about it” meaning “I’ve experienced that myself”. It’s interesting that Bird takes him literally.]
PARKER: Well, descriptively… Just like I was going to say: gay youth, lack of funds…
DESMOND: Listen to grandfather Parker talking here.
PARKER: There was nothing to do but play, and we had a lot of fun trying to play. I did. Plenty of jam sessions, meant much late hours, plenty good food, nice clean living, you know? But basically speaking, much poverty (laughs).
[Bird is referring to a time when biographers describe him as living a chaotic existence, playing for tips at Monroe’s Uptown House and Minton’s, no fixed address, implacably addicted to heroin. These periods were interrupted by steady employment, first in the Earl Hines Orchestra, and then the Billy Eckstine Orchestra (both included Dizzy), as well as time in Kansas City. But Bird was always drawn back to New York, which became his adopted home. Reflecting on this period here, Bird doesn’t even mention his big band work. Clearly, what mattered to him was the intense creative development born of continuous jamming.]
DESMOND: That’s always good, too, no worries.
PARKER: It has its place, definitely, in life.
[There’s a bit of an awkward pause at this point, as Desmond struggles to come up with another question.]
DESMOND: Would you like that sort of situation to have continued indefinitely?
PARKER: Well, whether I liked it or not, it really did, Paul. I’m glad it finally blew over of a sort. And I do mean of a sort.
[Bird is obliquely referring to his continued financial hardships, despite the recognition he eventually received as an artist. I think his meaning is lost on Desmond.]
PARKER: Yeah, I enjoy this a little– much more, in fact. Having the pleasure to work with the same guys of the sort that I’ve met. I’ve met other young fellows, you know, that come along, and I enjoy working with them, when I have the pleasure to. If I might say, you, yourself , Paul.
DESMOND: Oh, thanks.
PARKER: Sure, I’ve had lots of fun working with you, man. It’s a pleasure to know you.
[Bird is going out of his way to express, in the strongest possible terms, his admiration for Desmond, in an effort to put him on an equal footing. This is generous beyond measure, as is what follows regarding Brubeck. A lesser man might have felt threatened or slighted by the success of white jazz artists, especially ones incorporating European classical music into their work. As in other instances, it seems clear that Bird judges music without any regard whatsoever to race. ]
PARKER: And David, Dave Brubeck… David Brubeck. Lots of other fellows have come along, since that particular era [early 40s]. It makes you feel that everything you did wasn’t for naught, that you really tried to prove something, and…
DESMOND: Well, man, you really did prove it. I think you did more than anybody in the last ten years to leave a decisive mark on the history of jazz.
[Bird won’t sit still for this hyperbolic comment, even though it probably meant a lot to him.]
PARKER: Well, not yet, Paul, but I intend to. I’d like to study some more, I’m not quite through yet. I’m not quite — I don’t consider myself too old to learn.
[Even at this late date, Bird regards himself as a work in progress, and tacitly dismisses all his past recordings as inadequate. He goes on to speak of his (oft stated) desire to study composition in Paris, which was as sincere as it was improbable.]
[Skipping ahead again.]
DESMOND: Do you want to say something about Miles Davis?
PARKER: Yeah, well, I’ll tell you how I met Miles. In 1944, Billy Eckstine formed his own organization. Dizzy was on that band, also Lucky Thompson, there was Art Blakey, Tommy Potter, a lot of other fellows, and last and least, yours truly.
DESMOND: Modesty will get you nowhere, Charlie (laughter).
[The following statement, although lengthy, is invaluable for the insights it gives us into Bird’s thinking. It reveals how he viewed the evolution of his own life and career during a momentous chapter in jazz history.]
PARKER: I had the pleasure to meet Miles, for the first time, in St. Louis, when he was a youngster. He was still going to school. Later on he came to New York. He finished Juilliard, Miles did, he graduated from Juilliard.
[He didn’t actually graduate, and Bird neglects to mention that he crashed at Miles’s apartment for an extended period while Miles was in school.]
At the time, I was just beginning to get my band together, you know, five pieces here, five pieces there. So I formed a band and took it into the Three Deuces for maybe seven to eight weeks. At the time, Dizzy–after the Eckstine organization broke up –Dizzy was about to form his own band. There were so many things taking place then, I mean, it’s hard to describe it, because it happened in a matter of months. Nevertheless, I went to California in 1945 with Dizzy, after I broke up my band, the first band I had. Then I came again back to New York in ’47, the early part of ’47.
[These dates are correct. It’s worth pointing out that Bird identified Miles very early on (1945) as the trumpet player he wanted in his quintet. It’s no criticism to say that Miles wasn’t fully developed as a player at the outset, being just nineteen-years-old. But Bird could see something in him even then, and used Miles in every band he formed going forward, until Miles stormed off the bandstand at the Royal Roost on December 23rd, 1948, never to return.]
That’s when I decided to have a band of my own permanently, and Miles was in my original band. I had Miles, I had Max, I had Tommy Potter and Al Haig in my band. Another band I had, I had Stan Levey, had Curley Russell, I had Miles and George Wallington.
[I believe this band existed BEFORE Bird went to California with Diz.]
But I think you have a record out there, one of the records that we made with Max and Miles, I think, and yours truly, Tommy and Duke Jordan. What is it? I think it’s “Perhaps.” Is it not so? Well, this came along in the years of say ’47… ’46, ’47. These particular sides were made in New York City, WOR 1440 Broadway, and this is the beginning of my career as a bandleader.
The recording date was September 24th, 1948, and the location was Harry Smith Studios in NYC. This is the last recording of Bird’s classic quintet for Savoy (or Dial) records. Bird would sign with Norman Granz shortly afterward, and record exclusively for him until the end of his life, seldom with his working quintet.
The overall point here is that, throughout the revolutionary period of the mid-40s, Bird was, on a personal level, most concerned about achieving his independence as a bandleader. This is unsurprising, given that he had been working as a sideman in innumerable bands since the age of fifteen, but it’s also easy to forget how things looked from Bird’s point of view during this sweep of history. Ironically, he turned out to be a terrible bandleader in every way. Once he counted off the tune, though, nothing else mattered.