My introduction to the music of Charlie Parker was through a kind of “blindfold test” when I was 14. My dad, who was out of town, played a recording of “Just Friends” with a string arrangement for me over the phone. I remember being unimpressed by the string arrangement’s introduction, but as soon as I heard the saxophone, I knew I was listening to the legendary “Bird.” I had read books that included descriptions of his tone, intonation, and technique (Ira Gitler’s Jazz Masters of the 40’s and Ross Russell’s Bird Lives!: The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker) and what I heard fit to a tee! (There is only one other musician I’ve identified solely from his reputation: Wynton Marsalis.) The experience challenged the notions of “highbrow” and “lowbrow” cultures I’d been previously exposed to—with the orchestra as the ultimate music-making ensemble—and it forced me to re-examine my budding record collection with new ears. I can’t say it was because of Joe Carroll’s string writing, which I still consider pedestrian, but rather because of the mastery of Parker’s performance. I later discovered that this was his most popular recording and that it created a new kind of bridge between, as well as controversy over, African American “novelty” music and Eurocentric “art” music.

When I took a topics course about Charlie Parker (taught by composer-theorist Dr. Henry Martin, author of Charlie Parker and Thematic Improvisation), I found out that Parker, who wasn’t aesthetically satisfied by playing over the same arrangements every night, had asked his agent, Norman Granz (who also produced Charlie Parker with Strings), to commission Stefan Wolpe to write music for him—a suggestion Granz rejected. Parker wanted to “do a session with five or six woodwinds, a harp, a choral group, and a full rhythm section. Something on the line of Hindemith’s Kliene Kammermusik” (from an interview conducted by Nat Hentoff, ca. 1949). I learned that the composers Bird said he admired produced music very different from what he was playing. This sparked my imagination to the point that, for a final project for the course, I rewrote the “Just Friends” chart as I thought composer-arranger Bob Greattinger (City of Glass) might have. (The arrangement, no longer extant, supplied a—hopefully—welcome degree of levity in the class’s two days of project presentations.)

Last Sunday was the final day of the 2012 Charlie Parker Jazz Festival. This was the 20th time the festival had been mounted and, so, was expanded to include extra performances, panel discussions, and workshops. All in all, there were eleven events spread over ten days and taking place at seven different locations. True to form, I was attending to my own schedule and missed almost all of it. As much as I would have liked to have attempted the impossible undertaking of catching the entire festival (two events occurred simultaneously, but ten blocks apart), the performance I was really sorry to miss was Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s “re-imagining” of the classic LP, Charlie Parker with Strings. (I hope that there is a good quality recording of Atwood-Ferguson’s recreations; the only one I found is so poor that I won’t link to it.) I was able to attend the last concert of the last day of the Charlie Parker Festival, though, because of an opportunity to perform after the festival with vocalist Susan Kramer and pianist Rebecca Levinson at the Wayland, an intimate bar on New York’s Lower East Side that used to be known as Banjo Jim’s, which was a venue where one could hear singer-songwriters like Amy Allison and/or Alana Amram (alliteration; alas, an accident) ply their craft.

Kramer’s Dinah Washington-like voice is versatile, as are her performance skills, and her repertoire is deeply rooted in jazz tradition. It came as no surprise to discover that she’s lived in her Lower East Side neighborhood her whole life; her music embodies the spirit of the area, a locus of New York’s jazz scene since the 1960s. Her improvisation is dead-on, although she feels that it’s necessary to sing the melody of a song “straight,” with little variation from what was composed, at first. Her interpretation “swings” deeply and her technique is so polished and internalized that she almost seems to be speaking the lyrics. I first heard Levinson playing solo piano at the now defunct Empire Diner, where I liked to stop off after a late-night job and have a burger and shake. I found her rooted, swinging, and flawless playing mesmerizing and tried to stop by whenever I could to sit in as well as listen. The Wayland gig was the first time she and I were hired to work on the same bandstand (we were both subbing for Kramer’s regular players) and I sincerely look forward to the next time we get a chance to play together. We were joined by a tap dancer, Dave Gilmore, who I remember from days at the Surf Maid, a piano bar (with a 7-foot grand piano!) that used to be in the heart of Greenwich Village, where he would accompany the pianists (including Fred Hersch, Jill McManus, and Joanne Brackeen) on a film canister he played with brushes. The Wayland has very good bar food and an excellent assortment of original libations. I’m glad to see that they’ve continued a live music policy after taking over from Banjo Jim’s.

