Sunday, May 19, 2019

Charlie Parker - The 1949 Downbeat Interview

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

The following interview appeared in the September 9, 1949 edition of Downbeat magazine, although at times, the style employed by Michael Levin and John S. Wilson feels more like an interrogation than an interview.

“Pushed further,” “He Admits,” “Whether He’ll Admit it or Not,” these are not phrases usually employed to generate an atmosphere of warmth and cordiality aimed at putting the interviewee at ease.

On the other hand, six years after this was published, Charlie would be dead at the tragically early age of 35, so any primary source about him is invaluable, especially given the hagiography that followed his death. And further to its credit is the amount of accurate and detailed information the article contains about the earlier years of Charlie’s development as an instrumentalist who would uniquely alter the course of Jazz.

The interview appeared in the magazine under the following by-line:

NEW YORK—"Bop is no love-child of jazz," says Charlie Parker.

“The creator of bop, in a series of interviews that took more than two weeks, told us he felt that "bop is something entirely separate and apart" from the older tradition; that it drew little from jazz, has no roots in it. The chubby little alto man, who has made himself an international music name in the last five years, added that bop, for the most part, had to be played by small bands.

"Gillespie's playing has changed from being stuck in front of a big band. Anybody's does. He's a fine musician. The leopard coats and the wild hats are just another part of the managers' routines to make him box office. The same thing happened a couple of years ago when they stuck his name on some tunes of mine to give him a better commercial reputation."
Asked to define bop, after several evenings of arguing, Charlie still was not precise in his definition.

"It's just music," he said. "It's trying to play clean and looking for the pretty notes."

Pushed further, he said that a distinctive feature of bop is its strong feeling for beat.

"The beat in a bop band is with the music, against it, behind it," Charlie said. "It pushes it. It helps it. Help is the big thing. It has no continuity of beat, no steady chug-chug. Jazz has, and that's why bop is more flexible."

He admits the music eventually may be atonal. Parker himself is a devout admirer of Paul Hindemith, the German neo-classicist. He raves about his Kammer-musik and Sonata for Viola and Cello. He insists, however, that bop is not moving in the same direction as modern classical. He feels that it will be more flexible, more emotional, more colorful.

He reiterated constantly that bop is only just beginning to form as a school, that it can barely label its present trends, much less make prognostications about the future.

The closest Parker will come to an exact, technical description of what may happen is to say that he would like to emulate the precise, complex harmonic structures of Hindemith, but with an emotional coloring and dynamic shading that he feels modern classical lacks.

Parker's indifference to the revered jazz tradition certainly will leave some of his own devotees in a state of surprise. But, actually, he himself has no roots in traditional jazz. During the few years he worked with traditional jazzmen he wandered like a lost soul. In his formative years, he never heard any of the music that is traditionally supposed to inspire young jazzists—no Louis, no Bix, no Hawk, no Benny, no nothing. His first musical idol, the musician who so moved and inspired him that he went out and bought his first saxophone at the age of 11, was Rudy Vallee.

Tossed into the jazz world of the mid-'30s with this kind of background, he had no familiar ground on which to stand. For three years he fumbled unhappily until he suddenly stumbled on the music that appealed to him, which had meaning to him. For Charlie insists. "Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn."

Charlie's horn first came alive in a chili house on Seventh Avenue between 139th Street and 140th Street in December 1939. He was jamming there with a guitarist named Biddy Fleet. At the time, Charlie says, he was bored with the stereotyped changes being used then.

"I kept thinking there's bound to be something else," he recalls. "I could hear it sometimes, but I couldn't play it."

Working over "Cherokee" with Fleet. Charlie suddenly found that by using higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, he could play this thing he had been "hearing." Fleet picked it up behind him and bop was born.

Or, at least, it is reasonable to assume that this was the birth of bop. All available facts indicate this is true. But Parker, an unassuming character who carries self-effacement to fantastic lengths, will not say this in so many words. The closest Charlie will come to such a statement is, "I'm accused of having been one of the pioneers."

But inescapable facts pin him down. He says he always has tried to play in more or less the same way he does now. His earliest records, which were cut with Jay McShann in 1940 (on Decca), back him up on this. They reveal a style that is rudimentary compared to his present work, but definitely along the same lines: light, vibrato-less tone; running phrases, perkily turned; complex rhythmic and harmonic structures.

