Monday, August 23, 2021

Charlie Parker - 1940-1943 - The Apprenticeship Years

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Dating back to Ross Russell’s BIRD LIVES! -The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie 'Yardbird' Parker first published in 1973 by Quartet Books with a paperback edition to follow in 1976, an immense amount of research on Parker’s life that followed its publication - Stanley Crouch, Kansas City Lighting: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, Gary Giddins, Celebrating Bird; The Triumph of Charlie Parker, Chuck Haddix, The Life and Music of Charlie Parker, and Robert G. Reisner, The Legend of Charlie Parker.

Often overlooked, Carl Woideck Charlie Parker: His Music and His Life, which was published in 1996 as part of the University of Michigan’s excellent American Music Series, is also an important addition to the Bird bibliography not only because it is a sound biographical treatment of Bird’s life, but especially because it provides a musical analysis of Parker’s playing.

At the time of its publication, Carl was a saxophonist and Professor of Jazz History at the University of Oregon. 

Also of significance is the fact that Carl’s Bird Bio was the first to thoroughly examine Parker’s apprenticeship period - 1940-1943 - including Bird’s rare recordings during this period, including many new finds. This scarcity was in part due to the lack of materials used for making records caused by the needs of the Second World War. Another factor was that on August 1, 1942, the American Federation of Musicians, at the instigation of union president James C. Petrillo, began a strike against the major American record companies because of disagreements over royalty payments.

“In general, Charlie Parker's "apprenticeship" years are those during which he formed working relationships with older, more experienced musicians in order to better learn his craft. These years could be said to have begun in the mid-1930s when he quit school and tried to make a living as a musician, seeking tips from other musicians and free-lancing with various groups for short periods of time. In a more traditional sense, though, his more structured jazz apprenticeship began around 1937, when he was taken under the wing of saxophonist Buster Smith, who both advised him and employed him. His apprenticeship reached a new level in early 1940 when he rejoined Jay McShann, who was then beginning to tour over a wider area with an expanded band. Smith and McShann, were "master" craftsmen in that they were slightly older and possessed knowledge and/or experience that Parker valued.

Terms like "apprentice" and "master" are borrowed from the trades and crafts but do not always have precise meaning when applied to the arts. During the mid-1930s, Parker was more of a teenage hopeful than an accepted member of the Kansas City jazz community. After his 1937 summer breakthrough (chapter 1), Parker's status gradually changed to his being regarded as a talented up-and-comer. By the time of his departure for New York in early 1939, he was ready to build upon his knowledge by playing in a regularly working and touring band, but that experience would have to wait until his formally joining McShann at the beginning of 1940.

The earliest date for studying Parker's apprenticeship period is 1940, simply because that is the first year for which recordings of Parker exist. By then, he had already advanced beyond many of his McShann band mates and was moving into a higher level of skill. The term "apprentice" applies less to the times when he and Dizzy Gillespie became their own and one another's teachers. Still, Parker would continue to hone his skills in big bands led by older, more established musicians (most notably Earl Hines) through most of 1943. That was simply the most common way to break into the national jazz arena.

Reinforcing the use of the term "apprentice" is the fact that Charlie Parker was one of the greatest students of jazz that the idiom has known. Study of his 1940-43 recordings (especially the informally made ones) reveal just how broad Parker's sphere of listening was. A rich indicator of his early listening habits is his use of quotations, the interpolation of one melody into another piece. The quotations found in his pre-1944 recordings reveal that Parker the student drew from a wide range of sources, learned them well, and used the source materials creatively rather than simply reproducing them. During that period, he was clearly listening to many players of the previous generation and did not limit his research to his own instrument, a habit that today's students would do well to emulate. Parker was blessed with a phenomenal mind for sounds; he could readily hear another jazz artist's idea (or indeed any musical idea), absorb it, retain it, and reproduce it in whatever key he later happened to be playing in (the same was true for pop songs).

