Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Billy Strayhorn - The Bill Coss Interview

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

For nearly everyone interested in jazz, the names Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn are, if not synonymous, at least inextricably connected. But the connection is not as close, though it is unique, as might be assumed.

This connection is a corporation, really a co-operation, that has, except when the members are working singly, produced some of the finest music and offered one of the greatest orchestras available in Jazz, in, for that matter, American music.

But for most, even for those closely associated with Jazz, the relationship has not been clear. Who did, does, will do, what? Or, more precisely, how does Strayhorn fit into the Ellington dukedom?

In June, 1962, Down Beat's associate editor Bill Coss spent an afternoon talking with Strayhorn in his apartment. The conversation ranged from the particular to the general and the inconsequential. Strayhorn, as charming as Ellington, never was at a loss for words. The following is a transcription of the pertinent parts of the conversation and it contains perhaps the best description I’ve ever come across of how the musical relationship between Strayhorn and Ellington actually worked.

Coss: How did you and Ellington first get together?

Strayhorn: By the time my family got to Pittsburgh, I had a piano teacher, and I was playing classics in the high-school orchestra. Each year in the school, each class would put on some kind of show. Different groups would get together and present sketches. I wrote the music and lyrics for our sketch and played too. It was successful enough so that one of the guys suggested doing a whole show. So I did. It was called Fantastic Rhythm. I was out of high school by then, and we put it on independently. We made $55.

At that time, I was working in a drugstore. I started out as a delivery boy, and, when I would deliver packages, people would ask me to "sit down and play us one of your songs."

It's funny — I never thought about a musical career. I just kind of drifted along in music. But people kept telling me that I should do something with it. By the1 time I had graduated to being a clerk in the drugstore, people really began to badger me about being a professional musician.

Then, one time Duke Ellington came to Pittsburgh, and a friend got me an appointment with him. I went to see him and played some of my songs for him. He told me he liked my music and he'd like to have me join the band, but he'd have to go back to New York and find out how he could add me to the organization. You see, I wasn't specifically anything. I could play piano, of course, and I could write songs. But I wasn't an arranger. I couldn't really do anything in the band. So he went off, and I went back to the drugstore.

Several months went by; I didn't hear anything, but people kept badgering me.
Finally, I wrote his office asking them where the band was going to be in three weeks. They wrote back that the band would be in Philadelphia.

At the time I had a friend, an arranger, by the name of Bill Esch. At the time he was doing some arrangements for Ina Ray Hutton. He was a fine arranger, and I learned a good deal from him.

Anyway, right then he had to go to New York to do some things for Ina Ray, so he suggested that we go together. He had relatives in Brooklyn, and I had an aunt and uncle in Newark, so we figured at least we would have a place to stay.

By the time I got to Newark, Duke was playing there at the Adams Theater. I went backstage. I was frightened, but Duke was very gracious. He said he had just called his office to find my address. He was about to send for me.

The very first thing he did was to hand me two pieces and tell me to arrange them. They were both for Johnny Hodges: Like a Ship in the Night and Savoy Strut, I think. I couldn't really arrange, but that didn't make any difference to him. He inspires you with confidence. That's the only way I can explain how I managed to do those arrangements. They both turned out quite well. He took them just the way they were.

From then on, Duke did very little of the arranging for the small groups. Oh, he did a little, but he turned almost all of them over to me. You could say I had inherited a phase of Duke's organization.

Then he took the band to Europe only a month after I joined the band in 1939. I stayed home and wrote a few things like Day Dream. When he came back, the band went to the Ritz Carlton Roof in Boston. Ivie Anderson had joined the band, and he asked me to do some new material for her.

After that, I inherited all the writing for vocalists, though not for those vocalese things he wrote for Kay Davis. I think what really clinched the vocal chores for me was when Herb Jeffries came with the band. He was singing in a high tenor range, and I asked him whether he liked singing up there. He said he didn't, so I wrote some things for him that pulled his voice down to the natural baritone he became after Flamingo.

