Weekly Posting, June 12th, 2020

John McLellan

On the afternoon of Saturday, June 13, 1953, Charlie Parker (Bird) was interviewed on WHDH radio in Boston by John McLellan, host of a jazz show called The Top Shelf. McLellan, whose real name was John Fitch, did much to promote jazz in Boston throughout the 1950s. In addition to hosting his radio show, he conducted live broadcasts from Storyville, interviewed visiting jazz stars, and wrote a weekly newspaper column. He certainly deserves our respect for these and other good works on behalf of the music. More’s the pity, then, that he bungles his interview with Bird. It’s less of a debacle than the Stearns and Maher Show, but that’s not saying much.
The problem is obvious. Although he means well, McClellan is a square to end all squares. He’s genuinely interested in what Bird has to say and never interrupts or cuts him off, yet his smothering earnestness and interminable questions seem to wear Bird down over the course of the interview.

To be fair, Bird was tired going in. The interview was conducted near the end of his one-week stint at the Hi Hat Club, from June 8th through the 14th, 1953. By then, his chronic illnesses were sapping his stamina, and in any case he was sick to death of road gigs. If it sounds as though he’s half asleep, that may have been the case. McLellan claims that he arrived at the boarding house where Bird was staying to give him a ride and had to wake him up. (Many observers report that Bird slept more or less at random and never more than two or three hours at a stretch.)
Another complication rears its head again: pitch problems! This interview runs below speed. The effects of this over the decades may be incalculable, because it makes Bird sound drugged and slow witted. I have raised the pitch (best guess) and his voice is transformed. But there’s no question that McClellan casts a pall over the proceedings with his dithering questions. This was tacitly acknowledged a year later when he interviewed Bird again. This time, a starstruck Paul Desmond was invited into the studio along with Bird in order to defend against McClellan’s wet blanket. Fortunately, this produced the best Bird interview we have (although the bar for that is set at approximately floor level).

Despite his elaborate questions, many of which were written out in advance, McClellan seems surprisingly clueless about the basics, given his involvement in the jazz scene. The discussion devolves to the point where Bird is forced to lay out a chronology for McClellan, in order to define some basic terms. What’s also striking is McClellan’s not-so-hidden agenda. He seems determined to get Bird to badmouth specific genres and their adherents. Bird refuses again and again to play this game. If we know anything at all about Charlie Parker, it’s that he was deeply moved by music in all its forms and resisted all attempts to categorize it. He listened only for the good and let the bad pass unnoticed. The passion with which he defends his white contemporaries is unexpected and touching. 

So, on another level, what we have here is an exercise in forbearance. Even in his weariness, Bird doesn’t let McClellan get under his skin. He patiently answers every long winded question as honestly as possible. As a result, there are treasures to be found. We get invaluable glimpses of how Bird thought about music on a structural level, and also as an internal process.  At the start of my excerpts, I have left McCllellan’s question untouched, to give the flavor of his interview style. After that, I have pruned his questions mercilessly. (If you look at the transcripts, you can plainly see that his questions outnumber Bird’s answers by about two-to-one.) But these excerpts aren’t meant as a substitute for the full interview (available upon request). We have very few opportunities to take the measure of Charlie Parker apart from our meager supply of interviews, flawed though they may be. This fencing match with John McClellan will tell you more about Bird than all the words in print. Every second is revealing.

The Hi Hat Club was located at the corner of Mass Ave and Columbus. In the 40s and 50s, the block between Huntington and Columbus was Boston’s answer to 52nd St. Regrettably,Wally’s is all that remains today of this golden age. An extensive fire forced the Hi Hat to close in 1955.
Some of Bird’s performances during his week in Boston were broadcast and recorded as air checks, thus providing today’s musical offering. I have included one of my favorite exchanges between Bird and “Symphony Sid” Torin, the ubiquitous hipster doofus who presided over countless live broadcasts. Bird evidently feels that conditions require him to address Sid formally. This happens going into “My Little Suede Shoes“ but I have substituted a more substantial track, “Ornithology”, in its place. I believe this exchange actually took place during Bird’s return engagement in January, 1954, but these on-air exchanges were captured so often they seem timeless.

In addition to performing for seven nights, Bird also hosted a Sunday afternoon jam session at the Hi Hat from 4 to 8 PM. It’s mind boggling to imagine attending a jam session hosted by Charlie Parker, but by all accounts he was unfailingly kind to aspiring musicians, mentored more than a few, and even let some sit in with his own quintet, to the chagrin of his sidemen. Not bad for a drug-crazed sociopath.

McClellan Interview Excerpts
McClellan Interview Complete
Bantering with Symphony Sid/Ornithology

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