Interview with John McClellan (aka John T. Fitch) for Boston's WHDH radio station. The date is Saturday, June 13, 1953; Parker is booked at the Hi-Hat Club for a week (June 8-14) during which time at least one performance is broadcast on station WCOP. The interview appears on Philology Volume 18 (W 848).
McCLELLAN: Welcome to Boston, Charlie, and more particularly to our show.
PARKER: Thank you, John, it's a pleasure to be on this show.
McCLELLAN: We thought that with an unusual guest, perhaps we'd try a few unusual things this evening. So I've given you partly no indication of the sort of questions that I'm going to ask you, or, for that matter, the type of music that I'm going to play for you. Although, of course, in discussing it briefly last night over at the Hi-Hat where you're appearing, incidentally, through when?
PARKER: Through Sunday.
McCLELLAN: Through Sunday, Sunday night, and you have an afternoon...
PARKER: Afternoon session there, running from 4 to 8.
McCLELLAN: Well, I'm sure that many of our listeners will want to drop in and catch you either tonight, tomorrow afternoon or tomorrow evening at the Hi-Hat at Columbus and Massachusetts Avenue, because I know that they will be in for a very good show.
Well, as I started to say, in the brief talk we did have a chance to have last night, I did find out a few of the artists that Charlie Parker himself listens to, including some of the music of a different nature, it may surprise some of our listeners. So, if you're game, I'm set to play something for you to get the ball rolling. You set to listen?
PARKER: Alright Johnny, go ahead.
McCLELLAN: All right, let's try this...
[McCLELLAN plays a record by Bartok.]
McCLELLAN: Hmm, I don't know quite what to ask you about that selection. Are you familiar with it?
PARKER: Yes, it's one of Bartok's works, I forget the name, but Bartok is my favorite, you know.
McCLELLAN: Well, that was one of the things I picked up yesterday in the brief chance we had to get together. That in particular was just a very small fragment from the, from one of my favorite works, the "Concerto for..." no, no, it's not a concerto, it's "Music for Stringed Instruments, Percussion and Celeste."
McCLELLAN: Well, the reason I chose that particular little portion of it was because of its violent rhythmic ideas that he brings out in that. And so, if you'd like to say a few words about your favorite composer, why, go right ahead.
PARKER: Well, I mean, as far as his history is concerned, I mean, I've read that he was Hungarian born. He died an American exile in a General Hospital in New York, in 1945. At that time, I was just becoming introduced to modern classics, contemporary and otherwise, you know, and to my misfortune, he was deceased before I had the pleasure to meet the man. As far as I'm concerned, he is beyond a doubt one of the most finished and accomplished musicians that ever lived.
McCLELLAN: Oh, now you made a very interesting point then when you said that you heard him in 1945...
McCLELLAN: Because this brings up a question that I'd like to ask you, and if some of these questions sound as though I wrote them out ahead of time, I did. At a certain point in our musical history, prior to 1945 as a matter of fact, you and a group of others evidently became dissatisfied with the stereotyped form into which music had settled, so you altered the rhythm, the melody and the harmony, rather violently, as a matter of fact. Now, how much of this change that you were responsible for do you feel was spontaneous experimentation with your own ideas, and how much was the adaptation of the ideas of your classical predecessors, for example as in Bartok?
PARKER: Oh, well, it was 100% spontaneous, 100%. Nor a bit of the idiom of the music which travels today known as progressive music was adapted or even inspired by the older composers or predecessors.
McCLELLAN: It's rather strange we have this almost a progressive series of not coincidences, but where one follows the other -- for example, after Debussy, considerably after, you have piano players like Erroll Garner, who is respected, of course, by a great many people. But, even earlier than that, the trumpet playing of Bix Beiderbecke and his piano compositions was largely taken, I mean,from the Debussy form...
PARKER: Uh huh.
McCLELLAN: Very impressionistic, lush, rippling chords and clusters of chords, and even the titles of things like "In A Mist," "Clouds" remind you of Debussy. I just wondered if in this case, it was partly the same thing, or whether this was actually spontaneous.
PARKER: Well, I'm not too familiar with the Beiderbecke school of music, but the things which are happening now known as progressive music, or by the trade name Bebop, not a bit of it was inspired, or adapted, from the music of our predecessors Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel, Debussy, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, etc.
McCLELLAN: Then, whom do you feel were the really important persons, besides yourself, who evidently were dissatisfied with music as it was, and started to experiment?
PARKER: Well, let me make a correction here, please. It wasn't that we were dissatisfied with it, it was just that another conception came along, and this was just the way we thought it should go. During that time -- this happened in 1938, just a little bit before '45 -- Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, there was Charlie Christian -- '37 I guess -- there was Bud Powell, Don Byas, Ben Webster, yours truly...
McCLELLAN: Ahh, the storybook names, the ones that we read about in our history, musical history books of that time. Well, now, I know it's difficult to sort of categorize musicians and schools of music, but in thinking this over I did sort of group what we hear today into seven different categories and I'd like to ask you what you feel, not only about the music, but about the future of each of these forms. For example, taking the earliest, just straight Dixieland, I mean, do you hear that today, it's featured in a lot of clubs, now do the musicians who play that merely satisfy the demand of the college crowd or whoever it is that particularly wants to hear that, or do they honestly want to play that?
