May 1950

Interview with Marshall Stearns and John Maher. Chan Parker is present. Location unknown, although the date can be fixed by references to the rehearsals of the Gene Roland "Band that Never Was" (March 30 and April 3, 1950) and to Parker's mother's graduation from nursing school (April 20, 1950). The interview appears on Bird Box Volume 3 and Philology Volume 7 (W 57).

STEARNS: Now at 17 years old you were on an automobile trip.

PARKER: Yeah.

STEARNS: And you got in an accident.

PARKER: Yeah.

STEARNS: And was that in Kansas City?

PARKER: That was going, that was between Kansas City and Jefferson City, Missouri.

STEARNS: Oh, playing a gig or something?

PARKER: Yeah. I was going on a Thanksgiving gig.

STEARNS: Oh, I see.

PARKER: And there was an accident.

STEARNS: And what happened? You broke how many ribs?

PARKER: I broke three ribs and had a spinal fracture.

STEARNS: That was an awful thing to happen to you at that age, you know.

PARKER: Oh yeah, it was. I mean everybody was so afraid that I wouldn't walk right no more, but everything was all right and, uh...

STEARNS: Well, look! What happened? You say then you got a job...

PARKER: Yeah.

STEARNS: And you studied...

PARKER: In Jefferson City, yeah...

STEARNS: In Jefferson...

PARKER: I got a job in this place, working, you know, but prior to that, this was when they were laughing at me. I knew how to play, um, I figured, I had learned the scale. I'd learned how to play two tunes in a certain key, in the key of D for your saxophone, F concert. I learned to play the first eight bars of "Lazy River" and I knew the complete tune of "Honeysuckle Rose." I didn't never stop to think about different keys or nothing like that. [Laughter] So I took my horn out to this joint where a bunch of fellows I had seen around were, and the first thing they started playing was "Body And Soul," Longbeat, you know? Shit! So I got to playing my "Honeysuckle Rose," I mean, an awful conglomeration. They laughed me off the bandstand. They laughed at me so hard.

STEARNS: How old, how old were you then?

PARKER: Oh, this was about along at the same time, 16, 17...

STEARNS: Before the accident?

PARKER: Yeah.

MAHER: Ah, yeah.

PARKER: About a year before the accident.

STEARNS: Where did you get your sax then?

PARKER: Well, my mother brought me a horn, oh, it was years before that, but I wasn't interested. I wasn't ready for it then. I didn't get interested in a horn until I got interested in the baritone horn when I was at High School. But I'd had that saxophone for a few years.

MAHER: Where did you go to High School, Charlie?

PARKER: Kansas City, Missouri. I went to Lincoln.

MAHER: In Kansas City?

PARKER: Yeah.

MAHER: Did you play in the High School marching band?

PARKER: Uh huh.

MAHER: Oh, did you play in that? Did they have a symphony band in High School?

PARKER: They had a, what they called a symphony band.

MAHER: Did you play in that? Baritone horn?

PARKER: Baritone horn, that's right.

STEARNS: And you'd learned "Honeysuckle Rose" and you'd learned the first eight bars of, which tune was it?

PARKER: "Up The Lazy River."

STEARNS: "Lazy River"... [Laughter] And you were just innocent enough so that when you walked in.

PARKER: I never thought about that, keys.

STEARNS: And you played it all in, what key was it?

PARKER: D for saxophone.

STEARNS: In D for saxophone. Oh, what a story! [Laughter]

MAHER: What a slaughter of the innocents! [Laughter]

PARKER: They murdered that tune, oh, boy!

STEARNS: Who did you play with? I mean, what band did you walk in on?

PARKER: Oh, it was a band working in a joint. There was a bunch of young fellows that had a band around Kansas City. Uh, it was Jimmy Keith's Band then, so it was Keith and a piano player, and Robert Wilson and James Ross and Shipley Gavan. That's the fellows' names that were working at this club in Kansas City.

STEARNS: Well, so after that you decided "I'm going home and work it out"?

PARKER: Yeah, that's it! [Laughter] Yeah, then I knew it must be figured out some kind of way. [Laughter] That was it...

STEARNS: And then you went back and it was only, what? two or three months that you...?