Coss: How do you and Duke work together? Do you have a particular manner of doing an arrangement or a composition? How do you decide who will do the arranging?

Strayhorn: It depends. There's no set way. Actually, it boils down to what the requirements of the music might be. Sometimes we both do the arranging on either his or my composition because maybe one of us can't think of the right treatment for it and the other one can. Sometimes neither of us can.

Sometimes we work over the telephone. If he's out on the road somewhere, he'll call me up and say, "I have a thing here," and, if he's at a piano, he'll play it and say, "Send me something." I do, and eventually we get it to work out when we get together.

That's surprising, you know, because we actually write very differently. It's hard to put into words . . . The difference is made up of so many technical things. He uses different approaches — the way he voices the brass section, the saxophone section. He does those things differently than I do. That's as much as I can say. I'm sure that's as clear as mud.

Still, I'm sure the fact we're both looking for a certain character, a certain way of presenting a composition, makes us write to the whole, toward the same feeling. That's why it comes together — for that reason.

The same thing goes for the way we play piano. I play very differently than Edward. You take Drawing Room Blues. We both played and recorded it at a concert. Then I didn't hear it for about a year. I must admit I had to listen a few times myself to tell which was which. But that's strange in itself, because we don't really play alike. I reflect more my early influences, Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum, whereas Ellington isn't in that kind of thing at all.

It's probably like the writing. It isn't that we play alike; it's just that what we're doing, the whole thing, comes together, because we both know what we're aiming for — a kind of wholeness. You know, if you really analyze our playing, you could immediately tell the difference, because he has a different touch, just to begin with. Still, I have imitated him. Not consciously, really. It's just that, say at a rehearsal or something, he'll tell me to play, and I'll do something, knowing this is what he would do in this particular place. It would fit, and it sounds like him, just as if I were imitating him. . . .

I can give you a good example of something we did over the phone. We were supposed to be playing the Great South Bay Jazz Festival about three years ago. Duke had promised a new composition to the people who ran it. He was on the road someplace. So he called me up and told me he had written some parts of a suite. This was maybe two or three days before he was due back in New York, and that very day he was supposed to be at the festival.

He told me some of the things he was thinking of. We discussed the keys and the relationships of the parts, things like that. And he said write this and that.

The day of the festival, I brought my part of the suite out to the festival grounds. There was no place and no time to rehearse it, but I told Duke that it shouldn't be hard for the guys to sight-read. So they stood around backstage and read their parts, without playing, you understand.

Then they played it. My part was inserted in the middle. You remember I hadn't heard any of it. I was sitting in the audience with some other people who knew what had happened, and, when they got to my part, then went into Ellington's part, we burst out laughing. I looked up on the stage and Ellington was laughing too. Without really knowing, I had written a theme that was a kind of development of a similar theme he had written. So when he played my portion and went into his, it was as though we had really worked together — or one person had done it. It was an uncanny feeling, like witchcraft, like looking into someone else's mind.

Coss: How about the larger pieces —  what's the extent of your work on them?

Strayhorn: I've had very little to do with any, of them. I've worked on a couple of the suites, like Perfume Suite and this one. I've forgotten the name of it. That day, it was called Great South Bay Festival Suite.

The larger things like Harlem or Black, Brown, and Beige I had very little to do with other than maybe discussing them with him. That's because the larger works are such a personal expression of him. He knows what he wants. It wouldn't make any sense for me to be involved there.

Coss: You have differentiated between arranging and writing. That can be confusing. As you know, writing can simply be a matter of a melody line; the majority of the work could be the arranger's.

Strayhorn: Not in our case because we do it both ways. We both naturally orchestrate as we write. Still, sometimes you're just involved with a tune. You sit at the piano and write what represents a lead sheet.

