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Interview: Med Flory (Part 2)

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Throughout the 1950s, saxophonist Med Flory was known in jazz circles for his aw-shucks demeanor and aggressive ambition. After moving to Los Angeles in 1956 with his wife and singer Joan Fry, Med began landing a steady stream of work in the TV and movie studios of Burbank and Hollywood. He also continued to play in Ray Anthony's big band, freelance in small groups, and lead his own orchestras on record dates. When you talk to Med, you start to notice this gentle merging of Midwestern calm and Coastal charm. He's as relaxed as some of the Old West characters he has played on TV, but he excites easily when the subject turns to music. There's also a distinct hip lilt in his voice, as if all those years deep in the West Coast jazz scene has somehow marinated his vocal chords. And as you discuss music with Med, you come to realize that this guy isn't satisfied unless the band he's playing with knocks listeners out of their seats. He loves it that much. [Photo of Med Flory, left, by Rich Voorhees]

Med's big obsession has always been the sound of reeds playing in unison. Saxes packed together playing a soli has been an intoxicating device used by big bands since the 1940s. After years spent tinkering with transcriptions of Charlie Parker solos, Med along with bassist Buddy Clark decided in the early 1970s to form a band that would turn their passion for lock-step saxes into a mission. Crack reed players were assembled, and the result was Supersax. The group's first album in 1973 seemed at first like a West-meets-East novelty concept. But the energy level and emotional lift made the group a huge success and reawakened an interest in Charlie Parker. The album, Supersax Plays Bird, won a Grammy.

In Part 2 of my interview with Med, the legendary saxophonist and arranger muses about Art Pepper, his own accidental acting career, Charlie Parker, and the formation of Supersax:

JazzWax: In 1959, you played on Art Pepper Plus Eleven, which was arranged by Marty Paich and sort of had a pre-Supersax sound.
Med Flory: Nah, not really. I don't hear that. The date was OK. I wasn't crazy about Art [Pepper]. He was a bit of a jerk. I remember we were playing up in Oakland [CA] with Maynard Ferguson. Art Pepper was on the gig. When the gig was over, we were going to go back to Los Angeles the next day. But we got an urgent call from a woman Art was with. She said, “Art's not moving. He's not breathing." So a bunch of the guys rushed up there. Turned out Art was fine. It was Art's idea of a joke. He was always doing stuff like that or saying he could play better than Bird. That simply wasn't the case.

JW: Starting in 1960, you started a new career as an actor.
MF: Yeah, for the next 30 years I worked on TV and in the movies. A lot of Westerns. The first thing I landed was a part on TV's Lawman. One day I was sitting on the porch of one of those fronts in Warner's back lot looking at my lines. James Coburn was passing by. He said, “Hey, don't you play tenor sax in Terry Gibbs' band?" I said, “Yes." He said, “What are you doing here?" I said, “I have this part." Coburn asked if I had done much acting. I told him I hadn't. He said, “On the wide shots, make big gestures. On the medium shots, make little ones. And on close-ups, don't do anything. And always hit your marks [on the ground] when you're supposed to." That's about as much acting advice I ever got [laughs]. I did Bonanza, the Saga of Whizzer McGee, Daniel Boone and a ton of other shows. I also did Lassie. I seemed to be naturally good at it, and acting was another way to make a few bucks. [Pictured: Med Flory]

JW: How did you come up with the idea for Supersax?
MF: What inspired me initially was Ralph Burns' 1948 arrangement of the chorus to I've Got News for You. That was for Woody Herman's [pictured] band. It was a Shorty Rogers chart but Ralph wrote the chorus. It was a reworking of Dark Shadows, the song Charlie Parker had recorded a year earlier with Earl Coleman. Ralph had written out Parker's solo for the five saxes.

