© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Charlie “Bird” Parker died on March 12, 1955. He was not quite 35 years of age. The following interviews with drummer Art Blakey, bassist Oscar Pettiford and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie - three of Bird’s closest, musical associates - were published in The Jazz Review about six years after his death.
The language - certainly in the case of Art Blakey - is plain spoken and very descriptive of who Charlie Parker was and what was going on in his life as told from their perspectives.
Also at the time of these interviews, Art, Oscar and Dizzy were “living” primary sources, although one could argue that this primacy had not been corroborated and authenticated using the more scholarly tools of academia.
As the esteemed Jazz scholar Gary Giddins has commented in his Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker - Revised with a New Introduction : “The literature on Charlie Parker is voluminous and growing.”
But this expanding view of Bird’s significance in the Jazz literature was in its infancy when these interviews appeared in The Jazz Review in 1961.
Be sure and checkout Dizzy comments about a cornet player from Canada by the name of “Robert Farnon!”
Also, as you read Dizzy remarks about how Bebop evolved, you might wish to keep this thought from the artist Robert Irwin in mind: - “There is a danger in spelling these recollections out so lucidly that your reader gains the impression that at the time I knew what I was doing and where all of this was leading in some sort of intellectual way.”
Vol. 4 No. 1
Art Blakey was a pianist until some Pittsburgh underworld characters decided that Erroll Garner was going to replace him as pianist in a local nightclub. Art switched to drums, and in the years since, has become one of the best and best known drummers in modern jazz. He was also with the Billy Eckstine band in 1943- 4, has visited Africa to broaden his knowledge of drumming, and since his return to the U.S., has led several small groups, all called the Jazz Messengers.
“There was a guy in Fletcher Henderson's band who said, "Man, you ought to hear this guy Charlie Parker." "Man, he can't outplay Willie Smith?" "He can." I got mad at this guy. A little while later we met Parker. I turned to my friend and said, "Is this the bum you mean?" He wasn't dapper like a musician. He was wearing a pair of slacks, a sweater and a beret. He looked too relaxed. After that we'd meet in train stations while we were going in different directions. He's so great he was easy to meet.
I left Fletcher Henderson's band in Boston and I formed my own group, that became the house band at The Tic Toe Club. Billy Eckstine was forming his band and Dizzy said to him, "There's a guy in Boston; this guy can play." Billy said he knew me and that I was from his home town, but he had not heard me play. But he sent for me, and I came down to St. Louis, and there I met Bird, Billy, Sarah, Dizzy, the rest. We were playing in a prejudiced club; Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine, Bird, Dizzy. The man told us all to come in through the back door that night, and these damn fools, they got together and they came in the front door. The guy is wigged. They all come in the front door havin' a ball. He said, "I don't want you to fraternize with the customers." When Charlie got to the intermission, they all sat at the tables and the guy was about to wig. He told someone, "You gotta get this band the hell outta here."
The guys were carrying on something fierce despite the fact that gangsters were walking around with big guns up on their hips. They didn't scare Bird or anyone. Tadd Dameron was drinking a glass of water. Out of one of the beautiful glasses they had to serve the customers. Bird walked over to him saying, "Did you drink out of this. Tadd?" Tadd says "Yeah." Bam! He smashes it. "It's contaminated. Did you drink out of this one?" "Yeah," Tadd says. Bam. "It's contaminated." He broke about two dozen glasses. A guy was glaring at Bird; he just looked back coolly. "What do you want? Am I bothering you?" Bird asks "Are you crazy?" the guy asks. "Well, if you want to call me crazy." Then once again he turns to Tadd. "Did you drink out of this glass?" Bam. "Its contaminated."
They put us out and put Jeeter-Pillows in our place at the Plantation and sent us to the Riviera, which was a colored club. There the band got started, and we went from there to Chicago and that's when I realized how great the man was. The Man stopped the show in Chicago. It was on a Saturday night in 1944. Sarah was singing You Are My First Love. That man came out and took sixteen bars and stopped the show. The house was packed. People applauded so loud we couldn't go on. We had to do it all over again.
He always was one for fun. The fellows were always up to pranks. They'd ride up and down the hotel halls on broomsticks or have mock fights with swords — him and Dizzy loved to do that. It's lonely in some towns, especially down South. Nobody understands you. So we get together and have fun ourselves — spill water on each other, anything that boys (for that's what we were) would do just to keep things interesting. He was a good guy. He gave a lot. In 1950-51 I was on relief. In 1951 after my wife died, Bird, who had come in from the Coast, lent me $2000 just to help me out.
