Composed by Jay McShann; probable “head” arrangement.
Recorded by Jay McShann and His Orchestra for Decca on April 30, 1941 in Dallas,Texas.(*)
Jay McShann, piano, directing: Harold Bruce,Orville Minor and Bernard Anderson, trumpets; Joe Baird, trombone; Charles Christopher “Bird” Parker, Jr. lead alto saxophone; John Jackson, alto saxophone; Bob Mabane and Harry Ferguson, tenor saxophones; Gene Ramey, bass, Gus Johnson, drums.
The story: The story of Charlie Parker (1920-1955) in the history of jazz is immensely important. It is immense because Parker’s musical talent was immense: he was probably the most creative improviser the music has yet produced. In addition, Parker moved jazz into new areas rhythmically and harmonically. It is also immense because of the frustration and desperation he suffered during most of his life because of drug addiction. Finally, his death at age 34 was an immense loss to jazz.
Much has been made of Charlie Parker’s drug addiction, and this is understandable because he battled addiction his entire adult life.What is far less known is that Bird became addicted to heroin as a result of it (or possibly morphine) being used to control excruciating pain after he suffered serious injuries (three broken ribs and a fractured spine) in an auto accident on Thanksgiving day 1936 on the way to a gig. One of the musicians riding in the car with Parker was killed.He convalesced over a period of months, but by the time he recovered sufficiently to resume playing, he was addicted. This story and many more are told concisely in the book “Bird…the Life and Times of Charlie Parker” by Chuck Haddix,University of Illinois Press (2013). For those who want to get an excellent introduction to the life of Charlie Parker, I recommend this book.
A facet of Bird’s early professional career that is well known is how his development as a jazz saxophonist moved rather slowly until a humiliating incident occurred that provided him with the motivation he needed to develop his musical talents to professional and indeed virtuoso levels. Bird grew up in Kansas City at a time when political boss Tom Pendergast ran the city like it was his private business. Political corruption was rampant. The net result for musicians was that there was abundant work throughout the 1930s in all kinds of venues, from the smallest bars and restaurants to Kansas City’s cavernous Municipal Auditorium.
In the late spring of 1936, feeling that he was ready to play with seasoned professionals, the not-quite sixteen year old Bird insinuated himself into a performance at the Reno Club in Kansas City. The band he sat-in with was a small group led by Count Basie. As Bird fumbled and faltered his way through “Honeysuckle Rose,” Basie’s drummer Jo Jones removed one of cymbals from its stand and tossed it toward Bird. When it hit the floor it made a loud crash. Jones’s intent was to “gong” Bird off the stage.The audience then booed and hissed Bird.He had no choice but to retreat from the bandstand, pack up his instrument, and slink off in shame.This ignominious incident at first deeply hurt the sensitive young man. But then it provided him with the almost maniacal motivation to do whatever was necessary to master his horn, and develop the skills necessary to improvise creatively.
Bird joined the territory band of George E. Lee in the late spring of 1937. The Lee band was booked into a three or four month summer engagement at a resort in the Ozarks region, near Eldon, Missouri that started in June. During those months, the musicians lived at the resort. Bird often spent ten or more hours a day practicing and studying, in addition to playing the gig each night for four or five hours. By the fall of 1937, he had mastered chord changes, and begun exploring substitutions and inversions, the raw materials used by jazz musicians to improvise. His instrumental technique had also improved immensely.
When Parker returned to the Kansas City music scene in late 1937, he astonished his musical associates with his newly-acquired instrumental prowess.
The final semester of Bird’s early musical education would come in his association with Kansas City alto saxophonist/arranger Buster Smith. By early 1938, Parker was in a six piece band led by Smith, who was an outstanding alto sax soloist. While he was in Smith’s band, he and Smith shared the alto saxophone solo responsibilities.Bird learned a lot from Smith, like how to add cork to the horn’s keypad, shortening the distance between the keys and the pad, making the action faster. Before long, Parker exceeded Smith as both an alto sax virtuoso, and as a creative improviser.The speed with which Parker increasingly played was wedded to a photographic musical memory. That allowed Bird to create a seemingly unending series of fleet new improvisations on the chords of any tune he was playing.
It was with Smith’s band in April of 1939 that Parker was able to prove that he had arrived as a spectacular jazz soloist. The occasion was the triumphant return of Count Basie’s big band to Kansas City after two years of increasing national exposure and considerable success. Bird vindicated himself that night by playing a series of brilliant improvisations in the set the Smith band played as one of the warm-up bands preceding the Basie band’s appearance. Basie, Jo Jones, and especially Lester Young, Bird’s idol, were all deeply impressed by Parker’s incredible growth as a jazz musician in three years’ time.
In Kansas City, Bird met and began playing intermittently with pianist Jay McShann in 1938. These two musicians would be creative collaborators over the next four years, the years Bird progressed from a startlingly talented musical prodigy to a nonpareil virtuoso whose playing would change the course of jazz.
Also during these years, Parker began to demonstrate various eccentric behaviors that would become and remain parts of his personality for the remainder of his life. He would disappear periodically, showing up in distant cities, usually looking like a vagrant, having no saxophone. He did this in 1938, leaving Kansas City and arriving in Chicago. He somehow found a jam session on the south side, and on a borrowed horn played like a man possessed, impressing those present including jazz tenor sax veteran Budd Johnson and vocalist Billy Eckstine. Local Chicago musicians were amazed by Bird’s still-developing jazz approach. He was given food and shelter by these musicians, and received a clarinet from one of them. Soon he pawned the clarinet and was gone. (Bird was also noted for coming in to wherever he was staying after he had finished jamming, and collapsing exhausted into bed, fully clothed and with his shoes on.)