PARKER: Yeah, I was away for about two or three months.

STEARNS: And then where did you go when you say you were away? Were you outside of Kansas City?

PARKER: Yeah, actually I was on this job. The name of the town was Eldon, Missouri. It's about...

STEARNS: Eldon. E, L, D, O, N?

PARKER: Yeah, it's about 35 miles from Jefferson City.

STEARNS: Oh, I see. And did you play a job there? Or was it...

PARKER: Yeah, it was a job. It's a resort, a summer resort, about during all the summer months, June resort, something like that.

MAHER: And that was where you had the chance to study while you were playing?

PARKER: Yeah.

CHAN: Bird bought his son a horn.

PARKER: Yeah, he got an alto.

MAHER: How old is he now?

PARKER: Fourteen.

MAHER: Fourteen? Does he play with it now?

PARKER: Made him bring it to the dance, stay around. It sure is a lot of fun having a son that old, you know?

STEARNS: Only 12 years old... It's a lot of fun, she played a C-melody once and I'm not looking. [Laughter] They never had any C-melody saxes, did they, when you were a kid?

PARKER: Yeah! They were more popular then than alto.

STEARNS: Were they?

PARKER: Sure! '32, '33, there was Guy Lombardo was just getting popular then, that's when he was using it.

STEARNS: Frankie Trumbauer was playing C-melody.

STEARNS: Charlie, what do you remember of your father? Was he around when you were growing up?

PARKER: Some of the time. He died when I was, uh, oh, about when I was married and the baby was born.

STEARNS: And what sort of work was he in?

PARKER: He was like a, in his active years he was a waiter on this train, Santa Fe. Runs from Kansas City to Chicago, Los Angeles and back, Florida and back, Texas and back.

STEARNS: I see.

PARKER: He sure was a well-tutored guy. He spoke two, three languages.

STEARNS: Yeah? Did he play any instruments?

PARKER: Nah! He was a dancer in his real young years.

STEARNS: Really?

PARKER: Was in this circus on the TOB line. Ringling Brothers.

MAHER: What was he on? Was he on TOBA?

PARKER: Yeah, that was the circus, yeah.

MAHER: He was with an old circus, yeah! (sings)

STEARNS: TOBA

PARKER: Yeah, sure. Ha-ha!

MAHER: Some years ago I heard about that, during the old Keith, Orpheum circuit days. It was dying out then, late twenties.

STEARNS: And he met your mother in Kansas City?

PARKER: Yeah, they met in Kansas City.

STEARNS: How is your mother now? She's still alive, isn't she?

PARKER: Yeah! She's very much alive! [Laughter]

STEARNS: Is she?

PARKER: Fine, yeah!

STEARNS: She got a lot of energy?

PARKER: Activity, yeah! She just graduated from nurses' school a couple of months ago.

STEARNS: No!

CHAN: No kidding!

PARKER: Yeah, invitation, I sent her a watch.

CHAN: How old is she?

PARKER: Boy! 62.

CHAN: 62. [Parker laughs]

STEARNS: How old did you say?

PARKER: 62.

STEARNS: 62 years old.

PARKER: 62.

STEARNS: Wonderful!

PARKER: She's graduated from nurses' school. [Laughter]

MAHER: Hey, that's wonderful!

PARKER: She's active as can be, man. She don't look and act it, you know. I mean, she's spryer than me, you know. She's very seldom ill.

STEARNS: Yeah.

PARKER: She lives in that good climate in the country. She takes good care of herself, she owns her own home. She's got, she's very well, she's very well situated.

STEARNS: Do you have any brothers and sisters, Charlie?

PARKER: I got a brother.

STEARNS: Older or younger?

PARKER: Older.

STEARNS: You got an older brother?

PARKER: Yeah.

STEARNS: Did he ever play any instruments?

PARKER: No. He's a mail inspector at the Post Office at Kansas.

STEARNS: And no sisters.. Hi, darling!...

[Chan's 3 year old daughter, Kim, interrupts]

So your mother is a very, very energetic, lively person, huh? You think, in a way, that's where you got your spirit? [Laughter]

PARKER: I guess so.

STEARNS: Your dad was a dancer, that has the rhythm so, that could explain part of that, you know?