It all depends on how the tune comes. Sometimes you get the idea of the tune and the instrument that should play it at the same time. It might happen that you know Johnny Hodges or Harry Carney or Lawrence Brown needs a piece. Or you think of a piece that needs Johnny or Harry or Lawrence to make it sound wonderful. Then you sit down and write it.

After it's done, Duke and I decide who's going to orchestrate — arrange — it. Sometimes we both do it, and he uses whatever version is best.

We have many versions of the same thing. You remember Warm Valley? It was less than three minutes long. But we wrote reams and reams and reams of music on that, and he threw it all out except what you hear. He didn't use any of mine. Now, that's arranging. The tune was written, but we had to find the right way to present it.

I have a general rule about all that. Rimski-Korsakov is the one who said it: all parts should lie easily under the fingers. That's my first rule: to write something a guy can play. Otherwise, it will never be as natural, or as wonderful, as something that does lie easily under his fingers.

We approach everything for what it is. It all depends on what you're doing. You have the instruments. You have to find the right thing — not too little, not too much. It's like getting the right color. That's it! Color is what it is, and you know when you get it. Also, you use whatever part or parts of the orchestra you need to get it.

For example, you have to deal with individual characteristics. Like, Shorty Baker,   who   has   a   certain   trumpet sound. If you're  writing  for  a  brass section and you want his sound, you give him the lead part. The rest follow him. Or if you want Johnny Hodges' color or Russell Procope's color in the reeds, you write the lead parts for either of them.

For a soloist, you just have to look at the whole thing, just like looking at a suit. Will this fit him? Will he be happy with this? If it's right for him, you don't have to tell him how to play it. He just plays it, and it comes out him, the way he wants. If you have to tell him too much how to play it, it isn't right for him.

Here's a good example of writing for characteristic soloists. Duke wrote Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool. He started off thinking of two people: Shorty Baker (Gentle) and Ray Nance (Cool). The tune wrote itself from his conception of these two people.

We write that way much of the time. Sometimes it doesn't happen right away. A new guy will come on the band. You have to become acquainted with him, observe him. Then you write something.

In Ellington's band a man more or less owns his solos until he leaves. Sometimes we shift solos, but usually they're too individual to shift. You never replace a man; you get another man. When you have a new man, you write him a new thing. It's certainly one of the reasons why the music is so distinctive. It's based on characteristics.

For example, when Johnny was out of the band, we played very few of his solo pieces — well, the blues-type things and Warm Valley, but Paul Gonsalves played that solo. You see we wouldn't give it to another alto to play. We changed the instrument; otherwise, except for things you have to play, we just avoided those songs. Otherwise, you'd spoil the song itself. It was written for him — maybe even about him.

Coss: So many people suggest a question which, I suppose, is the kind you expect when someone gets into a position as important as is Duke's. What it comes down to is that Duke doesn't really write much. What he does is listen to his soloists, take things they play, and fashion them into songs. Thus, the songs belong to the soloists, you do the arrangements, and Duke takes the credit.

Strayhorn: They used to say that about Irving Berlin too.

But how do you explain the constant flow of songs? Guys come in and out of the band, but the songs keep getting written, and you can always tell an Ellington song.

Anyway, something like a solo, perhaps only a few notes, is hardly a composition. It may be the inspiration, but what do they say about 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration? Composing is work.

So this guy says you and he wrote it, but he thinks he wrote it. He thinks you just put it down on paper. But what you did was put it down on paper, harmonized it, straightened out the bad phrases, and added things to it, so you could hear the finished product. Now, really, who wrote it?

It was ever thus.

But the proof is that these people don't go somewhere else and write beautiful music. You don't hear anything else from them. You do from Ellington.

Coss: How about those people who say Duke should stay home? They say, look, he's getting older, he has enough money coming in; why does he waste all his energy on the road when he could be at home writing?

Strayhorn: He says his main reason for having a band is so he can hear his own music. He says there's nothing else like it, and he's right. There's nothing like writing something in the morning and hearing it in the afternoon.

