On August 14, 1947, Miles Davis made his first recording date as a leader at Harry Smith Studios in New York City, for Savoy Records. Savoy was owned and operated by legendary cheapskate Herman Lubinsky, but it was Teddy Reig, Savoy‘s A&R man, who organized and supervised the recording sessions. Reig was a legend in his own right. Six feet tall, three hundred pounds, and inclined to to yell in order to make a point, he grew up in Harlem, chose 52nd Street over high school, knew every jazz musician on the scene personally, engaged in various hustles to make ends meet, and gradually became one of the most important record producers of the 1940s and 50s, all while enveloped in a traveling cloud of marijuana fumes.
His 1978 interview with Bob Porter is entertaining and enlightening in the extreme, although not always credible. His insights into the August 14th recording date are valuable and I therefore present them in their entirety. The band under Miles’s leadership was essentially Bird’s own quintet, with John Lewis, piano, Nelson Boyd bass, and Max Roach, drums. Bird receded into the background by playing tenor saxophone instead of alto.
Charlie Parker played tenor on occasion, when circumstances demanded it, and he reportedly played the hell out of someone’s baritone saxophone one memorable night, but he was an alto player with every fiber of his being. If he hadn’t taken a job playing tenor in the Earl Hines Orchestra, strictly as a matter of survival, he wouldn’t have been associated with tenor at all. He rendered his own judgment aloud at one point, supposedly saying, “This thing’s too big.“ It’s easy to infer from Reig’s remarks that it was his idea for Bird to use tenor on the August 14th date. In any case, here’s what Reig had to say about this and other related subjects.
BP: How about Miles‘s session? How did that come about?
TR: Miles was ready and I wanted to show Bird on tenor because nobody had ever heard his tenor in Earl Hines‘s band. Give Miles credit; he had to put up with a lot working with Bird and really, like we owed him this date because of all the shit he took.
BP: This session sounds more organized. Did Miles rehearse?
TR: Right. Miles wrote out charts and had rehearsals. The first rehearsal, Bird went to the Braddock Bar and borrowed a tenor from Warren Luckey. I had to watch out for that tenor to make sure Bird didn’t hock it! The second rehearsal was up at Nola‘s, which was over Lindy’s, and had like a whole floor of rehearsal studios. Bird showed up without a horn, but he found some young white kid hanging around and invited the kid to come listen while he used the kid’s horn. For the session I think he went back to Luckey. But the whole thing is he hadn’t picked up a horn [tenor] since he left Hines, yet he sounded like he had never been away.
BP: Bird doesn’t play much on Milestones. How come?
TR: It was Miles‘s date. There wasn’t any thought that it would be all Bird. Miles flows beautifully on this session. You know there is almost no Dizzy in Miles and it really is a tribute to his creative ability.
BP: Half Nelson was obviously named for Nelson Boyd. How about Little Willie Leaps or Sippin’ at Bell’s?
TR: I don’t know about Little Willie Leaps but Sippin’ at Bell’s was named for Bell’s Cocktail Lounge at 147th Street and Broadway in Harlem. Miles used to live with the Bell brothers in a brownstone off Riverside Drive. They were all originally from St. Louis.
BP: What kind of contribution did John Lewis make to these and other sessions?
TR: John was like Clyde Hart a few years earlier. The musicians would go to him— Miles, Dizzy, everybody and they’d have their little chit-chats about harmonies. John was pretty well educated.
BP: Any general thoughts about Bird on tenor?
TR: He just seemed to get better and better as the date went along. By the time Sippin’ comes along he proves his mastery beyond any doubt.
Although the Hines band never made any records during Bird’s tenure, due to the first recording ban, Bird was making the rounds of the after hours joints during this period, playing tenor. One night at Minton’s, Ben Webster reportedly told Bird, “That horn ain’t supposed to sound that fast.” Afterward, though, he went around raving about the new tenor player in town. As another result of the Hines gig, Bird was recorded playing tenor with Dizzy during a hotel room jam session in 1943, and the historical significance of that recording assured that Bird would be an honorary tenor player forever.
As fascinating as these recordings are, if they ceased to exist we wouldn’t have lost much. Their only importance lies in what they tell us about Bird’s alto playing. There’s no alternate universe in which Bird was a tenor player. What he had to say couldn’t have been said on any other horn, because what was truly radical and startling and inexplicable about Bird was his sound.
This is a very difficult thing for us to experience after the fact. Bird’s sound has been commonplace for 75 years now, because it saturated jazz, and all music, so thoroughly. But there was a time when his sound was unimaginable, and regardless of Bird’s eventual dominance, other musicians, many of them famous, hated Bird’s sound. They rejected this fundamental expression of his being. That hurt him a lot, and he had to endure it for years on end. It may be going a little too far to suggest that this had something to do with his heroin habit, but I’m willing to put it out there.
What was it that electrified so many musicians about Bird’s alto solo on Jay McShann’s 1942 recording, The Jumpin’ Blues? Why was his opening phrase permanently enshrined as Ornithology? There is nothing radical about it in its construction. It’s just a string of eighth notes moving up the major scale. So what’s left, other than the overall sound and feeling of it? (With all jazz players, sound and feeling are inseparable.)
This parallels the eternal enigma of Lester Young. When you analyze his astonishing creations, you quickly discover that they consist of the most obvious scales and arpeggios, and the rhythms aren’t necessarily remarkable either. Again, it’s the sound and feeling.
No one endured more abuse over their sound than Prez. His time with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1934 was clearly traumatic. He replaced Coleman Hawkins and was roundly rejected by the entire band. There are two versions of the story, one of them sanitized and the other straight from an interview transcript. Let’s just say they make an interesting contrast.
