JJ 05/64: The Bird Speaks

Sixty years ago Mark Gardner provided a shrewd 1950 interview with Charlie Parker, apparently never before published, and it was produced in the Jazz Journal of May 1964

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Charlie Parker at the Three Deuces, NYC, around August 1947. Photo by William Gottlieb

Early in May 1950, when the late Charlie Parker was leading an all-star quintet, which included the ailing Fats Navarro and pianist Bud Powell, at New York’s Café Society Club, two jazz fanciers had the foresight to tape record an interview with Bird.

During the course of this valuable transcription, Parker talks in his soft, mid-western drawl about the early days of his career, his family and some of his recording dates of the early forties. The interview, so far as I am aware, has never been published before, but as it does help to unravel aspects of the Parker legend I think its publication has some worth. Some of Parker’s observations support statements made in Robert Reisner’s recently published ‘Bird – The Legend of Charlie Parker’ which some readers may have felt was rather far-fetched.

I would have liked to have given credit to the two men who asked Bird the questions and taped this talk in his apartment, but unfortunately their names are not known. Certain parts of the conversation had to be edited for various reasons, one being the law of libel! However, the main body of the interview has been faithfully reproduced here.

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QUESTION: Now, you were 17 years old and on an automobile trip and you got in an accident. Was that in Kansas City?

PARKER: That was between Kansas City and Jefferson City, Missouri.

QUESTION: Playing a gig or something?

PARKER: Yes. I was going on a Thanks­giving gig and there was an accident.

QUESTION: And what happened? You broke how many ribs?

PARKER: I broke three ribs and had a spinal fracture.

QUESTION: That was an awful thing to happen to you at that age, you know.

PARKER: Oh, yes it was. I mean everybody was so afraid that I wouldn’t walk right no more. But everything was all right.

QUESTION: You say then you got a job and you studied.

‘The first thing they started playing was Body And Soul so I got to playing my Honeysuckle Rose and it was an awful conglomeration. They laughed me off the bandstand. They laughed so hard it killed me’

PARKER: Yes, I got a job in this place – that was when they were laughing at me. I knew how to play, I figured. I had learned the scale and I’d learned how to play two tunes in a certain key – the key of “D” on the saxophone. And I had learned how to play the first eight bars of Lazy River and I knew the complete tune of Honeysuckle Rose. I had never stopped to think about different keys or nothing like that.

So I took my horn out to this joint where a bunch of fellows I had seen around were playing. The first thing they started playing was Body And Soul so I got to playing my Honeysuckle Rose and it was an awful conglomeration. They laughed me off the bandstand. They laughed so hard it killed me.

QUESTION : How old were you then?

PARKER: It was about the same time. I was 16 or 17.

QUESTION: Before the accident?

PARKER: Yes, about a year before the accident.

QUESTION : Where did you get your sax?

PARKER: Well, my mother bought me a horn years before that but I wasn’t in­terested in it: I wasn’t ready for it then. I didn’t get interested in a horn until I got interested in baritone horn when I was at High School. But I’d had that saxophone for a few years.

QUESTION: Where did you go to High School, Charlie?

PARKER: In Kansas City.

QUESTION: Did you play in the high school marching band?

PARKER: Yes.

QUESTION: Did they have a symphony band in the high school?

PARKER: Yes, they had what you call a symphony band. I played in that.

QUESTION: Baritone horn?

PARKER: Baritone horn, that’s right.

QUESTION : And you’d learned Honey­suckle Rose and you’d learned the first eight bars of which tune was it?

PARKER: Up The Lazy River.

QUESTION: And you were just in­nocent enough so that when you walked in …

PARKER: I never thought about keys being different or anything like that.

QUESTION: Oh what a story!

PARKER: Oh, but I murdered that tune!

QUESTION : Who did you play with? What band was it you walked in on?

PARKER: It was a band working in a joint – a bunch of young fellows who had a band around Kansas City. It was Jimmy Keyes Band. Yes, Keyes the piano player and Robert Wilson and James Ross and Shipey Gavan. Those were the fellows who were working at this club in Kansas City. Yes, that was it.

QUESTION: So after that you decided ‘I’m going home and work it out’?

PARKER: Yes, I knew I had to work it out. I knew then it must be figured out some kind of way.

QUESTION: Then you were away. It was only for two or three months that you worked there?

PARKER: Yes, I was away for about two or three months.

QUESTION: And then where did you go when you say you were away? Were you outside of Kansas City?

PARKER: I was on this job. The name of the town was Eldon, Missouri – about 35 miles from Jefferson City. It’s a resort, a summer resort. I was there during all the summer.

QUESTION: That was when you had the chance to study while you were playing?

PARKER: Yes.

QUESTION: They never had any “C” melody saxes did they, when you were playing at that time?

PARKER: Yes, they did. They were more popular then than alto horn in ’32, ’33.

QUESTION: Tell me, Charlie, what do you remember of your father? Was he around when you were growing up?

PARKER: Some of the time. He died when I was married and the baby was born.

QUESTION: What sort of work was he in, Charlie?

PARKER: He was like a … in his active years he was a waiter on this train going from Kansas City to Santa Fe, Kansas City to Chicago and back, Los Angeles and back, Florida and back, Texas and back. He sure was a well-tutored guy. He spoke two or three languages.

QUESTION: Did he play any instrument?

PARKER: No. He was a dancer in his real young years. He worked in a circus.

