Top of page

Collection The Gerry Mulligan Collection

Charlie Parker

[Portrait of Charlie Parker, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., ca. 1947]. William P. Gottlieb, photographer. Performing Arts Reading Room , Library of Congress.

While in New York, Gerry was deeply affected by Charlie Parker, whose early recordings influenced him, as they did many others, and whose personal encouragement inspired Gerry not only as a composer and arranger, but as a performer.

Edited Transcript

As soon as a couple of records came out of Charlie Parker, especially the first two things, that were kind of widespread. One was, the earlier thing was on a label called Comet, I think, and it was Red Norvo's date. And on it were Flip Philips and Big Sid Catlett. I'm not sure, but it may have been Teddy Wilson on piano, and Red on vibes, and Dizzy [Gillespie] and Bird. Anyway, these were kind of swing band stuff and you know not too shocking, but when Bird played it was like a new county had been heard from. It just was an altogether different atmosphere and it was really striking because he played with such clarity.

[Portrait of Charlie Parker, Tommy Potter, and Max Roach, Three Deuces, New York, N.Y., ca. Aug. 1947]. William P. Gottlieb, photographer. Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

And then when the quintet, on Guild [Records] I guess they were, the first quintet record, that was Dizzy, Charlie, Bud Powell, and Max [Roach], and I don't remember who was on bass. But... now they were very accessible to everybody to hear and to understand because they were arrangements. And this was something I hadn't even really thought about then, but not too long ago I was talking to John Lewis about it and he said the thing is that Bird showed up first, and they always talk about Bird and Diz. But Bird and Diz were quite different entities who, until they played together in Dizzy's small group, had very little to do with each other. Lewis thinks that Bird was a big influence on Dizzy as soon as they got together, but Dizzy really was from another school altogether. He was influenced by Roy Eldridge, and the things that he did were really out of Roy more than anything and were not really related to all of the things that were going on at Minton's, the famous sessions up there that [Thelonious] Monk and a lot of other people were involved with. So that they were really quite separate, but in that context of the quintet--they were Dizzy's tunes primarily, and they were Dizzy's arrangements, and they were good so that it made it kind of a showcase for Bird--it was wonderful. It was one of the best things that Bird ever recorded. And Bird, like any other soloist, needs a setting. I know that everybody went around and just recorded Bird for his own sake, but to me that kind of misses the point of music.

[Portrait of Thelonious Monk, Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge, and Teddy Hill, Minton's Playhouse, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947]. William P. Gottlieb, photographer. Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

I can't just see music as being one soloist playing the thing and that's it. Too many guys approached it that way over the years. They only put up with what they called head. The first choruses as an entry and whatever is going on in the arrangement until their solo, that's just introduction. It doesn't mean anything, you do without that, man, it all starts when they start soloing. Well, I don't think like that, and Dizzy didn't either. He always had a very, very good sense of arranging. He was quite a good arranger--very imaginative and very individual. So, that was where he was coming from. He was really a band man, an arranger and a Roy Eldridge influenced trumpet player, and Bird was just something else altogether.

Bird was Bird. It seems like he came along fully formed, but it wasn't quite that simple because of the stories about Bird's youth. He used to talk about when he was a little kid and he'd be down at the places and he could hear Lester Young play. He'd be out in the alley listening through the openings to the fans in the kitchen, so he could hear Lester Young. And later on he took a job in New York--I guess it was in New York--dishwashing someplace because Art Tatum was playing there, so he could hear him all the time. This is the kind of stuff you don't realize is an influence.

Somebody sent me a little bit of tape that had Bird playing at home when he must have been maybe seventeen years old or something with a friend of his, a guitar player, and of course he was playing "Cherokee." This was his number, man, he worked on that thing for years. Somebody said that when he did "Ko-Ko." It was not just a little accident that it came out the way it did. He had been layin' for that thing for twenty years anyway. The solo he played on that is like a masterpiece in itself.

[Portrait of Lester Young, Famous Door, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1946]. William P. Gottlieb, photographer. Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

Ko Ko / Charlie Parker. Performed by Charlie Parker. From the album, "Charlie Parker, Bird/The Savoy Recordings (Master Takes)." [1976]

There was something kind of inevitable about the way Bird played, and it was very direct and very melodic and it transcended the limitations of the horn, or playing things because it felt good on the horn, which most players had done. You do things because they're good on the horn. Bird didn't seem to care about that, man. He did things because they were in him, and then putting these two things together forced the horn to react to what he wanted. He wasn't reacting to the horn.

My first experience with Bird was personally kind of remarkable. I was arranging for Elliot Lawrence's Band in Philadelphia. And Bird came into town with Dizzy, and they were doing a concert at the Academy of Music and they had their quintet. So, Bird came over to the studio--Red Rodney had met him in New York, and so he brought Bird by the studio to meet everybody and to hear the band. And Bird was great. Everybody liked him, and he was very complimentary and liked the charts of mine that he had heard. He invited me to come down and play with him. I said, "Well, I am not playing the concert, you know. I am just arranging for the band." He said, "Well, maybe you can come over to the session at the Downbeat Club anyway." The next day, in the morning, I got a call from somebody at the station who said "You better bring your tenor sax down because Frank Lewis, the tenor player, tripped on the stairs at home, his kid left his skate or something, and he broke his wrist and he can't play. So, you have got to sub for him." Well, I went into the rehearsal in the afternoon and the guys were all giving me kind of a fishy look, like I was doing a little black magic here. And, so I wound up playing the show on tenor. Afterwards we went over to the Downbeat, and Bird was going to sit in with Don Byas was there.