The first was paraphrased by Nat Nentoff in a 1956 Down Beat article:
“I’d played with Fletcher Henderson for a short time when Coleman Hawkins left. I had a lot of trouble there. The whole band was buzzing on me because I had taken Hawk’s place. I didn’t have the same kind of sound he had. I was rooming at the Henderson’s house, and Leora Henderson would wake me early in the morning and play Hawkins records for me so I could play like he did. I wanted to play my own way, but I just listened. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.”
On February 6th, 1959, five weeks before his death, Prez gave what might be called an uninhibited interview in his Paris hotel room. Drunk on a cocktail consisting of port wine and gin, which he called an “up and down“, he doesn’t mince words. The level of profanity, however, had little to do with his choice of beverage. This was his normal way of speaking, aside from more formal interview settings. Close to death’s door, unshaven and lying nude in his bed, he nevertheless speaks with an intensity that displays how strong the life force still was within him, and how much his feelings still hurt twenty-five years after the fact.
“I got this telegram, Fletcher Henderson saying, ‘Come with me.’ So I wasn’t a stinking motherfucker when I got the telegram, you know, I was all excited, you know, about this big-time shit, and I showed him [Count Basie] the telegram, I say, ‘What you think I should do, Count, about it?’ He said, ‘Well, ain’t nothing I can do but say’ –you dig? – ‘ivey-divey’, you dig? and I split, went to Detroit first, you know, and I lived at Fletcher Henderson‘s house, you know, paying bread and things like that. But it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t happy. The motherfuckers was whispering on me every time I played – I can’t make that! You hear a group of motherfuckers whispering – Jesus! So I split. And this bitch would take me down there – Fletcher Henderson‘s wife – take me down in the basement and play [Coleman Hawkins recordings on] one of them old wind up record players and shit, and asked me, said, ‘Lester, can’t you play like this? I mean, don’t you hear this? Can’t you get with this?’ You dig? That’s when I split! Every morning that bitch would wake me up at nine o’clock to try to teach me to play like Coleman Hawkins! And she played trumpet herself – circus trumpet!”
Lester Young’s sound has been misrepresented by jazz critics from the start. Everyone invariably writes that he had a light, vibratoless tone, but Prez’s sound had real depth and he put generous amounts of vibrato on the last note of just about every phrase, just as Hawkins did, from his very first recording (Shoe Shine Boy) onward. The differences between their two sounds are much more difficult to quantify, although you certainly know it when you hear it.
Herschel Evans, Lester’s section mate in the early Basie band, was one of the foremost exponents of the Hawkins school, so it’s often possible to compare both styles within a single Basie track. You can find the most condensed example when they solo back-to-back on the track Time Out. Evans improvises a quick four-bar tag to the melody and then Lester comes swooping in from below, beginning his own solo. In a matter of seconds, this sums up the difference between “hot” and “cool” jazz, if those terms have any real meaning. The sound that Lester projected in the 30s can’t be summed up by any single word, “cool” or otherwise. In fact, it can’t be summed up in words at all, and neither can Bird’s. No one’s can. This may be why jazz writers latch on to the same erroneous fumblings.
But Bird’s own sound grew directly out of Lester’s, despite the fact that the two are quite different at their core. In the early 40s, people tried to describe Bird’s playing by saying that he sounded like Lester Young on alto. This was the closest anyone could come, but if Bird had simply sounded like Lester there would have been nothing new about his playing, whereas his style was universally startling.
This touches on an interesting phenomenon in the evolution of jazz saxophone playing, namely the alternation between alto and tenor. Lester’s main influence, Frankie Trumbauer, played C-melody saxophone, which is pitched a whole step above tenor and has an alto-like quality. It stands to reason that this is why Lester’s tenor sound was so different from Hawkins’. In the same 1959 interview, Lester says, “So I’ve developed my saxophone to play it, make it sound just like a alto, make it sound like a tenor, make it sound like a bass, and I’m not through working on it yet.” The fact that he mentions alto first implies that he’s describing his sound of the 30s. The reason Bird’s sound was so radically different from, say, Johnny Hodges, is that it was based primarily on Lester’s tenor sound. When John Coltrane came to prominence in the late 50s, his tenor sound was primarily based on Bird’s alto sound, and it was so unthinkable that it was widely scorned by critics, forcing him to endure the same derision Prez and Bird encountered. Sonny Rollins, by contrast, stayed much closer to the deeper sound intrinsic to the tenor, making him a descendant of Hawkins, not Prez, and the critics found his sound much more palatable than Trane’s. Bird had influences other than Lester, notably Buster Smith, but it’s difficult to find any aspect of Lester’s playing in the 30s that wasn’t reflected somehow in Bird.
The point here, which may not be entirely clear, is that Bird’s tenor playing didn’t project the same feeling as his alto playing, because the sound wasn’t the same, in ways that are impossible to describe. Bird’s alto sound was a profound expression of all that he was. His tenor sound was not, nor did he ever intend it to be. Charlie Parker was an alto player.
All of the above is, of course, a matter of opinion, and listeners can make up their own minds based on today’s musical offerings, which include all three occasions when Bird was recorded on tenor. Half Nelson is from the August 14th Savoy recording in question. The Serpent’s Tooth is from Miles’s star-crossed January, 1953 recording date, with both Bird and Sonny Rollins on tenor (good luck telling them apart). I have also included a string of solo excerpts from the recordings referenced above: Prez and Hershel Evans on “Time Out”, then Lester’s original solo on Shoe Shine Boy, followed by Bird on tenor from the hotel room jam, quoting the first 16 bars verbatim in an uncanny Prez imitation, and closing with Bird’s alto solo from The Jumpin’ Blues. I sincerely hope you do enjoy them.