How else can you do it? Working with a studio band isn't the same thing. You have to be out there in the world. Otherwise you can't feel the heat and the blood. And from that comes music, comes feeling. If he sat at home, it would be retreating.

He'll never do it. He'd be the most unhappy man in the world. The other is such a stimulus.

On the road, you find out what is going on in the world. You're au courant musically and otherwise. It keeps you alert and alive. That's why people in this business stay young. Just because they are so alive — so much seeing things going on all over the world.

Coss: Duke is often criticized for playing the same music over and over.

Strayhorn: What else can you expect? Even though that's not a fair criticism, some part of it has to be true merely because he is the talent he is.

Have you any idea how many requests he gets? After he's through playing all of them, the concert or the dance is all over, and he's hardly started with other requests .... That's why he does the medley that some writers criticize.

Actually, there's a great deal of new music all the time. The thing I'm concerned about is that some of that will get to be requested. Then what will happen? What it really comes down to is that there is never enough time to hear an excess of talent.”              

Down Beat Magazine
June 7, 1962

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Woody Herman, "Road Father" - Three Appreciations

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

There is an old admonition that states: “If you can’t say or write something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

When that someone is Woody Herman, saying something nice is never a problem.

Woody was one of the most beloved musicians in the history of Jazz. He was good to everyone and nearly everyone who entered his beneficent realm did their utmost to be good to him.

Over the half a century that he led his big bands and small groups, Woody became known to a host of young musicians whom he helped begin their careers in the Jazz World as the “Road Father.”

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to remember the Road Father on these pages with appreciations by three distinguished writers that more-or-less cover the beginnings, middle years and closing years of Woody’s career.

George T. Simon
Woody Herman
The Big Bands, 4th Ed.
New York: Schirmer Books, 1981

"HE'S a clean-cut-looking lad with a nice smile that should attract the dancers; he sings very nicely and plays good clarinet, both attributes that command musical respect, and he's very much of a gentleman and real all-around nice guy whom you'd like to know even better off the stand."

That's what I wrote about Woody Herman in January, 1937. It was a part of the very favorable review I'd accorded his brand new band at New York's Roseland Ballroom. As the years went by, I realized my wish. I got to know Woody "even better off the stand," very much better, in fact, and discovered, as so many others have during the past thirty years, that this is one of the real pros, both as a performer and as a mature human being. His warmth, his enthusiasm, his intelligence and his integrity—in addition, of course, to his musical taste, talent and perception—have made him one of the most thoroughly successful and popular leaders of all time.

He's always had good bands, and one major reason has been that musicians invariably like to work for him. Nat Pierce, who served as his pianist, arranger and general aide for many years, recently put it this way: "We never feel we're actually working for the man. It's more like working with him. He appreciates what we're doing and he lets us know it. And the guys appreciate him and respect him. So they work all the harder."

Jake Hanna, the superb drummer who, after having played for other leaders, finally blossomed in Woody's band, has this explanation: "Woody's flexible. He goes along with the way the band feels instead of sticking strictly to the book. That makes it always interesting and exciting for us. If a man's really blowing, Woody doesn't stop him after eight bars because the arrangement says so. He lets him keep on wailing."

"Flexible" is the key word here. Woody has managed through the years to adjust himself to the wants, talents and even the personalities of his musicians; yet he has retained their respect so completely that he has rarely had to assert himself as their leader. He has succeeded, too, in adjusting his music to the times, so that during its thirty-year history his band has never sounded old-fashioned even while staying within the bounds of general public acceptance. "I think," he once told writer Gene Lees in Down Beat, "I'm a good organizer and a good editor."