From 1939 to 1942, Charlie worked on his discovery. He admits he thought he was playing differently from other jazzmen during this period. Indicative of his queasiness about saying who did what before with which to whom is his answer to our query: Did Dizzy also play differently from the rest during the same period?

"I don't think so," Charlie replied. Then, after a moment, he added, "I don't know. He could have been. Quote me as saying, 'Yeah.'"

Dizzy himself has said that he wasn't aware of playing bop changes before 1942.

Whether he'll admit it or not, the calendar shows that Charlie inaugurated what has come to be known as bop. In some circles he is considered to be the only legitimate boppist.

"There's only one man who really plays bop," one New York reed musician said recently. "That's Charlie Parker. All the others who say they're playing bop are only trying to imitate him."

Despite his unwillingness to put anybody down, a slight note of irritation creeps into Charlie's usual bland mien when he considers the things that have been done by others in an attempt to give his music a flamboyant, commercial appeal. The fact that Dizzy Gillespie's extroversion led the commercially minded to his door irks Charlie in more ways than one. As part of Dizzy's buildup, he was forced to add his name to several of Charlie's numbers, among them "Anthropology," "Confirmation" and "Shaw ‘Nuff."
Dizzy had nothing to do with any of them, according to Charlie.

As for the accompanying gimmicks that, to many people, represent bop, Charlie views them with a cynical eye.
"Some guys said, 'Here's bop,'" he explains. "Wham! They said, 'Here's something we can make money on.' Wham! 'Here's a comedian.' Wham! 'Here's a guy who talks funny talk.'" Charlie shakes his head sadly.

Charlie himself has stayed away from a big band because the proper place for bop, he feels, is a small group. Big bands tend to get over-scored, he says, and bop goes out the window. The only big band that managed to play bop in 1944, in Charlie's estimation, was Billy Eckstine's. Dizzy's present band, he says, plays bop, [but it] could be better with more settling down and less personnel shifting.

"That big band is a bad thing for Diz," he says. "A big band slows anybody down because you don't get a chance to play enough. Diz has an awful lot of ideas when he wants to, but if he stays with the big band he'll forget everything he ever played. He isn't repeating notes yet, but he is repeating patterns."

The only possibility for a big band, he feels, is to get really big, practically on a symphonic scale with loads of strings.

"This has more chance than the standard jazz instrumentation," he says. "You can pull away some of the harshness with the strings and get a variety of coloration."

Born in Kansas City, Kan., in 1921, to a family that was in relatively comfortable circumstances at the time, Charlie moved with his parents to Olive Street, in Kansas City, Mo., when he was seven. There were no musicians in his family, but Charlie got into his high school band playing baritone horn and clarinet. He had a special fondness for the baritone horn because it helped him win medals awarded to outstanding musicians in the band. Not that he played the horn particularly well, but it was loud and boisterous and dominated the band so much the judges scarcely ignore it.

In 1931, Charlie discovered jazz, heavily disguised as Rudy Vallee. So that he could emulate Rudy, his mother bought him an alto for $45. Charlie settled on the alto because he felt the C melody wasn't stylish and a tenor didn't look good. His interest in the alto was short-lived, however, for a sax-playing friend in high school borrowed it and kept it for two years. Charlie forgot all about it until he was out of school and needed it to earn a living.

It was back in his school days, he says, that his name started to go through a series of mutations that finally resulted in Bird. As Charlie reconstructs it, it went from Charlie to Yarlie to Yarl to Yard to Yard-bird to Bird.

After his brief exhilaration over Vallee, Charlie heard no music that interested him, outside of boogie-woogie records, until he quit high school in 1935 and went out to make a living with his alto horn at the age of 14. As has been mentioned, he was under the influence of none of the jazz greats. He had never heard them. He was influenced only by the necessity of making a living, and he chose music because it seemed glamorous, looked easy and there was nothing else around.

This primary lack of influence continued as the years went by. The sax men he listened to and admired — Herschel Evans, Johnny Hodges, Willie Smith. Hen Webster, Don Byas. Budd Johnson — all played with a pronounced vibrato, but no semblance of a vibrato ever crept into Charlie's style.
"I never cared for vibrato," he says, "because they used to get a chin vibrato in Kansas City (opposed to the hand vibrato popular with white bands) and I didn't like it. I don't think I'll ever use vibrato."