For many years after his death in 1955, Charlie Parker's available apprenticeship recordings (those made prior to 1944 on which he is clearly audible) amounted to six titles. These six official recordings with Jay McShann for the Decca company from 1941 and 1942 consist of four improvised solos, one embellished theme statement, and one chorus of quiet "fills" behind a vocal solo. Parker's officially recorded solo legacy from this period (those made for established recording companies, in Parker's case, Decca) totals about seventy-two measures (the longest solo is about seventeen and a half measures long or about twenty-five seconds in duration) and the whole (leaving aside the spare vocal accompaniment) takes just over two minutes to listen to.

Based on such a small sample, it's clear why Parker's pre-1944 musical development was not well understood. The available examples of Parker improvising were too few and too short. Fortunately, beginning in the 1970s and continuing up to the present, a remarkable number of informally recorded items featuring Parker from this period have come to light and have been made available to the public. Just one of these newly discovered discs alone ("Honey & Body") features Parker in the foreground for over three minutes, by itself exceeding the total pre-1944 Parker solo work previously available.

As of this writing, approximately thirty of these developmental or apprenticeship recordings featuring Parker solos have been released (Parker's solo participation on a few items is debated, making the number uncertain). These recordings add a tremendous amount to our knowledge of Parker. First of all, they fill in chronological gaps in his discography. Previously, we had examples of Parker's early improvisational work from only 1941 and 1942. The new releases expand documentation of his early development to the years 1940 through 1943, inclusive (and, by extension, his entire career is now documented from 1940 through 1954, inclusive). Second, the developmental recordings now display Parker in the widest possible of musical settings, from solo saxophone without accompaniment to a full jazz big band for support. Finally, the newly available recordings feature Parker soloing over a much more varied repertoire of songs and tempos than would otherwise be available.

But even if these new discoveries did nothing to fill in gaps of chronology, setting, or repertoire, they would be of great interest to the listener for the amount of time on each disc that Parker is in the foreground, either improvising or stating a given melody. In his mature work (1944 and later), Parker was not known for long solos, either in "live" settings or in the recording studio. At least six of the newly released performances feature Parker in the foreground for over three minutes each. The pre-1944 period, once characterized by exceedingly short recorded Parker solos, now contains documentation of some of Parker's longest uninterrupted work, regardless of period. At last we are in a position to examine thoroughly Charlie Parker's apprenticeship or developmental work, noting influences and describing stylistic evolution.1

With respect to Parker's stylistic characteristics just outlined in the "Introduction to the Musical Chapters," Parker's 1940-43 music already suggests most of the qualities associated with his mature work. These qualities are generally in a developmental state, but they are consistent with the better-known later Parker. In comparison with his band mates of the period, Parker more than holds his own with respect to command of the instrument. At up-tempos, he is regularly the most comfortable of all the soloists, and at ballad tempos, he is already highly complex both rhythmically and melodically. Beginning with the earliest recordings, Parker displays a great inner sense of swing that is quite compelling. His early improvisations also reveal much of the quickness and playfulness associated with his later music. His developmental recordings already contain an essential feeling for the blues, if not at the profound depth of his later work.

There is also a striking sense of freshness to these early recordings. Parker was certainly in the midst of an exciting period of artistic discovery, but more than that, his approach to improvisation seemed to emphasize the spontaneous creation of melody in the manner of tenor saxophonist Lester Young. Of course, he employed a certain amount of prepared melodic material ("licks"), but his art had not yet become codified into a lick-based language as it did in the 1950s.

In contrast with his later career as a bandleader, during this early period Parker did not choose his own repertoire because he was usually working under the leadership of others (McShann or Hines, for example). Even when recording on his own (on the nonprofessional recordings), his repertoire fell within the common practice of the day, that is to say it was based on the thirty-two-measure popular song form and the twelve-measure blues form. Although Parker is sometimes credited as co-composer of "Hootie Blues," and arranger of "The Jumpin' Blues," compositions clearly and solely by Parker are not documented on the early recordings. [Parker did write an original composition during this period entitled What Price Love? But it was recorded until 1946 as Yardbird Suite.]