PARKER: Yeah, that's right.

MAHER: When I first read that you ever played on a baritone horn with a marching band with a...

PARKER: When I first went to High School, I was interested in music, you know. So they gave me one of these, um, alto horns, you know? 'Coop, coop! Coop, coop! Coop, coop! Coop, coop!', so then I liked the baritone horn. When my successor graduated I got right in, you know? When what's-her-name graduated, the baritone player, the euphonium player....

MAHER: Is that a big brass horn? Not like a tuba?

PARKER: No, it isn't as big as a tuba. It's got three valves. It's between a tuba and an alto horn, pretty big. You hold it like this, you know, like this... [Laughter]

STEARNS: I can't figure you playing that! When did you get on reeds? When your mother gave you the saxophone, huh?

PARKER: Yeah, well, I mean, she, I had the saxophone then, but it was loaned out. A friend of mine was playing saxophone at the time. He had a band so he borrowed the horn from me. He kept it over two years, too. He kept it maybe a year after I got out of High School. I got out of High School in '35. MATTER: The year after I did.

PARKER: Oh, a gang of things happened that year! I got the horn, I gotten married...

STEARNS: Listen! You, when you were born, what was your, born in what? Nineteen...

PARKER: Twenty.

STEARNS: Twenty! Boy, you're awful recent! [Laughter]

MAHER: I was born in 1918.

PARKER: Oh boy!

STEARNS: What happened in '36? You graduated from High School? You were playing saxophone by then weren't you?

PARKER: Uh huh. Gotten married.

STEARNS: Married...

PARKER: Did a gang of things that year.

STEARNS: And this was all in Kansas City, huh?

PARKER: Yeah.

STEARNS: I was out through Kansas City in about '40 and I caught Harlan Leonard and Jay McShann out there and I don't know, maybe you were with McShann then. I've been kicking myself ever since, you know, I didn't.

PARKER: Yeah, I was with McShann's band then...

STEARNS: I came out with George Avakian.

PARKER: McShann didn't have a big band then, did he?

STEARNS: No, it was a little seven or eight piece.

PARKER: I was in that band.

STEARNS: You were?

PARKER: It was at the Plaza, way out of Kansas City.

STEARNS: Yes, we had to go outside of town to catch that band. And I heard that and I didn't know it!

STEARNS: I want to ask you about some of those recording dates, what happened on them, you know. What a story about that Rubberlegs Williams! [Laughter]

PARKER: He sure did that. The coffees got confused some kind of way and I was looking for the coffee that I had because I'd marked the container, you know...

STEARNS: You had the coffee in a...

PARKER: It was all in containers. They sent out for coffee and sandwiches in a container. It was all in containers, you know. Everybody was eating the sandwiches so I set my cup down beside the chair and dropped a benzedrine in it, you know, and I was waiting for it to dissolve. Somehow or another, Rubberlegs gets hungry and he goes to collect his coffee and he got it mixed up with mine. And about 20 minutes later he was all over the place. [Laughter] You really ought to have seen him. He couldn't do nothing. He really got busy, you know what I mean? [Laughter] It was a funny thing! [Laughter]

STEARNS: Well, he was really singing seriously, was he? He wasn't trying to kid you, was he?

PARKER: No he wasn't, not a bit, and, ordinarily, if it hadn't been for that, I mean, he would, he'd have sung in a different style altogether.

STEARNS: He would've?

PARKER: Yeah. You never heard any of those records when he was, you know, normal, y'know? He's got records out when, you know, he was normal.

MAHER: Much smoother.

PARKER: Much smoother.

STEARNS: These records you made with, uh, Trummy Young was on some of them.

PARKER: Yeah.

STEARNS: Remember? And All-Stars? And some came out on Manor, some came out on...

PARKER: Continental.

STEARNS: Isn't that the one that...

PARKER: Some came out on the Continental label.

CHAN: Isn't that the one where you play "I Can't Get Started"? That was made that day, wasn't it?

PARKER: No.

CHAN: It wasn't?

PARKER: Um, "Dream Of You," "Seventh Avenue."

STEARNS: Yeah.

PARKER: Two other sides were made that day.

STEARNS: Were they all made for the same company that day? Then they just got 'em out on different...