"The only reed man on Charlie's list of favorites who approached the Bird's vibrato-less style was Lester Young.

"I was crazy about Lester," he says. "He played so clean and beautiful. But I wasn't influenced by Lester. Our ideas ran on differently."

When Charlie first ventured onto the music scene in Kansas City, the joints were running full blast from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Usual pay was $1.25 a night, although somebody special could command $1.50. There were about 15 bands in town, with Pete Johnson's crew at the Sunset cafe one of the most popular. Harlan Leonard was in town then, along with George Lee's and Bus Mosten's little bands. Lester Young, Herschel Evans, and Eddie Barefield were playing around. Top local pianists were Roselle Claxton, Mary Lou Williams, Edith Williams and Basie.

Charlie spent several months picking up on his alto. On Thanksgiving night, 1935, he got his first chance to play for pay when he was rounded up with a small group of others to do a gig in Eldon, Mo. He was offered $7 for the night, not because he was any good but because practically every musician in Kansas City was working that night and the guy who hired him was going crazy trying to find men to fill the date. Driving to Eldon, they had a crackup. Two of the men were killed, and Charlie got out of it with three broken ribs and a broken horn. The man who had hired him paid his medical expenses and bought him a new horn.

In February 1936, Charlie started out for Eldon again with another group, and this time he made it. The rest of the combo was a shade older than Charlie. J.K. William, the bass player, was 72. The rest were in their 30s and 40s. Charlie was 15. But, as the baby of the group, he got a lot of attention and advice. He had taken guitar, piano and sax books with him and set about learning to read seriously. The pianist, Carrie Powell, played for him and taught him simple major, minor, seventh and diminished chords.

By the end of the Eldon job, in April, he could read fairly well but not quickly. He went back to Kansas City and got his first club job at 18th and Lydia at either the Panama or the Florida Blossom (he can't remember which). It paid him 75 cents a night.

"The main idea of the job," Charlie recalls, "was to he there and hold a note."

Soon after this, he tried jamming for the first time at High Hat, at 22nd and Vine. He knew a little of "Lazy River" and "Honeysuckle Rose" and played what he could. He didn't find it difficult to hear the changes because the numbers were easy and the reedmen set a riff only for the brass, never behind a reedman. No two horns jammed at the same time.

"I was doing all right until I tried doing some double tempo on 'Body and Soul,' Charlie says. "Everybody fell out laughing. I went home and cried and didn't play again for three months."

In 1937 he joined Jay McShann's band, but left after two weeks. Later he was arrested for refusing to pay a cab fare. His mother, who didn't approve of his conduct then, wouldn't help him out, and he was jugged for 22 days. When he got out, he left his saxophone behind and bummed his way to New York.

For three months he washed dishes in Jimmy's Chicken Shack in Harlem. This was at the time Art Tatum was spellbinding late-hour Shack habitues. Charlie got $9 a week and meals. Then he quit and bummed around a while, sleeping where he could.

"I didn't have any trouble with cops," he recalls. "I was lucky. I guess it was because I looked so young." He was 17.

After he had been in New York for eight months, some guys at a jam session bought him a horn. With it he got a job in Kew Gardens that lasted for four months. even though he hadn't touched a horn in one and a half years. Then he moved into Monroe's Uptown House with Ebenezer Paul on drums, Dave Riddick on trumpet, and two or three other guys. There was no scale at Monroe's. Sometimes Charlie got 40 or 50 cents a night. If business was good, he might get up to $6.

"Nobody paid me much mind then except Bobby Moore, one of Count Basie’s trumpet players," Charlie says. "He liked me. Everybody else was trying to get me to sound like Benny Carter."

Around this time, the middle of 1939, he heard some Bach and Beethoven for the first time. He was impressed with Bach's patterns.

"I found out that what the guys were jamming then already had been put down and, in most cases, a lot better."

At the end of 1939, shortly after his chili house session with Biddy Fleet, he
went to Annapolis, Md., to play a hotel job with Banjo Burney. Then his father died and he went back to Kansas City, where he rejoined McShann.
Charlie cut his first records in Dallas, in the summer of 1940, with McShann. His first sides were "Confessin’," "Hootie Blues" (which he wrote), "Swingmatism" and "Vine Street Boogie."