JW: When did the idea to transcribe Parker's solos first hit you?
MF: Around October 1956. [Saxophonists] Joe Maini, Charlie Kennedy, Richie Kamuca and Bill Hood came by my house. Joe Maini had a record player and a bunch of Parker records. I gave him $50 for the player and the discs. Then I started transcribing a few things of Bird's that were in the stack, like Star Eyes, Chasin' the Bird and Just Friends. I wrote out those three charts from the records. Then later we played them down. We were just screwing around. One night in 1957 we were playing the Crescendo with the Dave Pell Octet. Buddy Clark was playing bass. Afterward, we all went over to my pad. Buddy said, “Play that thing with the saxes--Just Friends.“ When we were done, Dave said, “Boy wouldn't it be great to have a whole book of those things." Buddy said he'd take a shot. The trick was to keep everything within an octave. The line is everything. What Bird played is the thing. You don't have to dress it up with voicings or anything.

JW: Were they hard to play?
MF: Bet your ass. You have a line that has to flow. things like jump lines. You have to find a way to keep everyone flowing tight and the right way. You have a bunch of choices to make on each chord. It's like doing the New York Times crossword puzzle--except when you're done you have something more than yesterday's newspaper. You also want to keep what's known in the music business as “a rub"--a half step in every chord. So, you want a B up against a C. It busts up the chord and keeps the line from becoming complacent. You have to have the rub between the second alto and first tenor or two tenors. Not the two altos.

JW: In the early 1970s, you and Buddy finally had the time to take the concept to the next level.
MF: Yeah. At first it was me and Perk [Bill Perkins] on alto saxophone, Pete Christlieb on tenor and Bill Hood on baritone. We started rehearsing. Hood left because he was entering his old folks stage and didn't want to get involved in work. Christlieb burned a hole in his eardrum working on cars with high-pitched tools. So we got Joe Lopes on alto, Jay Migliori and Warne Marsh [pictured] on tenors, and Jack Nimitz on baritone. We rehearsed for about a year at my place and at Buddy's house. Joanie, my wife, got tired of us rehearsing all the time and called up the guy who owned Donte's and pushed him to book us.

JW: What happened?
MF: We went into Donte's on a Monday night. We played Parker's Mood, and after the first chorus, everyone in the place jumped up and went nuts. Mauri Lathauwer from Capitol Records happened to be there and was in heaven. He signed us right away for three albums.

JW: What did you learn about Charlie Parker during this experience?
MF: Bird knew what he was doing. You can't memorize that stuff and play it. Just when you think he's going one way, he goes another. He was all about surprise. Not big ones. Little ones. Like the rub. I'd always try to play like him and never could. When you listen to him, you gotta know he's from somewhere else.

JW: Did you listen to Parker as a kid?
MF: First time I heard him I was a senior in high school. I didn't know it was him. I just heard some guy playing The Jumpin' Blues with Jay McShann's band. Then when I was in the army, I heard Bird's first records as a leader. I said, “He's OK but he's not as good as that guy in McShann's band" [laughs].

JW: Did you ever meet McShann?
MF: Yes. When we were in Japan with Supersax. Me and [singer] Joe Williams got to talking with Jay. He was a great old cat. He told me how Bird got his name. He said they were on the road traveling in cars and one hit a chicken. Charlie said, “Stop the car, I want to get that yardbird." They took the bird to the boarding house where they were staying, and the woman cooked it up for dinner that night.

JW: What's next for Med Flory?
MF: I'm just finishing up a Supersax CD that's a killer. It was recorded at Charlie-O's. I'm writing a new chart that I may call Bebop 101. There are going to be a lot of hidden lines in there, like those pictures where you have to find the teacup in the tree. I'm also going to be at the AT&T San Jose Jazz Fest on Saturday, August 8th, with Dave [Pell] and [singer] Bonnie Bowden. It's going to be fun.

JW: You always sound like you're having fun. Has the jazz life been fun?
MF: A gas.

JazzWax tracks: Supersax recorded upward of nine albums. The first, Supersax Plays Bird, was issued on CD but it's out of print and selling for around $40. Supersax's second album, Salt Peanuts, is fabulous but only available on LP. The same goes for the third album, Supersax Plays Bird With Strings. The others are available on CD, but not all are in print.

More recently, Med recorded Live at Capozzoli's in Las Vegas (1998) along with his quintet and Conte Candoli. He also recorded Sunday Afternoons at the Lighthouse Cafe (2004), a quintet date. Both are superb albums recorded for Woofy Records. You can find them here and here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Supersax in the early 1980s on A Night in Tunisia. Med's in the middle of the reed section and Conte Candoli is on trumpet...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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