Leonard Feather once wrote: "No name bandleader has ever been better liked by the men who worked for him as well as those for whom he works." That comment reminds me of what happened during the band's initial Roseland date. Woody had both a loud band and high musical ideals. The ballroom manager, a man named Joe Belford, who looked like a Green Bay lineman, used to bellow to the band to play waltzes, rumbas, tangos and sambas, none of which it had in its books and none of which it would have played on principle anyway. Woody handled Joe beautifully. He'd just bust out in a grin, bellow back kiddingly at Belford, tell him to get lost and quit bothering him. And he'd continue playing what he wanted to. So good-natured was Woody's approach, and yet so firm and so positive, that Belford not only took it but became one of the band's biggest fans.”

Doug Ramsey -

Woody Herman 1963: The Swingin’est Band Ever [Verve Records ‎– 314 589 490-2, Philips ‎– PHS 600-065]

Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some of Its Makers
Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1989. You can locate more information on this book and how to purchase it by going here.

“Some jazz soloists travel around the country appearing with pickup local rhythm sections. If Woody Herman decided to strike out as a single, in many cities he could put together seventeen-piece bands

composed entirely of his alumni. Legions of musicians have passed through the Herman herds since "The Band That Plays the Blues" was formed in 1936. In New York and Los Angeles Woody could depopulate the studios by recalling the herdsmen.

There are so many Herman graduates in the lounges, pits, clubs, and sound stages of Los Angeles and Las Vegas that in his madder moments Woody dreams a scene DeMilleian in scope. Along the desert highway between the movie capital and the gambling mecca runs a line of horn players interrupted every few miles by a rhythm section, a straight lineup band like the one Herman used to perch on the back bar at the Metropole in New York, but infinite. Woody patrols in a jeep, keeping the time straight and shouting out the number of the next tune.

The Who's Who quality of that imaginary lineup is staggering. Among the trumpeters are Conte and Pete Candoli, Sonny Berman, Bill Chase, Don Ellis, Nat Adderley, Shorty Rogers, Red Rodney, Ernie Royal, Cappy Lewis, Al Porcino; trombonists Bill Harris, Carl Fontana, Bill Watrous, Urbie Green; bassists Oscar Pettiford, Chubby Jackson, Red Mitchell, Red Kelly; pianists Jimmy Rowles, Vince Guaraldi, Lou Levy, Nat Pierce, Dave McKenna; vibraharp-ists Milt Jackson, Terry Gibbs, Red Norvo, Margie Hyams; drummers Dave Tough, Cliff Leeman, Don Lamond, Shelly Manne, Jake Hanna, Chuck Flores; guitarists Chuck Wayne and Billy Bauer; and of course the pantheon of saxophonists, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward, Gene Ammons, Flip Phillips, Al Cohn, Serge Chaloff, Al Belletto, Bill Perkins, Richie Kamuca, Don Lanphere, Sal Nistico, Joe Romano, Frank Tiberi, Leonard Garment. Leonard Garment?...

Herman says he lost track of the number of Third Herds somewhere along the way. I can't recall whether the band still carried that subtitle when the music in this collection was recorded in late 1962. This was a newly formed band, one of the most exciting Woody fronted in the sixties. It had in abundance the qualities Woody is able to impart to seventeen men; vitality, joy, humor, a time feeling that seems to spring from a single pulse and that mysterious artful something that sets Herman apart as a leader.

It had marvelous soloists in Sal Nistico, one of the most exciting of those Italian-American tenor men who keep popping onto the jazz scene from upstate New York; trumpeter Bill Chase and trombonist Phil Wilson, high note specialists who were not only magnificent lead players but trenchant improvisers; and Nat Pierce, a pianist who also has provided some of Herman's most serviceable arrangements over the past two decades. The ensemble sound of this band was unfailingly bright and full. The superb rhythm section was sparked by drummer Jake Hanna, as perfect for this band as was Dave Tough for the First Herd.”

