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Bird's Trumpets

Matt Lavelle By

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In June 1950, Parker hired Gillespie to play in a quintet in the famous Verve session with Thelonious Monk on piano and Buddy Rich on drums, in their last studio recording together. In March 1951 at Birdland, Parker and Gillespie may have reached the apex of their brotherhood in a live recording with Bud Powell, Roy Haynes, and Tommy Potter. They are in peak form. Classic transitions on "Blue n Boogie," a blistering "Anthropology," a dramatic reading of "Round Midnight," and that Parker break on "Tunisia" make this possibly the most intense 20 minutes of bebop ever recorded.

Howard McGhee

Miles Davis recorded with Parker in 1945, but before Miles, I feel it's vital to discuss Howard McGhee (1918-1987) McGhee's sideman work with Coleman Hawkins occurred at the beginning of what was labeled the Bebop movement. Like all of Parker's trumpet players he had big band experience, especially with Andy Kirk when he sat next to Fats Navarro. Maggie, as he was known, was fluent in bop and had an incredible technique and range. Like Gillespie, only one year older than him, he was influenced by Roy Eldridge.

During the period in which he played with Parker, McGhee would swing with measure and control, even when popping out notes at the top of the horn. He didn't possess the abandon and urgency of Gillespie, who when he was playing gave you the feeling that just about anything might happen. Some have type cast McGhee as a swing to bop musician. His work opened the door to both Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown. He will always be known as being present during Parker's breakdown in Los Angeles in July 1946. So much attention is paid to Bird's collapse that McGhee's playing at these sessions is overlooked. On the tune "Bebop" he plays incredibly clean and masterful trumpet. Gillespie and Charlie Shavers are present as stylistic influences. Also overlooked at this session is Parker's recording of "The Gypsy."

The human element in Bird's vulnerability, combined with the melody gave the impression of music being played by avant-garde alto saxophonist Giuseppi Logan way before anyone knew free jazz would ever come to exist. McGhee was able to reconvene with Parker after his release from Camarillo Hospital in February 1947 for a recording session on Ross Russell's Dial label that produced the famous "Relaxin' at Camarillo." Overlooked at this session was McGhee's original titled "Stupendous." Trumpet players bringing originals that Parker played on dates as a leader was a common occurrence. McGhee's short solo on "Stupendous" was a great example of his unique tone and fluency within the style. Following the date, Parker worked at the Hi-De-Ho Club in Los Angeles. Though McGhee was present for many of the 266 tracks on Mosaic, he was famously cut out as Dean Benedetti obsessively only wanted to record Parker.

Lawrence Koch discovered that on "Dee Dee's Dance," McGhee was heard with the piece clearly arranged and worked out. He used a whole tone scale against an F7 chord. He clearly had an artistic stake in these recordings based on the repertoire containing tunes McGhee played with Coleman Hawkins. McGhee in the '50s was consumed by heroin. He appeared with Parker in April of 1951 on a bootleg from Christy's in Boston. He staged a comeback in 1955 and continued to work and record until 1979, appearing on a total of 180 recordings. He was a true ally of Parker, helping him survive in Los Angeles. He and Miles Davis were good friends during this period and not competitive about playing with Parker.

McGhee's place in jazz history is troubling in that his work has been allowed to slip through the cracks by writers attempting to define the narrative. Part of the problem is because he played somewhat between styles. People that are more difficult to categorize are often marginalized by writers. I like to remember McGhee from what he said during this interview. When he was in New York City, after all the playing was over for the night, he and Fats Navarro would sit in the park trading lines, maybe like the ones they played on "Double Talk" in the boptet in 1948.

Miles Davis

Miles Davis (1926-1991) and Charlie Parker stand as one of the most important relationships to occur in jazz in regard to mentorship, along with Joseph "King" Oliver and Louis Armstrong and later, Davis and John Coltrane. Davis autobiography has upset certain scholars, but he appeared honest about his relationship with Parker. Through Davis, there is a window into Parker that is more personal than any other. In his prologue Davis said he was 18 in 1944 sitting in with Billy Eckstine when he first heard Parker and Gillespie. The band often got lost listening to Bird, even in just eight bars. Once Davis located Bird later in New York City, both Parker and Gillespie were his main influences and teachers for several years. Their sanction gave him street cred at jam sessions. Gillespie was more direct, explaining things at the piano, Parker mostly by his playing. Davis often went back and forth between reverence of Bird and shock at how he would act in pursuit of heroin or whiskey. Both movies about Bird and Miles somehow fail to recreate the outrageous real-life scene that Davis tells about riding in a cab with Parker. Davis called Parker a father figure for supporting him musically and helping him build his confidence, pushing him at 19 years old to play in situations he was afraid to.

When Gillespie quit a band with Parker due to Parker's unreliability, Parker famously hired Davis to play with him for two weeks at the Three Deuces. Davis called him the greatest alto player of all time, and the leader of all the music. Davis said that Parker had five or six different styles and compared him to Dali. While most musicians referenced the melody, Parker played beyond it, or above it. Davis was also influenced by Parker not being beholden to notation. Famously, Davis recorded with Parker on his first record date as a leader for Savoy. Davis was struggling with "Cherokee," the same changes as Parker's "Ko Ko." I have yet to locate any audio of him playing through it. According to Davis, the issue was the tempo being so fast. On the date, Gillespie played on the piece. On "Billie's Bounce," Davis' solo has been listened to 1.4 million times to date on YouTube.
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