Bird’s next stop on what proved to be his post-graduate course in learning about the secrets of modern jazz was his stop in Harlem. Like every other jazz musician who first was exposed to the endless musical opportunities that existed in Harlem in the period from 1939 through the years of World War II, Bird was like a kid in a musical candy store. He found a place to stay in Harlem when he found Buster Smith’s apartment. Smith was then working in New York playing and writing arrangements for big bands.Like all other out-of-town musicians, Bird could not simply come to New York and begin playing in clubs. He had to establish residency in New York for six months before he could obtain a New York Local 802 musicians union card. He did odd jobs to earn enough money to subsist, including busing tables at a Harlem restaurant where jazz piano legend Art Tatum was playing. Bird’s musical mind quickly absorbed Tatum’s technique of interpolating melodies at breakneck speed with unerring pianistic technique. He was also a constant sitter-in at jam sessions, usually seeking out musicians who were pursuing an exploratory approach to harmony. The use of chord inversions by a little-known guitarist called William “Biddy” Fleet caught Bird’s musical attention. He quickly absorbed what Fleet was doing, and it precipitated a musical epiphany for Bird. Chuck Haddix cited the insight Bird arrived at, taken from a later interview Parker gave:“I remember one night…I was jamming in a chili house on Seventh Avenue between 139th and 140th. Now I’d been getting bored with the stereotyped (chord) changes that were (then) being used all the time,and I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else.I could hear it sometimes, but I couldn’t play it. Well, that night, I was working over ‘Cherokee,’ and as I did, I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related related (chord) changes, I could play the thing I’d been hearing. I came alive.” (**)
This technique became a part of Parker’s approach to harmony thereafter.
One last historical note: Parker supposedly acquired his nickname “Bird” (or the less used “Yardbird”),during his time as a sideman with the Jay McShann band. During one of the band’s many road trips, the band bus clipped a chicken that was near the road. Parker asked the bus driver to stop so he could get the dead chicken, and take it to the private home where he would be staying while the band played at its next date, and ask the lady of the house to prepare the bird as dinner, which she evidently did.
The music: I will start the commentary on this wonderful performance of “Swingmatism”by quoting jazz musician/historian Loren Schoenberg, who wrote the liner notes to the seminal collection of Bird’s earliest recordings, made in 1941-1942 when he was a member of Jay McShann’s band.“This fascinating composition has its roots in the minor-key opuses of the early Basie band–namely ‘Tickletoe,’ ‘Topsy,’ and ‘I Left My Baby’ (some of whose brass figures are quoted here). Although a 12 bar minor blues is implied, the piece actually follows a 16 bar form. This structural ambiguity is underscored by both the composer and the soloists. Consequently, the choruses seem to be forever eliding. Parker’s Lester-like early entrance being the most striking example. Furthermore, the band interprets the piece with its own brand of rhythmic phrasing.” “Blues from Kansas City…The Jay McShann Orchestra featuring Charlie Parker and Walter Brown,” Decca Jazz GRD-614 (1992) page 5.
Parker played first alto in the McShann band, and he clearly imparts a wonderful, keening sound to the saxophone section.This is evident in the first chorus, when the saxes play organ chords, and then in the second chorus, when they play rhythmically. Pianist Jay McShann starts his solo with a quote from “St.James Infirmary,” then swings away for the rest of his solo. But when Parker enters, the music immediately becomes radiant. His sound, his phrasing, which at this early stage reflected Lester Young’s influence, and his ideas are all new, and they clearly point toward what he and other young jazz musicians would soon develop as the new jazz idiom that would follow swing–bop. But however complex whatever Parker played was, he always managed to swing.
Note that the label on the record issued by Decca in 1941 containing “Swingmatism” has the words “Sepia Series” on it. The intent of these words was to attract Afro-Americans to records made by Afro-Americans. Of course as many (or more) non-Afro-Americans bought the records in Decca’s “Sepia Series.” It is always difficult to try to explain how Jim Crow society functioned because the fundamental premise on which it rested was racial segregation. Inherent in that, as Brown v. Board of Education (1954) taught us, is that segregation is, per se, discrimination.
(*) Dallas, Texas was not a recording hub in 1941. However, Decca Records did, on occasion, meet its recording artists “in the field.” This was done by moving portable recording equipment to places nearer to where some of its artists worked.This recording session was supervised by Dave Kapp.
(**) This quote appears on page 42 of the Haddix book. Previously, it appeared in the seminal oral history of jazz, Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, by Nat Hentoff and Nat Shapiro (1955) page 354. Haddix used information from Carl Wiodek to explain that this quote is probably a paraphrase of an article by John S. Wilson and Michael Levin that appeared in Down Beat entitled “No bop roots in jazz: Parker,” September 9, 1949, 1, 12.
The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
As a bonus, here is the discussion between Charlie Parker and Paul Desmond, another jazz alto saxophonist titan. It was recorded in 1954.
Great post, Mike. I’ve always heard that Parker was a creative innovator. Thanks for the historical perspective.
Mike, what an amazing recording! Bird sounds very much like a “prototypical” 1940’s lead alto player during the section work, but hearing him solo is where we hear the fledgling ideas he would later develop. I have to disagree about this probably being a “head arrangement”. There’s a ton of rhythm and harmonic things going on which makes me strongly believe this was a written arrangement. Doesn’t matter though. Fascinating stuff!
Mike, enjoyed that version of “Swingmatism.” Junior Mance also has a nice piano version. I was wondering if you or anyone knows where I can find a lead sheet for this tune. Would appreciate any help you can give me.