He was distressed by some of the idiots in the music business. You build all your life, and then you see it destroyed by fakers. A symbol to the Negro people? No. They don't even know him. They never heard of him and care less. A symbol to the musicians, yes. There was no rivalry between the Baroness, Bird, and myself. Nica is just a wonderful woman. A woman first and a Baroness second. She wants to be witty. Poor thing, she ain't so witty. We are very good friends, but I stopped seeing her when stories got back to my daughters, and they sounded on me.
Bird died trying to kick his habit. He tried to kick it the wrong way, by drinking whiskey. The whiskey is the thing that killed him. The heroin was preserving him — the heroin did not kill him. He tried to do what people asked him to do, that's why he's not here today. After a man shoots dope for fourteen years, how you gonna stop him? His system cries for it. If he uses it, the heroin will preserve him, it won't destroy him. I know he died trying to do what society asked him to do, which is impossible. Our society has to find out that the people who are using dope are not crazy or criminal, they are sick people. This man had been sick for fourteen years and nobody would help him because they didn't know. They didn't know he was sick. They don't understand heroin. You do not play better with heroin but you do hear better. Bird said that he wanted to kick the habit so that he could tell people what he heard. It is something like a neurotic. While he is suffering, he cannot produce; but reflecting about his pain, he can create. Musicians who have been junkies and then rid themselves of the habit, have sometimes really then come into their own musically.
The late Oscar Pettiford was a pioneer in modern jazz and is unquestionably one of the great bassists in jazz history. He was born on an Indian reservation at Okamulgee, Oklahoma, one of thirteen children of Harry 'Doc' Pettiford, who led one of the most successful territory bands in the Southwest, a band in which most of his talented children started playing. Pettiford worked with Charlie Barnet's band, and in 1943 he and Dizzy Gillespie led a bop group, the first on 52nd Street, with Don Byas, George Wallington and Max Roach. Pettiford has worked with Duke Ellington, and led his own groups, large and small.
“I got started at six, when I used to dance with my father's band. When I was seventeen, I had a bit role with Olson and Johnson in Minneapolis. Before I settled on bass, I played piano, trombone, and trumpet (which hurt my jaws), and I studied tailoring in case the music business ever got tough.
When I first met Parker he was with the Jay McShann band, and they came out to Minneapolis where I was playing in my father's band; that was around 1940-41. I was around sixteen years old. Everyone, Jay and the band, respected and loved Charlie Parker; he wasn't called Yardbird or Bird then. Everyone dug his playing; he had a happy sound. I saw him again in Earl Hines' band in 1943; they were in Chicago, and Diz was in the band too.
I got word that time that I could be in a jam session with Bird and Diz, and I walked two miles carrying my bass without gloves in ten below zero weather to the Ritz Hotel. It was a fine session. I remember a fellow named Red Cross taped the session. He works for Billy Eckstine; maybe he still has it.
In 1943 I met Bird again. I was with the Charlie Barnet band, and we were playing at the Capitol Theatre. Bird was with the Earl Hines band playing at the Apollo Theatre. We were both registered at the Braddock Hotel on 126th Street and 8th Avenue. This was a hotel where a lot of musicians stayed in town. Bird and I did a lot of jamming at the hotel.
He was writing a lot of things then. Dizzy Gillespie and I went looking up and down 52nd Street for work in 1943. We turned down $75 a week apiece offered by Kelly's Stables. I had worked at the Onyx club before, and I was good friends with the owner, Mike Westerman, so I asked him if I could be re-engaged. I was welcomed back gladly. I said "Make it a Diz group." And Diz said "Make it your group because you got the job." So we made it the Gillespie-Pettiford group. We wanted Bird to come in the group, but he didn't have a union card. He never seemed to have a card. He didn't stay in town long enough. There's a local 802 regulation that says a musician must wait in town six months for his card. For the first three months he may be able to work at a steady job with union approval as long as he is in town.
Bird was always broke, and he would have to work jobs out of town to make quick money. He continually borrowed. Dizzy always allotted part of his pay to him. Nobody ever expected it back — never got it. Nobody ever did. One musician said laughing, "To know Bird you got to pay your dues." I never knew Bird to lend money to anyone. Anyone. Once when I was flat, I asked for some of the money that Bird owed me. I never got it. He was so likeable that you didn't mind being generous with him. At this time Billy Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie were Bird's closest friends. Bird dug Eckstine's singing very much.”
Vol. 4 No. 1
“I met Charlie Parker for the first time in 1939, when I was with Cab Calloway. We were introduced by a Kansas City trumpet player, Buddy Anderson, one of the trumpet players of that time who was trying to do something new. I dug Buddy immediately. He tried to play chords that were making preparations for going into another chord. He made up his own variations on another chord. He was with the Jay McShann band that time, you know, when they came to New York.