Gary Giddins
Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation in the 80’s
New York: Da Capo Press, 1985

“Woody Herman must be one of the least disliked persons on earth. It isn't just sentimentality. Herman's name is a quality brand, representing craftsmanship, integrity, and receptiveness to new ideas. So when it was announced that Herman—who has been a traveling performer since the age of eight and a bandleader since 1936—was coming off the road to settle in a room of his own (opening night: December 27, 1981), there was considerable hoopla. It was widely assumed that Herman would be delighted to plant his feet on one patch of earth. But Herman is of another school, almost another world.

In the '30s and '40s, musicians roamed the land in herds. Crisscrossing a grid of interstate highways and back roads, corralled in buses, billeted according to celebrity status and race, and developing a collective, arcane wit to complement the music and to fight fatigue, they moved from town to town, ballroom to ballroom, glad for the occasional two-week stay but always ready to pack up after the gig for another long trip. Swing bands, fifteen to twenty strong on the average, were one of the Depression's more unlikely phenomena. Although many were sickly sweet or bland and derivative, more than a few were hot, impetuous, energetic, inventive, and inspired. These were the bands that combined strong leaders, brilliant soloists, adventurous writers, and the best songs of a golden age of song writing. Individual in their style of presentation as well as in their music, they coexisted in an atmosphere of friendly, if sometimes tension-ridden, competition. The stubbornest road musicians probably got to know America better than any of its other citizens, certainly than any of its other artists. But few were either stubborn or strong enough to survive the social and economic changes that followed World War II. And only two—Count Basie and Woody Herman—were also both gifted and lucky enough to survive into the '80s. They are as obsolete as buffalo, and just as grand. …

Herman occupies a unique place among the handful of great bandleaders who survived the era that gave them life. Ellington is beyond time, and Ellingtonia is a language unto itself; Basie employs a variety of writers (including a few Herman alumni) but invariably stamps them with the Basie signature. Herman's Herds, however, have served in the role of a Greek chorus, commenting on, interpreting, and reworking the changes in jazz. Herman keeps up with fashions yet refuses to succumb to their excesses. His bands have been as distinct from one another as they have been from other outfits, but they've all been governed by Herman's sense of taste, proportion, and adventure. He disdains fusion and is appalled when gifted musicians leave his band to play sound tracks and jingles or compromise their individuality to play trash. He didn't stay on the road 46 years to compromise.”

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Forgotten Ones - Leo Parker by Gordon Jack

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The following feature first appeared in the November 2015 edition of JazzJournal. You can locate more information about the magazine by going here.

Just like Cecil Payne, Sahib Shihab, Gary Smulyan and many others Leo Parker began on the alto saxophone before eventually switching to the baritone which became his instrument of choice. Born on the 18th. April 1925 in Washington D.C. he studied the alto in high-school and Sonny Stitt remembered him playing at local sessions there with Roger ‘Buck’ Hill and Leo Williams.

By 1944 he was living in New York and sitting-in at Minton’s with among others Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Max Roach. It was because of his appearances at the club that he was invited to take part in what is considered to be the first bebop recording date on the 16th. February 1944 for the Apollo label. Coleman Hawkins was the leader and he was keen to record with some of the younger musicians like Gillespie, Roach, Don Byas and Oscar Pettiford. He told Budd Johnson who played baritone on the date and was responsible for some of the arrangements, “I want to see what these cats are doing. What better way to do it than to get them together on a record date?” A twelve-piece group recorded three titles including the premier of Woody’n You and six days later they did Disorder At The Border, Feeling Zero and Rainbow Mist. The latter was Hawkins’s fresh look at Body And Soul and although Parker does not solo on either session, his presence reveals how highly he was rated by his peers.

Later that year he joined the trail-blazing Billy Eckstine band eventually sitting in a section with Sonny Stitt, John Jackson and Dexter Gordon who were known as “The Unholy Four” possibly because of their extra-musical activities. Jackson is a somewhat obscure figure now but he was a well-respected lead alto man at the time. Gordon told Ira Gitler in Jazz Masters Of The ‘40s, “The band was a little rough. I thought the reed section was the best - the most cohesive and the most together.” Initially Leo played second alto (Charlie Parker – no relation - was very briefly there on lead) but when Rudy Rutherford left, Eckstine bought him a baritone and persuaded him to make the switch.

