This Friday marks the 94th anniversary of alto saxophonist Charlie Parker's birth. Parker, who was nicknamed Yardbird or Bird for short, invented a new jazz style in 1945 with Dizzy Gillespie and a handful of other artists in New York. The form—which would become known as "bebop"—was the first post-war jazz style to rely on personal instrumental expression rather than traditional entertainment values. Improvisation and the invention of new melody lines using the chords of existing songs were key, and bebop practitioners often played at breakneck speeds and with exemplary dexterity and grace, wowing seated club audiences who had paid to listen and marvel rather than dance. [Above, Charlie Parker in 1954, by Eliot Elisofon for Life]
By 1949, Parker's agility, influence and popularity had grown so sizable that producer and record company owner Norman Granz decided to pair him with a string section. The jazz-pop fusion was an attempt to sweeten Parker's attack and leverage his yearning sound to appeal to a larger slice of the market that could afford multiple 78s known then as "albums." [Above, Charlie Parker with Flip Phillips, by Dennis Stock]
In all, Parker recorded on four different dates with strings in a studio setting—the accidental Repetition session in December 1947 with Neal Hefti, the Charlie Parker with Strings session in November 1949, the follow-up session with strings in July 1950 and the Autumn in New Yorksession of January 1952. Parker was so enthralled with strings that he frequently performed in concert with them after 1949, viewing them as both an appropriate frame for his bluesy sound and a high-culture bridge to classical music, which he loved.
One of the most extensive of these live dates was recorded at the Rockland Palace Dance Hall on 155th St. and Frederick Douglass Blvd. in Harlem on September 26, 1952. The concert was held to help raise funds to seek amnesty for Benjamin J. Davis, an American Communist party official and former city council member who was serving five years after being convicted in 1949 for advocating the forcible overthrow of the government. A two-year appeal had kept him out of prison, but when the appeal failed and he was incarcerated in Indiana, an amnesty drive was launched. Davis would be released in 1954 after serving three years and four months and was highly regarded in Harlem for his campaign against segregation and discrimination.
For years, collectors knew only of the poor-quality "audience" wire recording made by someone in one of the seats, possibly Parker's wife, Chan. But in the 1990s, a new tape of the concert was discovered that had more remarkable sound, though solos by other musicians had either not been taped or were spliced out. Jazz Classics, the label, brought the two together. [Above, Charlie Parker at Birdland in 1951, by Marcel Fleiss/CTSImages.com]
If you dig Bird with strings and have long wished there was more to enjoy, you'll find plenty in the Rockland concert recording—further evidence of Parker's powerful love affair with the Great American Songbook and examples of him elevating his own songs and Gerry Mulligan's Turnstile to the same lofty level. You'll also hear Bird doing what he did best—playing the songs you know from the string sessions but with different intros and approaches. A fascinating study of innovation.