Monday, November 22, 2021

"Bird" by Miles Davis

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

“He has never been much of a technician, and he has been clever enough to keep his style within his abilities.”

- Whitney Balliett

If the above statement is an acceptable generalization to describe Miles’ technique throughout most of his career, it certainly didn’t apply when he played with Charlie “Bird” Parker between circa 1946-1948. 

Technique-wise, he was in way over his head, he knew it and recordings from the period corroborate this assertion.

The rapid fire notation associated with Bird’s bebop tunes usually found Miles holding on for dear life.

Is it any wonder then that he gravitated toward the less frenetic music of what was to become the Birth of the Cool recordings in 1949 as a first step towards “... keeping his style within his abilities?

In the following excerpt from Miles Davis: The Autobiography [1989] which he co-authored with Quincy Trope, Miles revisits the trials and tribulations of making music with Bird, with special emphasis on the trumpet in this context.

“Bird could be a lot of fun to be around, because he was a real genius about his music, and he could be funnier than a motherfucker, talking in that British accent that he used to use. But he still was hard to be around because he was always trying to con or beat you out of something to support his drug habit. He was always borrowing money from me and using it to buy heroin or whiskey or anything he wanted at the time. Like I said, Bird was a greedy motherfucker, like most geniuses are. He wanted everything. And when he was desperate for a fix of heroin, man, Bird would do anything to get it. He would con me and as soon as he left me, he would run around the corner to somebody else with the same sad story about how he needed some money to get his horn out of the pawnshop, and hit them up for some more. He never paid nobody back, so in that way Bird was a motherfucking drag to be around.

One time I left him in my apartment when I went to school and when I got back home the motherfucker had pawned my suitcase and was sitting on the floor nodding after shooting up. Another time, he pawned his suit to get some heroin and borrowed one of mine to wear down to the Three Deuces. But I was smaller than he was so Bird was up there on the bandstand with suit sleeves ending about four inches above his wrist and suit pants ending about four inches above his ankles. That was the only suit I had at the time, so I had to stay in my apartment until he got his suit out of the pawnshop and brought mine back. But man, the motherfucker walked around for a day looking like that, just for some heroin. But they said Bird played that night like he had on a tuxedo. That's why everybody loved Bird and would put up with his bullshit. He was the greatest alto saxophone player who ever lived.

Anyway, that's the way Bird was; he was a great and a genius musician, man, but he was also one of the slimiest and greediest motherfuckers who ever lived in this world, at least that I ever met. He was something.

I remember one time we was coming down to The Street to play from uptown and Bird had this white bitch in the back of the taxi with us. He done already shot up a lot of heroin and now the motherfucker's eating chicken — his favorite food — and drinking whiskey and telling the bitch to get down and suck his dick. Now, I wasn't used to that kind of shit back then — I was hardly even drinking, I think I had just started smoking and I definitely wasn't into drugs yet because I was only nineteen years old and hadn't seen no shit like that before. Anyway, Bird noticed that I was getting kind of uptight with the woman sucking all over …  and everything, and him sucking on her .... So he asked if something was wrong with me, and if his doing this was bothering me. When I told him that I felt uncomfortable with them doing what they was doing in front of me,... , I told him. "Yeah, it's bothering me." So you know what that motherfucker said? He told me that if it was bothering me, then I should turn my head and not pay attention. I couldn't believe that shit, that he actually said that to me. The cab was real small and we all three were in the backseat, so where was I supposed to turn my head? What I did was to stick my head outside the taxi window, …. Like I said, he was something, all right.

So I looked up to Bird for being a great musician more than I liked him as a person. But he treated me like his son, and he and Dizzy were like father figures to me. Bird used to always tell me that I could play with anybody. So he would almost push me up on stage sometimes to play with somebody who I didn't think I was ready for, someone like Coleman Hawkins or Benny Carter or Lockjaw Davis. I might have been confident in my playing with most people, but I was still only nineteen and felt that I was too young to play with certain other people — though there weren't many that I felt that way about. But Bird used to build up my confidence by saying he had gone through the same bullshit when he was younger back in Kansas City.

I did my first recording date, in May 1945, with Herbie Fields. Man, I was so nervous about making that date that I couldn't even hardly play. Even in the ensemble playing — I didn't get to play no solos. I remember Leonard Gaskin on bass on that date, and a singer named Rubberlegs Williams. But I tried to put that record out of my mind and I forgot who else was on that date.

I also got my first important nightclub gig at that time. I played with Lockjaw Davis's group for a month at the Spotlite on 52nd Street. I had been sitting in with him a lot up at Minton's, so he knew how I played. Around that time — maybe a little bit before this, I don't exactly remember—I started sitting in with Coleman Hawkins's band at the Downbeat Club on 52nd Street. Billie Holiday was the star singer with the group. The reason that I got to sit in a lot was because Joe Guy, Bean's regular trumpet player, had just gotten married to Billie Holiday. Sometimes, they'd be so high off heroin and be fucking so good that Joe would miss his gig. So would Billie. So, Hawk would use me when Joe didn't show up. I used to check with Hawk down at the Downbeat every night to see if Joe had shown up. If he didn't, then I would play the set.

I loved playing with Coleman Hawkins and behind Billie when I got the chance. They were both great musicians, really creative and shit. But nobody played like Bean. He had such a big, huge sound. Lester Young Prez—had a light sound and Ben Webster used to be running all kinds of funny-ass chords, you know, like a piano, because he also played piano. And then there was Bird who also had his own thing, his sound. But Hawk started liking me so much that Joe got his act together and stopped missing sets. Then the gig with Lockjaw came around.