His solos with McShann are on "Hootie," "Swingmatism," "Sepian Bounce," "Lonely Boy Blues" and "Jumpin’ Boy Blues." He tried doing a little arranging then but he didn't know much about it.

"I used to end up with the reeds blowin' above the trumpets," he explains.
The McShann band went from Texas to the Carolinas to Chicago, back to Kansas City headed east through Indiana and then to New York and the Savoy. Charlie drove the instrument truck all the way from Kansas City. While they were at the Savoy, Charlie doubled into Monroe's, where he played with Allen Terry, piano; George Treadwell (Sarah Vaughan's husband) and Victor Coulsen, trumpets; Ebenezer Paul, bass; and Mole, drums.

He left McShann at the end of 1941 and joined Earl Hines in New York early in 1942. This was the Hines band that also had Dizzy, Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan. Charlie had known Dizzy vaguely before this, and it was about this time they both started getting into the sessions at Minton's.
It was on this visit to New York, in late 1942 after he had worked out his basic approach to complex harmony, that Charlie heard Stravinsky for the first time when Ziggy Kelly played Firebird for him.

Charlie played tenor for the next 10 months he was with Hines. He started out getting more money than he had ever seen before — $105 a week. With McShann he had gotten $55 to $60. But the Bird was sent on an Army camp tour in a Pabst Blue Ribbon Salute package put together by Ralph Cooper, and their salaries started going down. This, with ongoing hassles, eventually broke up the band. Charlie dropped out in Washington, in 1943, and joined with Charles Thompson ("Robbins Nest" composer) at the Chrystal Caverns.
Later he came back to New York and cut his first sides since the McShann discs—the Tiny Grimes "Red Cross" and "Romance Without Finance" session for Savoy. Charlie worked off and on around New York during 1943 and 1944. In the spring of 1944 he was playing the Spotlite on 52nd Street, managed by Clark Monroe of Monroe's and on the site of the old Famous Door, when Doris Sydnor, the hatcheck girl there, raised an interested eye at him. Charlie, according to Doris, didn't notice it.

"He ignored me very coldly," she reports.

But Doris was a persistent girl. She didn't even know what instrument Charlie played when she first met him, but she stacked records by the Bird and Lester Young on her phonograph and listened and listened until she caught on to what they were doing. She and Charlie were married on Nov. 18, 1945, in New York.

Right after his wedding, Charlie went out to the coast with Dizzy to play at Billy Berg's. He stayed there after the Berg's date was finished.

On the coast he started cutting sides for Ross Russell's Dial label until his physical [mental?] breakdown in August 1946 landed him in a hospital. His opinion of these Dial discs is low.

"'Bird Lore' and 'Lover Man' should be stomped into the ground," he says. "I made them the day before I went into the hospital. I had to drink a quart of whiskey to make the date."

Charlie stayed in the hospital until January 1947. Russell, who had hired a psychiatrist and a lawyer, got him released then into his custody and staged a benefit for the Bird, which produced some cash and two plane tickets back east.

But Parker is bitter about Russell's role in this. He says that Charlie Emge of DownBeat was equally helpful, that Russell refused to sign the papers releasing him unless he. Parker, renewed his contract with Dial. Later, Parker claims, he found that he had needed no outside help to get out.

When he originally signed with Russell, Charlie was already under contract to Herman Lubinsky, of Savoy records. Before leaving New York, he had signed with Lubinsky to cut some 30 sides. Four of these were done before he went to the coast—"Ko-Ko," "Billie's Bounce," "Now's the Time" and "Anthropology." Lubinsky bought all four tunes from Charlie for $50 apiece.

Today Charlie has come full cycle. As he did in 1939, when he kicked off bop in the Seventh Avenue chili house, he's beginning to think there's bound to be something more. He's hearing things again, things that he can't play yet. Just what these new things are, Charlie isn't sure yet. But from the direction of his present musical interests — Hindemith, etc. — it seems likely he's heading toward atonality. Charlie protests when he is mentioned in the same sentence with Hindemith, but, despite their vastly different starting points, he admits he might be working toward the same end.