Was that so unusual then? Using these different chords? Trumpet players at that time, they just didn't think like saxophone players, like Benny Carter and people like that. I mean, I didn't know any. There were trumpet players then who were doin' that maybe, but they weren't making recordings, and it wasn't so easy for people to emulate their styles. Does that mean you weren't so surprised to hear that kind of things from saxophone players? Well, yeah. Saxophone players generally knew more music than trumpet players.
As a matter of fact, I didn't know any trumpet players at that time who played the piano. Many saxophone players could play the piano — in fact, there was Ben Webster, there was Don Byas, and Coleman Hawkins, and Benny Carter; all those guys played piano too, you know.
Would it have surprised you if a piano player played those chords? No. Because in the first place, I think the piano has a little bit of an advantage for jazz, because you can just lay your hands on the keyboard of the piano, and play a whole series of chords, just like that, but on a trumpet you can't visualize it; it's very hard.
Were there other trumpet players who used these chords? There was a guy up in Toronto. He's become famous since then, but not as a trumpet player — as a composer, and arranger and conductor. His name is Robert Farnon. He was doing it — I'm not surprised at him, I knew there was going to be great things for him — but he was playing cornet at this time, when I was with Cab Calloway.
Cozy Cole, Choo Berry, Danny Barker, most of those fellows, would go over to this guy's house in 1939, way before he went overseas; funny thing, I've been hearing about this Robert Farnon, but I never connected him with Bob Farnon, the cornet player I knew. When you met Parker through Buddy Anderson, what were you doing at the time? I was staying at the Booker T. Hotel in Kansas City when I met him one afternoon.
Was he playing the same way then, as he did when he came to New York?
Well, I think — I'm not saying this as absolutely sure — I think that his particular style, by the time he got to New York, had developed so rapidly that it didn't have much to do with what he was playing then. They told me he was mad with the older musicians who wouldn't let him play, so he was determined to upset everything, and he went in the woodshed, you know.
When he got to New York was the next time I saw him. If I'd known you wanted to talk about Bird, I'd have brought Teddy Stewart, who knows all about what happened in the band there; he could tell you the real story about Charlie Parker at that time. How long was that, between the time you met him in Kansas City, and the time when he came to New York? It was 1939 or 40 in Kansas City.
Then Oscar Pettiford and I in 1942, early 1942, we sent him a telegram in Kansas City to go into the Onyx Club with us. No, wait a minute; in 1942, Charlie was playing tenor with Earl Hines' band. He came here before that in Jay McShann's band. Then he used to play in Monroe's Uptown, an after hours place. They had a terrific little band there; they didn't have any music or anything, but that was where I really started playing with him. After that, I went with Earl Hines, '41 and '42. We needed a tenor player, so we bought Yard a tenor, and he came into Earl's band to play tenor, and he played tenor all through Earl Hines' band until we went with Billy Eckstine's band.
Between 1939 and 1942, did people know what he was trying to do? Oh, he was getting a lot of publicity from musicians; like Ben Webster sayin' "I can't believe it." Ben Webster was a big Charlie Parker fan.
When you became friendly with Charlie Parker, what were the human and musical ties between you? What did you talk about?
Well, he was full of ebullience; he had an extreme amount of energy, which all of us know, because he could stand off being sick and things like that. He was sturdy, very sturdy. He reminded me of a leaf, on a stream that's floating, but he had a definite, definite, purpose; knew exactly where he was goin'. He was dynamic — a very dynamic personality.
Did he talk a lot about music? No, he wasn't a big conversationalist about music. But you could tell that he had that definiteness from the music he played. But he would talk. Oh, he was a great talker — about any subject you'd want to talk about. Like philosophy, or if you wanted to talk about art he'd talk with you. Or if you wanted to talk about History — European History, African History, or Middle Ages or Stone Age History. Oh, he knew about current events and things like that. He was a profound thinker, you see. Sometimes he would get into a room, he'd be off in the woodshed, wouldn't see anybody; I guess that was meditation.
Do you believe that it is possible to determine in the musical history of jazz the exact role played by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Kenny Clarke and Monk and others?
Each one of us knows the exact role that each one, the individual, has played. But all you can do is hope that history — but you see, you can't. You see, history is a history of newspapers and things like that, and you know you have to take newspapers with a grain of salt.
But I don't think it was that way with us; I think it was more a question of embellishing one another. Yes, embellishing one another. And the knowledge was coming that way. Because many times, I've sat with Charlie Parker, and I'd play something, and he'd say, "What was that?" And I'd say, "Well, I do this because I want to do this." And same thing; I'd say to him, "Well, why is that?", and he'd say; and I'd say, "Oh." And you get knowledge like that. And Monk the same way. You see, I had no formal musical training.
There were many musicians — many musicians — who knew harmonically more than I did. Like Charlie Shavers; I played with him in Philadelphia. I've known Charlie Shavers longer than I've known Charlie Parker. I played with Charlie Shavers in 1935, way before I even came to New York.