The Lower East Side has a rich jazz-specific history that became somewhat obscured in the ’80s and ’90s when the so-called “downtown sound” associated with John Zorn and Elliott Sharp expanded on its avant-garde roots. Granted, the area had been hit hard by the economic recession of the Reagan years; abandoned buildings fell into disrepair and were taken over by squatters in a trend that led to the homesteading of entire apartment buildings. This was the time when “tent cities” dotted the New York landscape and Tompkins Square Park, the heart of Alphabet City (comprised of Avenues A, B, C, and D) was inhabited by hundreds, if not thousands, of homeless people living in makeshift wooden, and even cardboard, boxes. The Charlie Parker House, his last official residence, is located on the northeast corner of Tompkins Square Park, which is probably why the park is where the final concert of the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival usually happens. Last year it was cancelled because of the inclement weather caused by Hurricane Irene. But this year the skies were so clear you could see the moon in the daylight, so I got to hear the final band, led by vocalist Gregory Porter with Yosuke Sato on alto saxophone, Melvin Vines on trumpet, Chip Crawford on piano, Aaron James on bass, and Emanuel Harrold on drums. Although Porter is extremely well-known, I had never heard this group before and now want to be a fan. Everyone in the group is a strong player and Porter is one of those vocalists who make a lie of the adage, “being well-rounded means mediocre.” His voice is as strong, rich, round, and focused as Joe Williams while his interpretation and improvising made me think of Joe Lee Wilson. From Wayne Shorter’s “Black Nile” and Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” to “1960 What?”, his material accesses the musical and sociological roots of jazz and describes the means to a better future. His performance at the festival is partially documented online. If you’re like me and aren’t familiar with his work, I suggest checking him out!

I attended another end-of-season concert this past Wednesday at Grant’s Tomb in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. This was the season finale of the summer concerts presented by Jazzmobile, a community outreach organization that has been teaching jazz music and culture to New York’s youth for 48 years. Last night’s concert featured a sextet led by pianist-composer-teacher Barry Harris (no relation) and included Bruce Harris (no relation to Barry or myself) on trumpet, Patience Higgins on tenor saxophone, Kiane Zawadi on trombone and baritone horn, Ray Drummond on bass, and Leroy Williams on drums. Harris has been a moving force on the New York jazz scene ever since his arrival from Detroit in the 1960s, going as far as to found the Jazz Cultural Theater, an institution that presented concerts, jam sessions, and music classes.


Photo by Francesca Maese

Although the JCT closed its doors in 1987 after a five-year run, the 83-year-old Harris keeps a full schedule, teaching several master classes a week for vocalists and instrumentalists as well as performing and touring. The first half of the concert featured material by Charlie Parker, which made up for my not hearing any Parker tunes at the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, but ended with three pieces not written by Parker for which Harris’s group was joined by a choir comprised of his vocal students. The music was pure be-bop that grooved to the point where even the police were dancing! While I’m sure that some of the dancers were Jazzmobile regulars, anyone who wanted to dance could. The dancing continued even after the choir, which surrounded Harris’s sextet, joined in and featured David Gilmore (from Susan Kramer’s performance at the Wayland), and an athletic powerhouse, whose name I have yet to find out, who dazzled everyone with an interpretational dance that included elements of modern jazz and break dancing.

Both of these events were well attended (not surprising, since they were free to the public) and their audiences represented a mean cross section of the New York jazz community. Similar events take place in cities around the world: the San Francisco Jazz Festival, the Chicago Jazz Festival, the St. Louis Jazz Festival, the Playboy Jazz Festival held in Los Angeles, and the grand-daddy of them all, the Newport Jazz Festival. While some “purists” might complain about how, as in the case of the New Orleans Jazz Festival, there seems to be less jazz than pop music being played, I’ve started to think that they shouldn’t forget that jazz and pop were once considered to be pretty much the same thing, even though the two genres have diverged widely over the last sixty years, and that re-inclusion vis-à-vis promotional publicity, shouldn’t be eschewed. The divergence and the attendant discourse might partially explain why improvisation, as a tool for making music, has become more and more rarified and seen almost as an arcane practice that sets jazz musicians apart from the rest of our society-in-crises. I believe that there are elements in jazz that can directly address the roots of such crises. The essay that Dr. Martin E. Rosenberg offered for examination in his questionnaire from two weeks ago, delineates some of them in an academic way. I’m still working on that project, but am reminded of how reading a paper on philosophy forces one to read another paper on philosophy, which makes one read yet another paper on philosophy … (it’s enough to make one feel awful, si?). But I think (and therefore) I’ll have something to report on that next week.