PARKER: Oh, that date was made for Continental, yeah, but I have seen some of those records out on the Manor label, I tell you.

STEARNS: Was it more fun playing with the Hines Band or the Eckstine Band on big bands?

PARKER: I think it was more fun playing with the Eckstine Band.

STEARNS: The Eckstine Band.

PARKER: But the Hines Band was much smoother.

STEARNS: Billy makes a very easygoing leader and everybody's having a ball.

CHAN: Swinging!

STEARNS: This Tiny Grimes date, you made "Red Cross" and "Tiny's Tempo" and soon, they since put it out with your name on it.

PARKER: They did?

STEARNS: Yeah. They figured it would sell more records, you see. Came out under Tiny's name.

CHAN: They're not allowed to do that, are they?

STEARNS: I don't know.

PARKER: Yeah.

STEARNS: Reissued under Parker's name...

PARKER: They're not supposed to do that but, I mean, Herman Lubinsky does a gang of things he ain't supposed to do.

MAHER: All guys do. It's the old, old story. You can't, you can copyright a label but you can't copyright a performance and, once you sell your time that day you're...

CHAN: I heard he has eleven sets of books, whoever wants to see the books... [Laughter]

STEARNS: Well, Charlie, is it true that "Mop, Mop" was your idea originally? Leonard [Feather] says here that "Mop, Mop" was one of the things that you threw off and then, finally, I don't know who.., somebody else...

PARKER: It could've been, man, 'cause we used to do that a long time ago in Kansas City.

STEARNS: You did "Mop, Mop" in Kansas City?

PARKER: Years ago. That was just, put in drum beats in there just for the four, we'd just play, when we got to the channel we used to play sometimes [Parker sings] you know, just put it in.

Chan has photographs of the recent rehearsals with the Gene Roland Band.

CHAN: Would you like to see these? Did you hear about Gene Roland's Band?

STEARNS: No.

CHAN: Tell him about it, Bird. It had eight reeds.

PARKER: Yeah. Twenty-seven piece band rehearsing.

STEARNS: How long ago was this?

PARKER: A month, three weeks ago, a month ago.

CHAN: Do you know all those people?

STEARNS: No.

PARKER: Eight reeds, six trombones and eight brass.

CHAN: If you like...

STEARNS: But who, what label did they record for?

CHAN: They're not. They just rehearsed.

PARKER: Didn't record, just rehearsed.

CHAN: This is Sonny Rich, Eddie Bert, Zoot Sims and John Simmons, Al Cohn, Buddy Jones, this is Gene and the Band, and the trumpet section, of course, every day at rehearsal they had different people, Jon Nielson, Sonny Rich, Marty Bell, Red, Al Porcino, and here's Gene, Don and Zoot and Al Cohn, Bird, Joe Maini...

STEARNS: Wow! Look at that reed section! What a...

PARKER: Eight saxophones.

STEARNS: How'd it sound?

CHAN: Wonderful!

PARKER: It was solid, Wild!

CHAN: They had three drummers.

STEARNS: Who was doing the arrangements?

PARKER: Gene Roland.

STEARNS: Well, you did record 'em, didn't you?

PARKER: On this tape recorder.

STEARNS: Who has the tape? Do you have it?

PARKER: Made one recording, no, I don't have it. Made one, made one record.

CHAN: Gene has it.

PARKER: But the balance was bad.

STEARNS: Oh,where were they made?

PARKER: It was made at Nola's.

STEARNS: Nola's?

PARKER: Gene has all those covered. He was recording all summer...

STEARNS: It's awful hard to record a big sound in New York, because there are so few rooms that are...

PARKER: Sure! You know, at first the theory was that they must have a very toned-down room, something with a lot of soft things in it, to really get these acoustics, that's all wrong, man!

STEARNS: Yeah!

PARKER: Because in Europe they have much better balance on records than we do here, and they record in old temples and old cathedrals and old churches, backyards and everything, with no acoustics whatsoever, just nothing but a chamber, an echo chamber, and the records come out with a great big sound.

MAHER: You know, in these small rooms, I guess, particularly in the higher register, everything compresses, it gets squeezed.

 

Interviews courtesy of Miles Ahead: Charlie Parker Bibliography