He left the Eckstine band in 1946 and in March of that year he worked at the Spotlite club first with Benny Carter and then with Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy’s group (Milt Jackson, Al Haig, Ray Brown and Stan Levey) had been appearing in Los Angeles with Charlie Parker. On their return to New York, Charlie had stayed on the west coast so Leo was selected to take his place on baritone. In an interview for JJ (September 1999) Stan Levey told me, “Leo was a very good player. He got all over the horn and had all of Bird’s licks down but he died much too young”.

His first recorded baritone solo took place two months later on a Sarah Vaughan date with a string section and a small group featuring Bud Powell, Freddie Webster and Kenny Clarke. Tadd Dameron did the arrangements which included his classic If You Could See Me Now and Leo is heard on My Kinda Love. In January 1947 he recorded four sides with Fats Navarro for Savoy where he proved to be a fluent and mature soloist with a big sound that owed something to Harry Carney and a conception that owed everything to Charlie Parker. Indeed, in a Metronome interview that year with Barry Ulanov he said, “I learned to blow from Charlie Parker”. One of the titles –Ice Freezes Red – was dedicated to “Ice” – an ardent Eckstine fan and “Red” - Eckstine’s valet. It is a Navarro original based on Indiana, notable for a Bebop quote from Parker.

1947 was the year he joined Illinois Jacquet who had just signed an exclusive recording contract with RCA. The Jacquet group who appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1948 was one of the most popular in the country. He remained with the band off and on until 1954 and Illinois was once asked if his approach had influenced Parker’s playing, “Yes, I think so but remember that Leo was one of the leaders of the bop school so he had that thing going too.”  The tenor-man also claimed that Leo was one of his favourite soloists – “He had big ears. You couldn’t play anything that would get past him”. Joe Newman who was in the band was similarly impressed, “Leo Parker was undoubtedly the best baritone player I had heard at that time. He didn’t sound like a baritone. He played it like a tenor more or less and he had such fire in him whatever he played. Plus he played good ballads.” Leo had numerous solos with the band – Jumpin’ At The Woodside, Music Hall Beat, Diggin’ The Count, Embryo, Mutton Leg, Symphony In Sid, For Truly, Saph and Jivin’ With Jack The Bellboy. The latter recorded in January 1947 included Miles Davis who had just left Billy Eckstine. He was in the section but does not solo.

Three months after Bellboy was recorded Parker was booked into Smalls Paradise in Harlem for a “Battle of the Baritone Sax” with Serge Chaloff who was working with Georgie Auld at the time. Miles and Hal Singer were on the bill and the rhythm section included Jimmy Butts and Art Blakey. There is a mystery concerning the pianist whose name on the flyer was Earnie Washington aka “The Mad Genius of the Piano”. There has been speculation over the years that Earnie Washington might have been a pseudonym for Thelonious Monk, or more lightly it was just a typo for Ernie Washington who was active in New York jazz circles in the ‘40s and often played at Smalls.

In 2013 Uptown Records released a previously unknown 1947 Toronto concert by the Jacquet band. The enthusiastic audience can be heard responding to the JATP-style excitement generated by the ensemble and although Parker is given equal billing with the leader he only solos on Music Hall Beat, Lady Be Good, Bottoms Up and Mutton Leg. Illinois’s brother Russell has an effective vocal on a slow, down-home blues – Throw It Out Of Your Mind Baby - the burlesque tempo being a perfect setting for his Jimmy Rushing-style delivery. Russell later worked with Ike and Tina Turner. The dynamic, hard swinging Illinois approach with its rich mixture of bebop and R&B was an ideal environment for Parker. It allowed him to indulge in one of his favourite devices of repeatedly accenting the tonic in the lower register. Dexter Gordon who was Parker’s roommate when they were with Billy Eckstine once said, “Leo could play – lots of bottoms”. This occasionally led to him being dismissed by some critics as merely a crowd-pleasing R&B-style honker.