PARKER: Well, I'd rather say they honestly wanted to play that. That's their conception, that's their idea. That's the way they think it should go, and so they render likewise.
McCLELLAN: And how often and how long will they continue to play "High Society" and "When the Saints Go Marching In"?
PARKER: There's no time, there's no way in the world you can tell how long that will go on, you know.
McCLELLAN: With roughly the same solos, the same...
PARKER: Yeah, roughly the same. Well, that's the skeleton, that's the way that music was set up, you know, with certain, I guess you'd call them choruses, little ad lib choruses that were remembered, and handed down from person to person, and they just respect the solos of the older age, you know, rather than improvisation, spontaneous improvisation, that is.
McCLELLAN: But as I can probably gather, you have no interest in that subject at all.
PARKER: Well, I like Dixieland, I like good Dixieland, you know. I just don't play it because, I most likely wouldn't make a good job at it. Anyway, I just think it should go another way.
McCLELLAN: Sure. Now what about the musicians who don't play bebop, as you referred to it, and have also grown tired of Dixieland cliches. I don't even know what to call their music. But, I mean, people like Vic Dickenson, Doc Cheatham, Rex Stewart, many fine musicians who are not particularly Dixieland addicts, but who play, well, I just don't know what to call it?
PARKER: Well, that came along during the Swing Era, say, for instance, Dixieland I think was introduced in '14 or '15, and then the Swing Era came in 1928 and lasted 'till 1935, '36. I guess you'd put them, say like, if you just had to categorize, you'd say that was the Swing Era, you know.
McCLELLAN: Of course, there are a lot of them still around and many of them, as Nat Hentoff has pointed out recently in Down Beat, are finding it pretty tough to work because people are, that is, the audiences are pretty violently split between Dixieland and Cool music, and there seems to be no room for these middle of the road swing musicians.
PARKER: Oh, I'd like to differ, I beg to differ, in fact. There's always room for musicians, you know. There's no such thing as the middle of the road, it will be one thing or the other -- good music or otherwise, you know. And it doesn't make any difference which idiom it might be in -- swing, bebop, as you might want to call it, or Dixieland -- if it's good it will be heard.
McCLELLAN: What about the musicians who were in on the growth of bebop, but who quickly standardized a few cliches and now cater exclusively to the go-go-go crowd? Is that just a fad, or are we going to have that with us for some time?
PARKER: That I wouldn't know either, since I don't cater for that particular thing, I wouldn't know. I mean, as far as I'm concerned, it's just more or less the way a man feels when he plays his instrument. I mean, if he feels that about it it will stay, if he's just trying to commercialize on it it will most likely vary from one thing to another.
McCLELLAN: Another group might be the experimenters and -- I dreamed my own term -- classical jazz, those who are well-schooled and have adapted a number of things that they've been taught into their music. I'm speaking particularly of Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan, Gerry Mulligan who is devoted almost entirely to a real contrapuntal music without even having a piano to lend any harmony to the things he plays. What about, what do you feel about them?
PARKER: Well, the two men you mentioned being extremely good friends of mine, even if they weren't friends of mine I'd find their music very very interesting, not only from an intellectual standpoint -- it's very intelligent music, and it's very well played, it's got a lot of feeling and it isn't missing anything. It's definitely music 100%.
McCLELLAN: Would you feel yourself fitting into a group like that if you played with them?
PARKER: Oh, I imagine I could become acclimated, yes, I would like something like that.
McCLELLAN: Another group might be called the avant-garde, as primarily exemplified by Lennie Tristano.
PARKER: Ah ha.
McCLELLAN: There we have what they try to do occasionally, complete collective improvisation with no theme, no chords, no chord changes on which to work, just six men, or whatever it may be, improvising together. It's that, er, it's always struck me as being extremely difficult to understand how it's possible in the first place.
PARKER: Oh, no. Those are just like you said most improvisations, you know, and if you listen close enough you can find the melody travelling along within the chords, any series of chord structures, you know, and rather than to make the melody predominant. In the style used that Lennie and they present, it's more or less heard or felt.
McCLELLAN: Well, I refer particularly... They made one record called "Intuition," and I heard them do it in concert, in which they started off with no key, no basic set of chord changes, or anything.
PARKER: Aha... It must be a build-up to, both the key signature and the chord structure tend to create the melody...
McCLELLAN: As they go along.
McCLELLAN: Then there's a sort of a field apart, including mostly individuals who stick out... like Duke Ellington, Ralph Burns writing for Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, whom you expressed an interest in. I think that before we go any further I'd like to get your comments on a particular Stan Kenton record. If you'd like to listen to one now...
[McCLELLAN plays Kenton's "My Lady."]
McCLELLAN: There you have Stan Kenton. Oh, I guess that's rather obvious, but I'll turn to Charlie Parker for at least the featured soloist on that record.
