Category Archives: 50's

Bird speaks!

Found a link to a REALLY old interview:

This interview is amazing for a variety of reasons.

For one, I had never heard Parker’s voice before. I know it sounds strange, but hearing his voice on tape was very eye-opening; it was like a confirmation that he really existed.

And to hear how smart, humble and gracious he was! Oftentimes when thinking of Bird I think two things: his music and his drug addiction. To hear that behind the horn and behind the legend and infamy lay a real person, one with deep thoughts and real issues, was amazing.

Secondly, it was really interesting to hear his relationship with Paul Desmond. If one week ago you had asked me if Paul Desmond and Charlie Parker ever crossed paths, I would have said “doubtful”, let alone that they knew each other and had a mutual respect for each others playing.

Most interesting of all, though, is Parker’s plans and hopes for his future. Clearly, Parker did not foresee his health’s decline, and had many interesting plans for the future.

To qualify his comments in this regard to the right degree, it is important to contextualize Parker at the time of this interview in his own life as well as in the jazz scene in general:

If by “early 1954” we are to assume sometime between January and March 1954, this interview was conducted around the exact time that the first lineup of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messenger’s were recording their legendary Birdland sets, with Clifford Brown and Lou Donaldson taking what Dizzy and Bird had down and developing it slowly, planting the very first seeds of Hard Bop. Miles was about to record Walkin’, still a few years from forming his first great quartet. Sonny Rollins had just recorded his first album, taking the saxophone in a slightly different direction, and Lee Konitz, who had diverged from Parker’s omnipresent style very early on was just coming out as a leader after years engrossed with Lennie Tristano.

As for Paul Desmond, this time may have been at the peak of his first round of fame (the second being after Time Out) as Jazz at Oberlin had just been released and the famous Brubeck college touring was well under way. This might explain why the radio station chose Desmond to be the interviewer: Desmond was most likely the most famous white jazz saxophonist (and thus probably the most famous jazz saxophonist overall) at the time.

Parker was truly in his last days, though. This is just a few months after the recording of Jazz at Massey Hall, and only a few before his last known recordings. His health was most likely already deteriorating, but from the way he speaks, you can’t tell that he’s realized yet.

Parker sounds extremely optimistic, and this comment, in particular, makes me wonder, as probably so many others have, what might have come about if Parker even had just another 5 years:

Well, seriously speaking I mean I’m going to try to go to Europe to study. I had the pleasure to meet one Edgar Varese in New York City; he’s a classical composer from Europe, he’s a Frenchman, very nice fellow and he wants to teach me; in fact he wants to write for me because he thinks I’m more for, more or less on a serious basis you know, and if he takes me over, I mean after he’s finished with me I might have the chance to go to the Academy of Music out in Paris itself and study, you know. My prime interest still is learning to play music, you know.

– Charlie Parker

Parker was clearly still trying to develop as a musician, and just to think about what could have come of him leaving new york and digging into new ideas in Europe with Varese is overwhelming.


Influence…

As I have mentioned before, it’s pretty easy to mask the influence of others’ music on your own and call it an original composition. Whether this is done intentionally or innocently (or both), it still surprises me when I find antecedents to songs which show that, in essence, they were essentially already written.

Maybe I’m a little out of the loop on this one, but in all my years, no one has brought this to my attention:

1. Written: 1938

This 20th century composer was popular in the early to mid 50’s among jazz musicians, enough to inspire this interpretation:

2. Recorded: October, 1955

Now, if you haven’t noticed it already, check out 1:36-2:17 on the first track, and 1:36-1:56 on the second…

It’s really interesting to see the progression of influences that helped lend a hand to the development of modalism. It would be interesting to know if Coltrane wrote “Impressions” based on the latter or the former, but its far more likely that it was from the latter (which should be a hint).

Oh, and if you’re wondering, October 1955 was certainly prior to the writing of Coltrane’s “Impressions”. November 1955 was the first recording session John Coltrane had with Miles, meaning he was at least two or three years from beginning to explore modalism.

So does anyone know the sources?


Places in Time…

As we approach the new year, lists of the best music of the decade are spilling out from all angles. Many of these lists attempt to include albums that aren’t just ‘good’, but that are ‘significant’ and ‘important‘. But ‘significant’ and ‘important‘ to what exactly? As NPR explains:

These are the game-changers: records that

signaled some sort of shift in the way music

is made or sounds, or ones that were especially

influential or historically significant.

This is an arbitrary qualifier, because how can we really know if a record created a change or shift in music without placing it among the music around it? This got me thinking: Is it necessary to contextualize music? Surely, how music develops is important, but when the average listener sits down, aren’t they just looking to hear something pleasing to the ear? Thus, when a song or album is contextualized, it becomes less about the music itself.