Parker performed this repertoire at tempos well within the common practice, ranging from approximately quarter note = 84 to quarter note = 280, and he did not quite approach the extremely rapid tempos of his later work. He often seems more at ease than his fellow players on the faster material, though he did not yet have the up-tempo virtuosity of an Art Tatum.

Similarly, Parker's early range of note values is broad, but not as broad as his later work. From his first recording, Parker displays an interest in double-timing on slow pieces but was evidently technically unable to sustain it on faster material. By 1943 he was beginning to incorporate short bursts of double-timing on medium-swing material. Parker had already developed the tendency to accent the high points of his melodic lines. Those accents often fall on the beat, because he had not developed full flexibility to accent freely within a subdivided beat. Syncopation, whether produced by accentuation or cross-rhythm, is less varied than in his mature work.

Parker's early work employs vibrato more often and at a slightly faster rate than found in his later work; in fact, he occasionally seems nervous. He does, when "sweet" material calls for it, employ a nearly constant vibrato in the popular tradition, a practice he would soon abandon. Parker's alto sax tone evolved subtly between 1940 and 1943. Aural evidence suggests his tone gradually became less edgy, but due to the low fidelity of the amateur recordings, conclusions are difficult to make. The stripped-down and functional timbral ideal found in the early recordings is consistent with his later timbral values.

Especially in the earlier developmental solos, Parker often stops to begin a new thought at or near a formal division. The later solos within this period show more freedom to build phrases that truly cut across structural divisions. Many melodic figures that Parker continued to use in his mature work are noticeable, although his early repertoire of building blocks was more limited. Parker's practice of "quoting" one piece in the performance of another was already prevalent. As in his mature work, he was more likely to use quotations outside the formal recording studio, although some shift in the sources of the material borrowed seems to have occurred between his apprenticeship and his masterful work. Especially in his early work, Parker's use of quotations provides strong clues about his formative influences and early listening habits.

Parker the apprentice was already interested in an enriched harmonic palette and arrived at the chromaticism he desired within a framework of functional harmony. The means he employed were simply less developed than those in his mature period. Already present in his work are altered dominant chords, chord substitutions, side-slipping, and sequencing (discussed in "Introduction to the Musical Chapters"). Parker's early harmonic vocabulary is also consistent with that of his mature period in that it is oriented toward application rather than derived from theory in the abstract. …

If jazz historians had to assess the stylistic contributions of Charlie Parker strictly on the basis of his commercial and amateur recordings made by the end of 1943, they would today finally find a sufficient body of work to do so. He might be seen as an advanced but nevertheless transitional figure between the swing era style and bebop (the way that some view Charlie Christian and Jimmy Blanton, both of whom died in 1942) who stopped recording before the full flowering of the new style. His debts to Lester Young, Buster Smith, Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum, and others would be traceable, and his own burgeoning contributions to a new musical direction would likely be recognized. Of course, Parker continued recording; we know how his style evolved, the nature of his post-1943 innovations and the extent of his influence on other players. But an appreciation of his mature work should not take away from the inventiveness and uniqueness of his apprenticeship recordings.

During that apprenticeship period, Parker combined and then developed ideas from the most advanced of his swing era predecessors. His influences and original ideas were in flux as they would be at no other point in his career. Partly because of this artistic flux, Parker's 1940-43 recordings are particularly vital examples of Parker because they present him at his most spontaneous; he had not yet codified his musical vocabulary, and he took an impromptu approach to the spinning forth of melody, much like his prime influence, Lester Young. In addition, Parker's work of the period is marked by a stunning pace of growth, a strong sense of discovery, and a rare appetite for new ideas. Each recording exhibits new facets of Parker's evolving art. The spontaneity and discovery found in these recordings reward the listener in unique and satisfying ways; for all these reasons, Parker's apprenticeship recordings stand on their own within Parkeriana.”

1 comment:

  1. Why does Mr. Cerra overlook - or is ignorant of - the fact that Woideck's book appeared throughly revised in 2020??
    Helmut Schwarzer
    Newbury, NH


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