Weekly Posting, September 18th, 2020

Lester Young and Charlie Parker. circa the late 40s. Pictures of them performing together are rare, despite the fact that they shared the JATP stage on a number occasions.

On Saturday, September 17th, 1949, Charlie Parker (Bird) performed with Jazz at the Philharmonic at a midnight concert in Carnegie Hall, along with Lester Young, Flip Phillips, Roy Eldridge, Tommy Turk, Hank Jones, Ray Brown, Buddy Rich, and Ella Fitzgerald.

By this time, JATP had become a fixture on the jazz scene, a success in terms of popularity but waist-deep in a rut musically. Producer Norman Granz was a visionary, passionately committed to racial and economic equality in an era when such sentiments were cause for retribution. His support of Lester Young alone qualifies him as a hero, and he in fact provided similar support to jazz musicians of every description. Regrettably, the visions he realized were often fatally flawed, none more so than JATP.

JATP was a rolling road show intended to reproduce the excitement of jazz jam sessions, but resulted in a form of patented hysteria that pleased crowds at the time and has disappointed listeners ever since. This isn’t to say it has no value. It succeeded and failed for the same reason. Granz had the uncanny ability to enlist jazz musicians of the highest caliber to his cause, including towering figures such as Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Buck Clayton, and even Billie Holiday. It’s hard to name any legendary jazz players who didn’t perform with JATP at some point. In that regard, it was foolproof, and the results have an inevitable place in jazz history.

But the forced excitement, often generated by tasteless and excessive riffing behind soloists, made it much less than the sum of its parts. This careening steamroller of artificial inspiration flattened any subtlety, except, thankfully, at ballad tempos. And playing to huge crowds in large venues obliterated any real jam session dynamic. Even the best musicians couldn’t resist playing to a frenzy-prone crowd that cheered for all the wrong reasons. Another of Granz’s general weaknesses was mixing superior musicians with inferior ones. More than one studio recording was diminished by the inclusion of one of Norman’s heartthrobs, most notably Buddy Rich. Other hard-to-justify players include trombonist Tommy Turk and tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips.   

That said, we are in debt to Granz for placing Bird and Prez together on the same bandstand. To my knowledge, no other live recordings exist, and they never met in the recording studio, although there were near misses. But Prez was ensconced in Kansas City when Bird was in his teens, and Bird was listening to him in person, well before the Basie band ever recorded. (Prez wasn’t a Kansas City native by any stretch, having spent much of his early career working in Minneapolis!)

To say Bird was influenced by Prez barely scratches the surface. Prez created the universe in which Bird lived and breathed. Bird’s own universe would have been inconceivable without it. Bird famously said, “I was crazy about Lester. He played so clean and beautiful. But I wasn’t influenced by Lester. Our ideas ran on differently.” What makes Bird a genius is how much of his conception was innate and can’t be traced to anyone, his rhythmic conception in particular. So in that sense, his quote is true. But everything Prez played in the 30s is reflected somewhere in Bird’s playing, sometimes literally.

How well did the two men know each other personally? Most of the evidence is circumstantial. But one fact is generally overlooked: Prez was very much present at the birth of modern jazz. One might even call him a midwife, except for the image it conjures up. Always eager to play, he haunted Minton’s and Monroe’s during the Monk/Dizzy/Charlie Christian era in the early 40’s. At that point, however, Bird was on the road nonstop with Jay McShann, so it seems unlikely they met then.

One of the great mysteries about Prez is why he changed his style after leaving Count Basie (on December 12th, 1940). Whole books could be written on that subject, but one factor is his direct involvement with the principal architects of modern jazz. He worked with Dizzy and Oscar Pettiford on 52nd Street in November 1943, in what is generally considered the first bebop group. How could his playing not have changed?

There is no doubt that Bird met Prez in LA when he went west with Dizzy. In fact, they were supposed to appear together on the first recording date for Ross Russell, who had just founded Dial records. Although the session fell through, there’s evidence suggesting that Bird attended a rehearsal that took place at Prez’s apartment!