This doesn't mean Charlie is through with bop. He thinks bop still is far from perfection and looks on any further steps he may take as further developments of bop.

"They teach you there's a boundary line to music," he says, "but, man, there's no boundary line to art."

For the future, he'd like to go to the Academy of Music in Paris for a couple of years, then relax for a while and then write. The things he writes all will be concentrated toward one point: warmth. While he's writing, he also wants to play experimentally with small groups. Ideally, he'd like to spend six months to a year in France and six months here.

"You've got to do it that way," he explains. "You've got to be here for the commercial things and in France for relaxing facilities."

Relaxation is something Charlie constantly has missed. Lack of relaxation, he thinks, has spoiled most of the records he has made. To hear him tell it, he has never cut a good side. Some of the things he did on the Continental label he considers more relaxed than the rest. But every record he has made could stand improvement, he says. We tried to pin him down, to get him to name a few sides that were at least better than the rest.

"Suppose a guy came up to us," we said, "and said. 'I've got four bucks and I want to buy three Charlie Parker records. What'll I buy?' What should we tell him?"

Charlie laughed.

"Tell him to keep his money," he said.


We both were tremendously impressed by the cogency and clarity of Parker's thinking about music. Musicians, classical or jazz, are traditionally unanalytical about the things they create. Parker, however, has a definite idea of where he wants to go and what he wants to do, though he is properly vague as to the results.

His insistent vagueness as to exactly what bop is to him is no pose. Parker is a musician fighting for his proper mode of expression, a vastly talented man who hasn't the schooling yet to expand as completely and properly as his musical instincts would have him do.

If we understand his crypticisms correctly, Parker feels that traditional jazz has strongly lacked variety and economy of form as well as the wealth of discipline and control of ideas to be found in modern formalistic music. On the other hand, he feels the symphonic score of today lacks drive (contained, perhaps, in his concept of dynamics) and warmth, and that his group of musicians will help inject these aspects traditional to the jazz scene.

Parker's insistence that bop has no connection with jazz is interesting as an example of a younger musician bursting through forms that he finds constricting and that he feels have outlived their usefulness. We suspect his position might be difficult to maintain.

He undoubtedly is seriously searching for a synthesis of the best in formalistic and folk music. If he can achieve it, he will pull off a feat seldom before accomplished in music. Many composers have utilized folk themes and folk feeling, but none has completely integrated the colors and emotional patterns into scored music.

He is, like all good musicians, inordinately impressed with technique. He has a fondness for lush string tones that, as he uses more of it, will settle more into balance, as will his taste for such technical musicians as Jimmy Dorsey.
Parker feels very strongly on the subject of dope in all its forms. He told us that while he was still a young boy in Kansas City he was offered some in a men's room by a stranger, when he hardly knew what it was. He continued to use it off and on for years until his crackup in 1946, and says bitterly that people who prey on kids this way should be shot.

Parker told us flatly: "Any musician who says he is playing better either on tea, the needle or when he is juiced is a plain, straight liar. When I get too much to drink. I can't even finger well, let alone play decent ideas. And in the days when I was on the stuff, I may have thought I was playing better, but listening to some of the records now, I know I wasn't. Some of these smart kids who think you have to be completely knocked out to be a good horn-man are just plain crazy. It isn't true. I know, believe me."

Parker struck us as being direct, honest and searching. He is constantly dissatisfied with his own work and with the music he hears around him. What will come of it, where his quite prodigious talent will take him, even he doesn't know at this stage.

But his ceaseless efforts to find out, to correct, to improve, only bode well for himself and that elderly progenitor, Jazz.”


  1. Interesting interview,with a lot of put-ons by Bird.Great presentation,Steve,as always.

  2. I don't know if he was being really honest. We know he continued to use heroin.

    1. clean, on, clean, back on, clean, back on...

  3. Food for thought. Really a master of art.

  4. This interview is pushing a narrative that Charlie Parker existed in a bubble and aims to discredit Black cultural expression. I would bet Charlie Parker did like Hindemith because Parker was a genius and absorbed music from Country to Stravinsky but to say that "he has no roots in traditional jazz" is abhorrent. In Parker's music you can hear quotes of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Lester Young, and many other masters that he so obviously built his music on top of. Parker is a giant of the Black American Music tradition and efforts to debase that fact are racist.


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