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3 thoughts on “Festivities

  1. Michael Robinson

    Thank you for this. Here are some more thoughts about Charlie Parker:

    I find it remarkable that perhaps the two greatest improvisers
    of the twentieth century, Charlie Parker and Ravi Shankar, were both born in 1920. Of course, Shankar is still performing today, while Parker left us in 1955.

    A common misconception during his lifetime and continuing today about Parker is that he used heroin to enhance his music, even though the evidence shows that he only became addicted to morphine at the age of 16 or 17, which evolved into heroin use, while recovering from spinal injuries in a severe car crash that killed his best friend. There were no pain management doctors available for Parker to consult with to warn him of the dangers, or to assist in weaning him off the drugs.

    Some of the most fruitful years of Parker’s monumental creativity and innovation remain undocumented because of the
    recording ban that took place between 1942 and 1944.

    The Just Friends recording is miraculous, even with the sugary arrangement, yet I have long felt there is a recording of Just Friends that surpasses Parker’s in terms of improvisation substance, found on the Satori album by Lee Konitz, joined by Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland and Martial Solal.

    My favorite recording of Lover Man by Parker, and one of the finest ballad performances in jazz history, is on the Swedish Schnapps album. I agree with Parker himself that the more famous recording of Lover Man on Dial is more about a physical collapse due to Parker’s inability to obtain heroin in Los Angeles, rather than a profound emotional insight.

    1. Ratzo B Harris

      Thank you for your well designed and written comment, Michael. It shines a light on one of America’s most important musicians and legends. So much has been said, and has yet to be said, about him, his life, his music. Just the undocumented part of his life that you mention is deserving of its own book! I hope you don’t mind that I’m probably going to “piggyback” on your comment in my next post. Again, thank you!

      1. Michael Robinson

        Glad to learn that my words inspired you, as yours did for myself, Ratzo. I once asked the brilliantly insightful Kenny Burrell if he had ever met Parker, and if so, what he was like as a person. Burrell paused to reminisce, and his whole being warmed as he recalled how Parker was unusually supportive and enthusiastic towards young, aspiring jazz musicians, without an ounce of the competitive jealousy that most older musicians had for someone who might come along and steal some of their thunder.

        Incidentally, I actually have a linkage between Parker and John Cage, who was born 100 years ago today, as you know. When I was an undergraduate, I attended a live performance of Cage’s Bird Cage, held in a vast student union hall, and being truly curious, I approached Cage while he was monitoring his piece, maybe even making some adjustments to his equipment, to ask if the title had any connection to Charlie “Bird” Parker. John was quite annoyed at my incorrect interruption, and responded with an emphatic “No.”

        However, a few years later, Cage exhibited some of the same splendid humane qualities Burrell attributed to Parker.

        While talking to an administrator at the Kitchen one day, I noticed Cage’s address on a paper on her desk, and when she walked away briefly, I instantly copied it down. Having read about how Cage felt obligated to young composers because of the way Schoenberg had treated him, I sent a letter requesting a meeting to share my music. John sent back a telegram right away with his home phone number, asking me to call, and we scheduled a time that turned out to be a brutally cold, dazzling sunny winter day.

        Somewhat nervous that I might give the mistaken impression of planning to stay a few days or more, I arrived at his Chelsea home dressed like an eskimo, and carrying a large, bright red suitcase that was necessary due to the oversized scores I had at the time. At first glance, John was taken aback, but we ended up spending an entire afternoon discussing too many aspects of music to mention here, and I was charmed by his energetic, warm persona.

        Happy Birthday, John, and I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on Bird, Ratzo.


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