Forgive me as I saddle up my hobby horse and ride down my favorite punching bag, Ross Russell. There’s another heinous moment in Bird Lives when Russell describes the meeting of Bird and Prez at the first JATP concert in January 1946. (This was the beginning of Bird’s relationship with Granz, who stuck with Bird to the very end, another act of heroism.) Try to count the number of lies in this vignette:

It was Charlie‘s first major concert, and the first time that he had appeared on the same stage with Lester Young. Lester did not recognize him. Laster seemed dazed and detached. Other musicians said he was drinking a lot. Charlie waited nervously for Lester to take the first solo. Charlie listened with awe, then with growing sadness as Lester continued. The hero of the Reno club was no longer playing with the same fire. Something had gone out of him. He had aged. The army experience had taken something away.

You could argue that some of this may be true, but it’s still another instance of Russell channeling Bird’s inner thoughts and I find it contemptible. Prez was in full command of his abilities that night. The simplistic the-army-shattered-Prez trope should have been beneath Russell, who was knowledgeable enough to know the whole truth about Lester’s stylistic evolution, especially by the early 70s, when he was writing. If you want to know Bird’s feelings on this matter, his solo on I Can’t Get Started, immediately following Prez, speaks volumes.

Getting back to September 17th, 1949, there is a remarkable Lester Young solo on Lester Leaps In (based on Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm). This tune is typical of the JATP repertoire, which gravitated toward lowest common denominators, that being either the blues or exceedingly familiar standards. Prez’s playing became less consistent as the 40s turned to the 50s, but he is on fire on this occasion. Midnight at Carnegie hall may have been the ideal time and place to motivate Lester, and toward the end of his solo he plays a number of outrageous ideas, in part, I suspect, as a satire of the overplaying that had become the norm.

I Got Rhythm became the template for countless Bird solos and dozens of his compositions, and his infatuation likely began with Shoeshine Boy, the first Prez solo to appear on record. Bird delivers an enthusiastic but balanced solo that actually sustains its length. In general, the JATP rule of thumb was: when in doubt, take another chorus, louder than the last. One note: in what must have been an embarrassing moment for pianist Hank Jones, he seems to think Lester Leaps In is a blues, and he doesn’t realize his mistake until the bridge of Lester’s first chorus. In his defense, any JATP number has a fifty-fifty chance of being a blues.

It seems only fair that you should sit through all twelve minutes of Lester Leaps In, or at least have the opporftunity to get the full JATP experience. Prez solos first, then you can search for meaning in Tommy Turk’s solo or check your phone, then Bird is next. Roy Eldridge solos after Bird, which may give you a better understanding of Dizzy’s roots. Lastly, Flip Phillips wraps things up, not hard to take but you seriously have to wonder why he was famous.

After that, we’ll jump backwards to Monday, January 28th, 1946, the first JATP concert (although not under that name). One thing seems perfectly clear to me as Bird follows directly after Lester on I Can’t Get Started.  Bird has listened closely to what Prez has just said and is answering him back by adopting his vocabulary. For the most part, Bird seems to consciously skirt the harmonic innovations he pioneered and tries to get down to the level of pure melody, as Prez has just done. That’s as deep as jazz gets. Ross Russell should go sit in the corner and think about what he’s done.     

How well did Bird and Prez know each other? It simply stands to reason that they crossed paths quite a lot. For one thing, they went out on JATP tours together. They also played together at the opening of Birdland, and worked there constantly in the early 50s, as well as at Cafe Society, Bop City, the Royal Roost, and so on. And both were under contract with Norman Granz. Did they hang out together? As two of the most enigmatic characters in jazz history, it’s doubtful they had anything like a friendship, but I can easily see them occupying adjacent barstools at the White Rose between sets.

As for hard facts, Lester spoke about Bird himself in a 1956 interview with Nat Hentoff. His remarks (very likely sanitized) are so prosaic that you have to remind yourself that both these men were giants of 20th Century music. I wish Prez had said a lot more, and he may have elsewhere, but not that I’ve ever come across. I will give him the last word.

I thought Bird was a genius. The way he knew his instrument he’d be a hard man to cap. We did a little jamming mostly when I was out in California in the 40s. He was a very nice person, well educated. He loved that instrument. The people woke up very quickly to his playing.

I Can’t Get Started, JATP, January 28th, 1946
Lester Leaps In, JATP, September 17th, 1949

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