QUESTION: And he met your mother in Kansas City?

PARKER: Yes, they met in Kansas City.

QUESTION: How is your mother now? She’s still alive isn’t she?

PARKER: Yes – she’s very much alive.

QUESTION: She got lots of energy?

PARKER: Yes, she’s just graduated in nurses’ school a couple of months ago. She’s 62 years old and she’s graduated in nurses’ school. She’s active as can be, man. She don’t look inactive at all. I mean she’s spryer than me. She’s very seldom ill, lives in that good climate and country, she takes good care of herself, she owns her own home. She’s pretty well situated.

QUESTION: Have you any brothers or sisters, Charlie?

PARKER: I’ve got a brother.

QUESTION: Older or younger?

PARKER: Older.

QUESTION: Did he ever play any in­strument?

PARKER: No. He’s a mail inspector at a post office in Kansas City.

QUESTION: So your mother is a very lively and energetic person? Think that’s where you got your spirit?

PARKER: I guess so.

QUESTION: Your dad was a dancer – that has the rhythms. That could explain part of it.

PARKER: That’s right enough.

QUESTION: What about when you were playing those 4/4 rhythms with the marching band?

PARKER: When I first went to high school I was interested in music and so they gave me one of those alto horns, you know. It went “coop, coop” … then I liked the baritone horn. When the baritone player before me graduated I took up the baritone horn.

QUESTION: Is it big? Not like a tuba?

PARKER: No, it isn’t as big as a tuba – it’s between a tuba and an alto horn. It’s pretty big …

QUESTION: I can’t figure you playing that! When did you get on reeds? When your mother gave you the saxophone?

PARKER: I had the saxophone then but it was loaned out. A friend of mine was playing saxophone at the time. He had a band so he borrowed the horn. He kept it for over two years, too. He kept it maybe a year after I got out of high school. I got out of high school in ’35. A gang of things happened in that year – I got the horn, I’d gotten married.

QUESTION: When were you born?

PARKER: 1920.

QUESTION: What happened in ’36? You graduated from high school? You were playing saxophone by then weren’t you?

PARKER: I’d gotten married. I did a gang of things that year.

QUESTION: And this is all in Kansas City?

PARKER: Yes.

QUESTION: I was out through Kansas City in about ’40 and I caught Harlan Leonard and Jay McShann. I don’t know, maybe you were with McShann then – and I’ve been kicking myself ever since – I didn’t hear you.

PARKER: Yes, I was with McShann about then. McShann didn’t have a big band then, did he?

QUESTION: No, it was a little seven or eight piece.

PARKER: I was in that band. It was in the Plaza – way out of Kansas City.

QUESTION: Yes, we had to go outside of town to catch that band. And I heard you then and didn’t know it! I want to ask you about some of these recording dates, what happened on them, you know. What a story about that Rubberlegs Williams …

‘I set my cup down beside the chair and dropped a benzedrine in it. And I was just waiting for it to dissolve. Rubberlegs, he gets hungry and he collects his coffee and it got mixed up with mine. About 20 minutes later he was all over the place. You’ve never seen anything! Rubberlegs really got busy’

PARKER: He sure did that. The coffees got confused some kind of way. All the coffee was in containers. They sent out for coffee and sandwiches and it was all in containers. Everybody was eating their sandwiches so I set my cup down beside the chair and dropped a benzedrine in it. And I was just waiting for it to dissolve. Rubberlegs, he gets hungry and he collects his coffee and it got mixed up with mine. About 20 minutes later he was all over the place. You’ve never seen anything! Rubberlegs really got busy. It was a funny thing.

QUESTION: He was really singing ser­iously? He wasn’t trying to kid up was he?

PARKER: No, he wasn’t – not a bit. Or­dinarily, if it hadn’t been for that, he’d have sung in a different style altogether. You never heard any of those records when he was normal?

QUESTION: He sung much smoother?

PARKER: Much smoother.

QUESTION: These records you made: Trummy Young was on some of them, remember? And with all stars and some came out on Manor.

PARKER: And some on the Continental label. We did Dream Of You, Seventh Avenue, and two other Sides that day.

QUESTION: Was it more fun playing with the Hines Band or the Eckstine Band?

PARKER: I think it was more fun playing with the Eckstine Band but the Hines Band was much smoother.

QUESTION: This Tiny Grimes date – you did Red Cross and Tiny’s Tempo and so on – they’ve since been put out with your name on.

PARKER: They’re not supposed to do that.

QUESTION: It’s the old, old story. You can’t copyright a label but you can copy­right a performance. Once you sell your time that day – that’s it. Is it true, Charlie, that ‘mop, mop’ was your idea? Leonard (Feather) says that ‘mop, mop’ was one of the things you threw off and then finally somebody else took it up.

PARKER: It could be, man, because we used to do that a long time ago in Kansas City.

QUESTION: You did ‘mop, mop’ in Kansas City?

PARKER: Years ago. It was just that we used to put them drum beats in there …

QUESTION: Don’t you find that its awful hard to record a big sound in New York, because there are so few rooms that are good enough?

PARKER: It sure is. At first the theory was that they must have a very coming-down room – something with a lot of soft things in it. That’s all wrong, man, because in Europe they have much better balance on records than we do here. They record in big temples and old cathedrals and old churches and backyard bandstands with no acoustics whatsoever, just nothing but a chamber – an echo chamber – and they come out with a big, fat sound.