© -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.
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)
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)