Many comments I recently viewed in the discussion section of NPR’s “The Decade in Music: ’00’s” revolved around why Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising (2002) wasn’t included. This, however, has more to do with why an album that focused on 9/11 wasn’t included because surely 9/11 was the most or one of the most important events of the decade. But music with lyrics have the advantage of conveying a period of time or event with much greater ease than instrumental music does. So why should The Rising be important just because it talks about 9/11 right after 9/11 happened? If I released an album next year chronicling the Panic of 1819, I doubt it would be deemed culturally significant. And if Bruce Springsteen had released The Rising tomorrow, I am sure it would be considered less significant. So does its place in time make the music more important?

Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-95 (1992) is universally considered ‘important‘ because of the bridge it built between Ambient and Techno music, but today it sounds rather timid. So is it still worth listening to? Perhaps only if we consider its place in musical history. Ambient isn’t exactly supposed to be ‘exciting’ music, but I find much of Brian Eno’s work to be equally significant and to have aged and weathered much better than Aphex Twin’s work.

Someone attempting to check out Billie Holiday for the first time might unknowingly pick up Lady In Satin (1958), which features the singer a year before her death when her voice was significantly withered and she had lost much of her pitch. This album is almost guaranteed to disappoint someone who is not aware Holiday’s physical state at the time of recording, or of her attempt to reminisce about and communicate her extremely troubled past more through emotion than pitch. Only after the story behind this recording is understood does the its beauty emerge.

So considering all this, is it necessary to contextualize music? I’m still not quite sure. I certainly think Lady In Satin is a good album, and at the same time I am kind of frustrated that people think The Rising should be considered musically important just because of the issues it covers. And how about this for contextualization: The Rising ended an almost two-decade long dry spell for Springsteen and led to him becoming one of the most commercially successful artists of the 2000’s, which essentially means he profited from 9/11. And Selected Ambient Works 85-95 is actually technically a compilation of songs, and as soon as it brought Aphex Twin into the spotlight he completely changed the type of music he made (“Flim” is not ambient).

But maybe I am just biased.

Some of the albums that were commonly mentioned on “Best of the 2000’s” lists weren’t necessarily important so much as they were just good, somewhat different, and executed with serious, artistic intentions. In reality, none of us can know how important many of these albums really are because they haven’t had enough time to significantly effect the development of music. Yet we try to form these lists with this disclaimer anyhow, so maybe ‘important‘ music isn’t ‘important‘ anyway…


A ~~ Z – Helen Merrill – “Helen Merrill with Clifford Brown”

HelenCliffordClifford Brown recorded three classic collaborations with singers in the early 50’s. Of the three (which included dates with Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington), Helen Merrill has had the least distinguished career since. I like to compare Merrill’s career to that of Nancy Wilson: both had fantastic debuts in small group settings that featured a notable soloist (in Wilson’s case it was the Cannonball Adderley Quintet), and both continued to have careers drenched in strings and superfluous arrangements, none of which matched the magic of the initial small-group settings. With arrangements courtesy of a young Quincy Jones, the nonet that appears on Helen Merrill with Clifford Brown remains one of the smallest groups that Merrill ever recorded with. This is particularly strange because Merrill’s voice works much better in a smaller context; she does not have much projection, and her soft, whisper of a voice fits perfectly among minimal support. Her style was far more effective when she was young, and unfortunately it did not develop quite as well as one would have hoped as she got older. Thus this date finds her in her prime and to this day remains her best outing.

You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To

Helen MerrillJust as her voice is better suited for more minimal settings, it also works much better with slower number and ballads. “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” is an exception. Granted, it’s taken at a medium pace, but it is still significantly faster than most of the other tracks and works much better than her up-tempo take on “‘S Wonderful”. Lyrics like “you’d be so nice by the fire” are complemented perfectly by her warm, soft voice. The following track, “What’s New”, is given a classic arrangement by Quincy Jones, and Merrill’s voice floats beautifully atop the wandering harmonies at the beginning of the form before landing perfectly in the verse. The arrangement also best utilizes her range, and we find the closest example her ability to pull an operatic projection out from her soft pad-like voice.

What’s New

But by far the best track on the record is her classic interpretation of the overlooked Mel Torme standard “Born to be Blue.” Once again, the lyrics of perpetual sadness are perfectly conveyed by the character and composition of Merrill’s voice and inflection. After a perfectly balanced solo by Clifford Brown, Merrill returns to the bridge and then the final verse, where she sings “I guess I’ve had it luckier than some folks, I’ve known the thrill of loving you,” which is so effortlessly melancholy it’s as if she is living the lyrics as she sings them. Once again, Jones’s arrangement is perfectly tasteful, especially when Merrill proclaims that her world, once bright and sunny, is now a “faded pastel,” and a deep mix of colors emerge in the horns (what a perfect description of her voice as well).

Born To Be Blue

Special regards should also go to Clifford Brown, whose performance on this record overshadows those on his collaborations with Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn. I especially enjoy his solo on “What’s New” and his quote of “Parker’s Mood” at the beginning of his solo on “Yesterdays”.

Sure, Helen Merrill isn’t the most versatile of singers, and her voice can certainly grow tiresome, but if there was ever a perfect vehicle for her, this 1954 date was it.

helenmerrill