Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Charlie Parker Residence

This next entry brings us to 151 Avenue B in the heart of the East Village. It would be easy to walk by this unassuming brownstone on the edge of Tompkins Square Park without knowing its historical significance. But if you stop to look, you'll see two small plaques designating the building as an Historic Landmark. This is due to the fact that none other that Charlie Parker lived there from 1950-1954 with his wife Chan Richardson and their three children. Today, it's known simply as the Charlie Parker Residence.

After Parker's death, the building was known among jazz musicians in the city as a sort of unofficial jazz shrine, but it wasn't until Judy Rhodes bought it in 1979 that the building was recognized for its historical significance. Rhodes spent the next several years lobbying to have her home designated as a National Historic Landmark, a goal she finally achieved in 1999. In the meantime, she also helped to get the the stretch of Avenue B between 7th and l0th Streets renamed "Charlie Parker Place" as well as help to establish the annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival.

In an art form already full of geniuses, Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong, in my mind, stand above them all. Both advanced this art form musically, intellectually and spiritually, and their influences on 20th century music are so large as to be nearly impossible to exaggerate. As this blog is about Charlie Parker, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the many great jazz trumpeters with whom he collaborated. When you think about it, Parker's band was one of the first launching pads for jazz trumpeters before the days of the Jazz Messengers or Horace Silver's quintet. Almost all of the greatest modern jazz trumpeters worked with him in some capacity at one time or another.

First, we'll start with Dizzy Gillespie, Parker's main collaborator. Dizzy was truly in a league of his own as a trumpeter, a musical innovator and an ambassador for the music. To this day, I don't really think any trumpeter has achieved the heights of trumpet mastery, musical daring and sheer innovation that he did. He brought a level of rhythmic and harmonic sophistication to jazz that had never been heard before and has rarely been matched since. He extended he possibilities of the instrument in terms of range and dexterity and, along with Fats Navarro, was one of the only trumpet players who could truly keep up with Bird on the bandstand. Gillespie of course went on to forge his own path in music. As he got older, his style became even more personal, and he began to experiment with both big bands and Afro-cuban music. He also had a style and personality that was all his own, from the berets and goatees of his earlier years to his bent horn and puffy cheeks, there was no mistaking who you were seeing or hearing when he took the bandstand.

Although we tend to get obsessed with the mechanics of music, the ultimate goal in jazz is to find your own voice. Miles Davis stands as the greatest testament to the value of that pursuit. After Dizzy parted ways with Parker, it would have been very easy for Parker to look to one of the many trumpeters of the day who were trying to imitate Gillespie's style. Instead, Parker went with a young trumpet player named Miles Davis, who had been working on a starker, more stripped-down improvisational style. And although Miles always had way more technique than people gave him credit for (Just listen to his live radio recordings with Tadd Dameron.), he was smart enough to realize he would have to define his own sound if he wanted to make a mark in music. By the 1950's, Davis had fully realized a new highly personalized style that emphasized timbre, mood and space. But it took a musical master like Parker to hear what he was trying to achieve and to give him the freedom to get there. Check out Davis in the clip below. Although he is still deeply rooted in the bebop language, you can already hear a more relaxed sense of refinement in his playing, as if he is trying to strip away the embellishments of this new style of music and find only the essential notes.

Next we have one of my favorite trumpet players of all time, Fats Navarro. Navarro is truly an unappreciated giant in the lineage of jazz trumpet players. A big man with a uniquely high voice, he was nicknamed "Fat Girl" by his fellow musicians. Navarro took much of what Gillespie pioneered and refined it into a logical, linear style of playing that would set the tone for so many jazz trumpet players who came after him. Although Fats had incredible high range and technique, his highly logical solos always sounded fluid and well-conceived. 

As a young player, I stumbled onto a Fats Navarro recording in a discount cassette bin at my local mall. When I heard him, I could not believe he wasn't talked about more among jazz musicians. Unfortunately, Fats did not record as extensively as his contemporaries, partly due to the fact that he came into prominence during the famous recording ban of the 1940s. Like Parker, Fats had his own health issues including his weight, a case of tuberculosis and an addiction to heroin, all of which would work together to claim his life at the young age of 26. Although Fats was not a regular member of Parker's group, he made a couple of great live recordings, the best of which is probably "Bird and Fats Live At Birdland 1950." His influence is best heard in the recordings of his main disciple, Clifford Brown, who further expanded on this style in the 1950s. 

Jazz musicians have been ahead of the curve in terms of race relations throughout the history of this music. Whether it was Benny Goodman with Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis with Bill Evans, or Louis Armstrong with Jack Teagarden, jazz musicians tend to put a premium on whether someone can play over anything else. In the case of Charlie Parker, not only did he hire a redheaded trumpet player in an otherwise all-black band, but he actually brought him along on a multi-state tour across the racially segregated south! Realizing this gesture of racial progressivism might not fly in Dixie, Parker found a workaround by billing the trumpeter as "Albino Red." I am, of course, referring to the great Red Rodney. Unfortunately, Rodney never reached greater heights after his stint with Parker, and his career took a bit of a downward turn due to a variety of factors including drug addiction, family tragedy and chop issues. But, he managed to make a comeback in the 1970's and recorded up until his death in 1994. 

The next trumpeter to play extensively with Parker is one of those figures who is universally loved by musicians, but perhaps was never afforded the wider recognition that he rightly deserved. Upon first listening to a Kenny Dorham solo, you might think what he is playing is easy. But any trumpet player who ever has tried to transcribe his trumpet solo on "Una Mas" quickly realizes that Dorham's solos are no joke. His formidable technique is masked behind a softer articulation and a beautiful round tone, allowing him play long poetic passages accented by moments of real fire. Dorham went on to help define the funky, soulful Blue Note sound of the 1960's, but his approach was always deeply rooted in his days playing with Parker and the other innovators of the bebop revolution.

Next up is Howard McGhee. McGhee was part of the modern jazz clique in the 1940's, but he has always been overshadowed by other trumpeters of his generation. He is perhaps best remembered as being the trumpeter on the famous (or infamous) Charlie Parker recording of "Lover Man." Although Parker was so ill, he had to be held up during part of the recording, McGhee shines on his solo spots. Take for example the recording below of "Max Making Wax," in which he shows of his ability to build lines well into his high range. Aside for his time with Parker, I also love his famous trumpet duel with Fats Navarro on "Boplicity." 

I would also be remiss if I didn't mention some recordings of other trumpeters who performed with Parker, although not necessarily as members of his band. Some of these honorable mentions are are:

Chet Baker: "Charlie Parker/Sonny Criss/Chet Baker - Inglewood Jam 6-16-'52"
Roy Eldridge: "Jazz at the Philharmonic 1949"
Rolf Ericsson: "Bird In Sweden"
Benny Harris: "Tico Tico / La Paloma"
Al Killian and Buck Clayton: "Jazz At The Philharmonic - Bird And Pres - The '46 Concerts"
Charlie Shavers: "Charlie Parker Jam Session"

Lastly, I will leave you with a recording of perhaps the most amazing trumpet section of all time: Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Fats Navarro playing as members of the Metronome All-Stars, which also included Charlie Parker. Enjoy!

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