Did Charlie Parker have formal musical training? I don't know; they tell me no. I don't think he had any either. But he had that background. You don't get things out of the air.
Take Charlie Parker; you say "Charlie, play the blues." He'd play the blues Just like a blind man. He could play the blues with that emotion, that blue feeling. Some of us have that and some of us don't. You see, he uses notes that aren't there. That's all. They are not there. You try to find them, you can't find them. I'm going to look into that myself, because you get so much emotion in a cry. I mean if somebody sometime just cry. And then in a moan there's emotion; there's a clipped, clipped accent — there's emotion — fiery. You sit down long enough, you do everything, run the gamut of emotion. But you must have that kind of background. If you're going to be in jazz, you got to know the history of it.
Did you have opportunity to play frequently with Charlie Parker?
Oh, yes. Oh yes, of course we made records together; and we played together in Earl Hines' band; we played with Eckstine; we played on 52nd Street together; we played in California together; and then after 1946, we just played spasmodically together. You know that's something, we haven't played together, Charlie Parker and I, I mean we haven't worked together since 1946. I'll tell you one time, during wartime, we had a record date. There was Charlie Parker, Don Byas, Trummy Young; let's see who was the rhythm section — Clyde Hart, I think Oscar Pettiford; I don't remember who the drummer was, and Rubber Legs Williams on vocals. We were doing some blues things with Rubber Legs. This was the big thing; Teddy Reig set that up. So we got there; we were playin'; so finally, everybody had been up all night or something like that. At that time, the kick was, you know those Benzedrine inhalers? You take one and break it up, you get some coffee or something and let it dissolve a little bit, and you drink it up. You can stay up two, three days. And Rubber Legs, he didn't smoke or drink — he was completely without vices. Charlie dropped that thing in his coffee, and Rubber Legs drank that coffee, and boy, after that, he was singing and cryin' and moanin'. Hah! And Rubber Legs didn't know what was wrong with himself.
Another time when we were in Pine Bluffs, Arkansas, with Earl Hines, and I remember, during intermission, you couldn't go out in the audience where people were dancing; you were with the band, supposed to stay on stage. I was just sittin' at the piano, fooling with the piano. Some guy came up and slipped me a quarter, and asked me to play something, but I didn't pay him any mind; just went on foolin' with the piano. After the job, I met this same guy, and he had a bottle, and he hit me with this bottle. I had to have six stitches put into the back of my head. Charlie Parker saw me with all this blood coming out of me, and he walk up to this guy, and he yelled "You have taken advantage of my friend — you cur!"
How would you describe the evolution of Charlie Parker's playing?
I wouldn't attempt to. I'm not a scholar — not a lingual scholar. If I spent my time trying to figure out why, to wonder about why, I wouldn't have any time to play music.
How would you describe the evolution of jazz from the time when you started out, and Charlie Parker started out, until the time you had arrived and actually were known, and you had created something?
You don't have any set time or place where any one thing happened in music. It's such a big picture — you got to take it in terms of alto sax, in terms of tenor sax, in terms of trumpet . . . How can you say what started what or where or when? You should get a bunch of guys who were with us at the time and ask them to remember what happened. It's very hard to remember. You might be putting yourself on. All the original guys know exactly who contributed what. One guy who has been sadly neglected in the history of modern music, I think, is Oscar Pettiford.
Charlie Parker and I, we started out of the same kind of music, but our styles are different. One thing that is different now, most soloists now know how to play piano — most of the best ones. It's very important because it is the basic instrument of Western music, the piano gives you the key. When you know that, you can branch out to other instruments. It gives you a wonderful perspective. But you can't say it was a new thing. We all were working on the same chords, the same notes that everybody worked on from before. It was just a different approach. It takes lots of little things that when they are added up, many, many, many, many of them, they add up to a great abundance.
When was the last time you saw Charlie Parker?
The last time I saw him was at Basin Street, just before he died, about two or three weeks before.
Would you say that his style or his energy or his creativity was deteriorated in the last years?
No. Oh, no. No. I don't see how creativity can deteriorate. Physically, if Charlie Parker, or Tatum, or anybody, walk out on the stage under the influence of anything, drunk or anything, they're not going to do their best. I don't care who it is; you need a sober mind and you need physical prowess. But deteriorate! You just sober up and there it is. With Charlie Parker, as great a genius as he was, you speak in terms of Charlie Parker, you can't speak in terms of somebody else. He's unpredictable—you can't speak of him as you would an ordinary musician. He was very, very special, and you have to treat him in a very, very special way. He wasn't declining, not to me, not when I heard him play. Last time I heard him play, he wasn't declining, not to me. Not to me, man.”