[Portrait of Charlie Parker, Tommy Potter, Miles Davis, and Max Roach, Three Deuces, New York, N.Y., ca. Aug. 1947]. William P. Gottlieb, photographer. Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

Anyway, I sat and listened to a set or two and by this time it was getting late, and I was listening to Bird playing with Don Byas, two of the greatest jazz saxophone players I've ever heard. The pair of them could tear it up. Don was something. He had a wonderful sound and great command and he was a fast, really dynamic player. I was getting ready to go because I had to be up the next day, and so I went over to Bird and said to him, "I've really enjoyed it. Thanks a lot and hope I see you again soon, and all that kind of stuff." He said, "No, you can't go. You have to play." I said, "No, man, come on--play with you guys? Don't be ridiculous. I'd be scared to death." He said, "Now wait a minute." He went to the checkroom and got my horn out and put it together and blew on it and said, "Okay," handed it to me and said, "Now, go play." So, I had to go play with Don and Bird. I don't know what the hell I played. I have absolutely no idea because it scared the living daylights out of me playing with these guys. I felt way out of my league. But, Bird was complimentary and was very nice to me and encouraged me, and that was great, you know...

  1. Charlie "Bird" or "Yardbird" Parker (b Kansas City, KS, Aug. 29, 1920; d New York, Mar. 12, 1955) was the most important figure of the bop era as an improviser and musical innovator. His principal instrument was the alto saxophone. He ranks with Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, John Coltrane and a handful of others as a seminal influence that changed the course of jazz. (back to transcript)
  2. Guild records, a New York company, lasted for less than a year during 1945, but made jazz history with the first recordings of Parker and Gillespie together. (back to transcript)
  3. The legendary Minton's Playhouse, 210 West 118th Street, was opened in 1938 and became during the 40s a center for many of the most important musical experiments of bebop. Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk were among the major innovators associated with Minton's. (back to transcript)
  4. Head refers to the arrangement that typically opens a jazz piece. It is often a new melody composed over the chords of a standard popular tune. Charlie Parker's "Ko-Ko," based on Ray Noble's "Cherokee," is such a "head" arrangement. Apart from providing an opportunity to create an original, usually highly intricate and virtuosic, tune based on an older one, the practice avoids having to pay royalties for the use of the original melody, since the chords which constitute the harmonic structure of a song are not copyrightable. The recording of "Ko-Ko" to which Gerry refers exists in an aborted first take, cut short at the beginning of the "head" because Parker and Gillespie began inadvertently to play the original melody, making it impossible for the recording to have been released without licensing from the copyright owners of Ray Noble's "Cherokee." (back to transcript)
  5. Lester "Pres" Young (b Aug. 27, 1909, Woodville, MS; Mar. 15, 1959, New York), who played principally tenor saxophone, was a major force in the swing era, and a seminal influence on bop and cool jazz. Although there are disputes over the quality of Young's later work, there is agreement that his earliest recorded work represents some of the most beautiful and original improvisation in the history of jazz. His greatest period dates from his first sessions in 1936 with Count Basie (piano), Walter Page (bass) and Jo Jones (drums), together with participation in other small groups that included Teddy Wilson (piano) and Billie Holiday, a great singer with whom he had a special musical affinity, through his tenure with the Count Basie band, of which he was a featured soloist from 1936 through 1940, and again from the end of 1943 until September 1944, when he was drafted into the Army. Saxophonists John Coltrane, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Sonny Rollins and the quintessentially cool tenor player, Stan Getz, were among the most important artists he influenced besides Parker. (back to transcript)
  6. "Cherokee" Jazz standard, originally composed by British composer Ray Noble (Shapiro, Bernstein, 1938), which was recorded by Count Basie and his orchestra on February 3, 1939 (Cherokee, part 1 and Cherokee, part 2 on Decca 64979 and 64980/De 2406). On this arrangement by Jimmy Mundy, there are solos by Benny Morton (trombone), Dickie Wells (trombone), Ed Lewis (trumpet), and Lester Young (tenor). Young was an important influence on Charlie Parker, among many others. "Cherokee" was also recorded on a best-selling record by Charlie Barnet and his Orchestra in the same year. (back to transcript)
  7. The Downbeat Club was at 66 West 52nd Street from 1944-1948. This legendary jazz club was the venue for many of William P. Gottlieb's jazz photographs. The exterior is best seen in his photograph of arranger, vocal coach and pianist, Phil Moore standing, with pipe, under the Club Downbeat canopy. Art Tatum was the featured performer at the time the photograph was taken, and his name appears above the canopy. It is also visible under Tatum's name on Gottlieb's rare color photographs of "The Street" at night. (back to transcript)