After the gig with Lockjaw was over, people started using me a lot on The Street. What was happening was that white people, white critics, were now beginning to understand that bebop was some important shit. They began talking and writing a lot about Bird and Dizzy, but only when they played on The Street. I mean, they wrote and talked about Minton's, but only after they had made The Street the place for white people to come to and spend a lot of money to hear this new music. Around 1945 a lot of the black musicians were playing down on 52nd Street, for the money and the media exposure. It was around this time that the clubs on 52nd — like the Three Deuces, the Onyx, the Downbeat Club, Kelly's Stable, and others - started being more important for musicians than the clubs uptown in Harlem.

A lot of white people, though, didn't like what was going on on 52nd Street. They didn't understand what was happening with the music. They thought that they were being invaded by niggers from Harlem, so there was a lot of racial tension around bebop. Black men were going with fine, rich white bitches. They were all over these niggers out in public and the niggers were clean as a motherfucker and talking all kind of hip shit. So you know a lot of white people, especially white men, didn't like this new shit.

There were a couple of white music critics, like Leonard Feather and Barry Ulanov, who were co-editors of Metronome music magazine and who understood what was going on with bebop, who liked it and wrote good things. But the rest of them white motherfucking critics hated what we were                                              doing. They didn't understand the music. They didn't understand, and hated, the musicians. Still, the people were packing into the clubs to hear the music, and Dizzy's and Bird's group at the Three Deuces was the hottest

thing in New York.

Bird himself was almost a god. People followed him around everywhere. He had an entourage. All kinds of women were around Bird, and big-time dope dealers, and people giving him all kinds of gifts. Bird thought this was the way it was supposed to be. So he just took and took. He began missing sets and whole gigs. This was fucking with Dizzy's head, because though he might have acted a little crazy, he was always organized and took care of business. Dizzy didn't believe in missing gigs. So he would sit down with Bird, beg him to pull his act together, threaten to quit if he didn't. Bird didn't, so finally Dizzy quit, and that was the end of the first great group in bebop.

Dizzy's quitting the group shocked everybody in the music world, and upset a lot of musicians who loved to hear them play together. Now, everybody realized that it was over and we weren't going to hear all that great shit they did together no more, unless we heard it on record or they got back together. That is what a lot of people hoped would happen, including me, who took Dizzy's place.

When Dizzy left their band at the Three Deuces, I thought Bird was going to take a band uptown, but he didn't, at least not right away. A lot of club owners on 52nd began asking Bird who his trumpet player was going to be since Dizzy quit. I remember being with Bird one time in a club when the owner asked that, and Bird turned to me and said, "Here's my trumpet player right here, Miles Davis." I used to kid Bird by saying, "If I hadn't joined your band, you wouldn't even have a job, man." He would just smile, because Bird enjoyed a good joke and one-upmanship. Sometimes it didn't work — me being in the band because the owners liked Bird and Dizzy together. But the owner of the Three Deuces hired us in October of 1945. The group had Bird, Al Haig on piano, Curly Russell on bass, Max Roach and Stan Levey on drums, and me. It was the same rhythm section that Bird and Dizzy had right before Dizzy quit. I remember the gig at the Three Deuces being for about two weeks. Baby Laurence, the tap dancer, was the floor show. He took four and eights with the band and was a motherfucker. Baby was the greatest tap dancer that I have ever seen, or heard, because his tap dancing sounded just like a jazz drummer. He was something else.

I was so nervous on that first real gig with Bird that I used to ask if I could quit every night. I had sat in with him, but this was my first real paying gig with him. I would ask, "What do you need me for?" because that motherfucker was playing so much shit. When Bird played a melody I would just play under him and let him lead the fucking note, let him sing the melody and take the lead on everything. Because what would it look like, me trying to lead the leader of all the music? Me playing lead for Bird—are you kidding? Man, I was scared to death I was going to fuck up. Sometimes I would act like I was quitting, because I thought he might fire me. So I was going to quit before he did, but he would always encourage me to stay by saying that he needed me and that he loved the way I played. I hung in there and learned. I knew everything Dizzy was playing. I think that's why Bird hired me also because he wanted a different kind of trumpet sound. Some things Dizzy played I could play, and other things he played, I couldn't. So, I just didn't play those licks that I knew I couldn't play, because I realized early on that I had to have my own voice -whatever that voice was - on the instrument.

That first two weeks with Bird was a motherfucker, but it helped me grow up real fast. I was nineteen years old and playing with the baddest alto saxophone player in the history of music. This made me feel real good inside. I might have been scared as a motherfucker, but I was getting more confident too, even though I didn't know it at the time.

But Bird didn't teach me much as far as music goes. I loved playing with him, hut you couldn't copy the shit he did because it was so original. Everything I learned about jazz back then I learned from Dizzy and Monk, maybe a little from Bean, but not from Bird. See, Bird was a soloist. He had his own thing. He was, like, isolated. And there was nothing you could learn from him unless you copied him. Only saxophone players could copy him, but even they didn't. All they could do was try to get Bird's approach, his concept. But you couldn't play that shit he played on saxophone with the same feeling on trumpet. You could learn the notes but it won't sound the same, Even great saxophonists couldn't copy him. Sonny Stitt tried, and Lou Donaldson a little later, and Jackie McLean a little later than both of them. But Sonny had more of Lester Young's style. And Bud Freeman used to play a lot like Sonny Stitt played. I guess Jackie and Lou came the closest to Bird, but only in their sound, not in what they played. Nobody could play like Bird, then or now.”

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