For most of 1947 Parker was busy in the studios whenever Jacquet was on the road with JATP.  His recording of Mad Lad with Sir Charles Thompson in the late summer helped raise his profile sufficiently for him to start working with his own groups around town. It became his nickname and his inspired performance was something of a hit. In October while working with Gene Ammons in Chicago they recorded four titles for the Aladdin label with Junior Mance who was making his recording debut. His first date as a leader later that month was for Savoy with Ammons again together with Howard McGhee. In December he was featured with Dexter Gordon on the famous Settin’ The Pace Parts 1 & 2, an up-tempo riff based on I Got Rhythm. Leo successfully stands toe to toe with Gordon in the sort of duel the tenor-man had made all his own with both Wardell Gray and Teddy Edwards. Two weeks later a session with Joe Newman, J.J. Johnson and Gordon included Solitude which revealed a tender more lyrical side of his musicality not always apparent when on-stage with Jacquet’s high-energy organization.

After 1948 his career was frequently interrupted by the personal problems that were so common among musicians of his generation.  A 1957 Nat Hentoff survey of 409 NYC jazz musicians found that 16% were regular heroin users and over half smoked marijuana. He continued working intermittently around NYC, Washington and Chicago and in 1953 his booking office – Universal Attractions – placed the following item in Down Beat’s Band Directory: “Leo Parker, after a short recent stint with Gene Ammons is now out on his own with a six-piece group playing many R&B locations, one-niters and some clubs.  Band is gutty, frenetic and features Oscar Pettiford’s brother Ira on bass and trumpet”.

The following year he recorded with Bill Jennings who had worked extensively with Louis Jordan but nothing else is known of his activities for the remainder of the ‘50s. His friend pianist John Malachi who had worked with him in the Eckstine band said that he carried on playing possibly in some R&B venues, but he was certainly not forgotten by his fellow performers. In 1956 Leonard Feather interviewed several leading musicians for his Encyclopaedia Yearbook of Jazz asking them to nominate their favourite instrumentalists.  Erroll Garner, Bud Powell and Lester Young all listed Parker on baritone.  He was hospitalised with lung problems for a while and he may have toured Europe with Ray Charles around 1960 but I have been unable to confirm this.

He managed to get his career back on track thanks to Ike Quebec who arranged for him to make two Blue Note albums in 1961 which find him in top form.  Let Me Tell You ‘Bout It (by Robert Lewis) and Low Brown (by Yusef Salim) reflect a sixties soul-influence without laying it on too thick but a highlight is TCTB aka Taking Care Of  The Business. A theme-less up-tempo romp on Sweet Georgia Brown it has Leo and tenor-man Bill Swindell storming through a series of exciting choruses in the free-wheeling manner of his 1947 date with Dexter Gordon.

He started getting brief club engagements again and things seemed to be improving for him. However on the 11th. February 1962 after arranging a further recording session with Blue Note he returned to his hotel where he suffered a heart attack and died while running a bath.

As Leader
Leo Parker 1947-1950 (Classics 1203)
Legendary Bop, Rhythm & Blues Classics (Essential Media 94231 33512)
Rollin’ With Leo (Blue Note 50999 2 65140 2 4)
Let Me Tell You ‘Bout It (Blue Note 0946 3 11491 2 2)
The Last Sessions (Phono 870337)

As Sideman
Sir Charles Thompson (Delmark CD DD-450)
Illinois Jacquet: Toronto 1947 (Uptown UPCD 27.73)
Dexter Gordon: 1947-1952 (Classics 1295)
Bill Jennings: Architect Of Soul Jazz (Fresh Sound FSR-CD 816)