PARKER: Yeah, it was Lee Konitz. Very fine alto work on that record, too. I hadn't heard that before, Johnny. What was the name of that?
McCLELLAN: It's called "My Lady."
PARKER: Very beautiful.
McCLELLAN: I'm not sure, but I think perhaps Lee wrote it himself, I'm not sure of that.
PARKER: It's a beautiful tune -- very well done, too.
McCLELLAN: Well, now I'm giving you an opportunity to speak of Stan Kenton.
PARKER: Yeah, well, as I was going on to say, Stan holds my definite interest. I mean, in lots of ways he has pioneered quite a bit in this progressive style of music. One particular record I was asking you about a few minutes ago, have you paid any attention, particular attention to "House of Strings"?
McCLELLAN: We haven't played "House of Strings." We did play "City of Glass" not too long ago, and we had a very interesting discussion here with Nat Hentoff and Rudolph Ely, the music critic of the Herald and Traveller but, adding a little more to that, I would like just to mention an article in this current edition of Down Beat magazine, written by Leonard Bernstein, in which in the course of discussing a number of things, he mentions this -- I'd just like to read this to you for your comments --
PARKER: All right.
McCLELLAN: "Pretentiousness means calling attention to oneself. It means the guy is saying 'Look at me -- I'm modern' and I think that's about the most old-fashioned attitude anyone can assume. I found that about Kenton: it's modernistic, like old-fashioned modern furniture which is just unbearable, it's moderne." Composition is an important word, it means that somebody has to make a piece which is a work, which hangs together from beginning to end. Now I think in particular he's referring to things of that nature -- "House of Strings," "City of Glass," which are completely scored, with perhaps little opening for improvisation by any soloist.
PARKER: No... Well, you had two factors moving there -- you say Nat wrote that?
McCLELLAN: No, this is written by Leonard Bernstein.
PARKER: Anyway, Leonard Bernstein, yeah, I can understand how he meant when he says the guy says "Look at me, I'm modern." That's strictly from the publicity agent's mouth. You know, Stan never has made such a statement, I know he hasn't, and most likely he never will. But he's still done many things, many good things, towards the pioneering of this music, introducing strings, different instrumentations, different chord structures and just pioneering in general -- a definite asset to the music.
McCLELLAN: What do you feel about a longer piece of music, which is completely scored, which doesn't leave any opening for improvisation -- is that still jazz?
PARKER: Well, it depends on how it's written. It could be, yes.
McCLELLAN: I see. What about your own group, the people you work with, the other musicians who started with you? I've noticed that, for example, you play "Anthropology" and "52nd Street Theme" perhaps, but they were written a long time ago. What is to take their place, and be the basis for your future?
PARKER: Hmm, that's hard to tell too, John, you see your ideas change as you grow older. Most people fail to realize that most of the things they hear coming out of a man's horn, ad lib, or else things that are written, original things, they're just experiences, the way he feels -- the beauty of the weather, the nice look of a mountain, or maybe a nice fresh cool breath of air, I mean all those things. You can never tell what you'll be thinking tomorrow. But I can definitely say that the music won't stop, you keep going forward.
McCLELLAN: And you feel that you, yourself change continuously?
PARKER: I do feel that way, yes.
McCLELLAN: And listening to your earlier recordings-- you become dissatisfied with them? You feel that...
PARKER: Okay, I still think that the best record is yet to be made, if that's what you mean.
McCLELLAN: That's about what I mean. I understand that you have something new in the offing.
PARKER: Yes, we did it two weeks ago, Monday. Twelve voices, clarinet, flute, oboe, bassoon, French horn and three rhythm. I hope that they might sound okay.
McCLELLAN: Well, we will be very much interested hearing them when they do come out. In the concluding moments of our show I would like to play something else that I'm reasonably sure you haven't heard, which might be considered a salute to you. We won 't have time to hear it all, but I'm sure you will be interested in, at least, hearing a bit of Stan Getz and his "Parker 51"...
[McCLELLAN plays Getz's "Parker 51."]
McCLELLAN: And there we have about all we have time to hear of "Parker 51" -- Stan Getz from his "Jazz at Storyville" album, and his obvious salute to you. Is that the first time you've heard that?
PARKER: Yes, that's the first time I've heard it, John.
McCLELLAN: Do you feel he captured your own mood?
PARKER: Oh, yes. He's really too much. I sure like that, that was "Cherokee," a sad time "Cherokee."
McCLELLAN: Well, I'm afraid that our time has about run out. I certainly want to wish you a continuing good stay at the Hi-Hat. I did get the time to hear you play twice. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I feel that, if possible, you're playing better than ever. I hope that many of our listeners will take the opportunity to hear you, either tonight, or tomorrow afternoon at three, or your last night, Sunday night, and, Charlie, thank you very much for being with us on the Top Show this evening.
PARKER: Thank you, John, it's always a pleasure to be on your show.
MCLELLAR: Thank you. And now this is John McCLELLAN hoping you've enjoyed our program with recorded music, hoping too, you'll join us Saturday at seven with our music from the Top Show...
Interviews courtesy of Miles Ahead: Charlie Parker Bibliography