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My Guilty Jazz Pleasure

Charlie Parker With Strings

By Robin Kidson

Each Saturday, The Times runs a feature called 'My Culture Fix' in which a well-known figure is asked to identify various aspects of his or her cultural life – favourite author, favourite film, “the music which cheers me up”, that sort of thing. One of the standard elements is “my guiltiest cultural pleasure”. The assumption is that, lurking in the cultural life of even the grandest intellectual, is a secret liking for something so populist and naff that it induces a sort of guilt. Most participants quite rightly dismiss the notion that an aspect of their culture fix can bring both pleasure and guilt but, even so, they play the game and make a nomination. Lord Melvyn Bragg, for instance, offered “half an hour of Capital Gold in the middle of the night”; writer, Ian Rankin, gave us the novels of Jilly Cooper; and actor Simon Russell Beale named rom-coms and “Sunday evenings in front of the Antiques Roadshow”.

Is there, I wonder, such a thing as a “guilty jazz pleasure”, a jazz equivalent of Capital Gold, the Antiques Roadshow, or the novels of Jilly Cooper? One source of guilt might lie in those musicians who broadly work in the jazz tradition but who, nevertheless, suffer the disdain of jazz critics and serious jazz fans. A list might include Paul Whiteman, Glenn Miller, Kenny Ball, Nat King Cole, George Benson, Kenny G…. These all have one thing in common: commercial success with a brand of easy listening jazz which jazz purists see as a watered down version of the real thing and might feel, if not guilt, then some embarrassment if they were ever found listening to it with pleasure.  

If asked to name my favourite jazz record, I would probably go for something like A Kind of Blue, or Out To Lunch, or perhaps Blues And The Abstract Truth.., all proper jazz, no guilt attached. However, statistically, the record to which I listen most often is a CD called Charlie Parker With Strings: The Master Takes, and if there is such a thing as a guilty jazz pleasure, then this is mine. The CD is made up of 24 tracks recorded in the late 1940s and early 1950s on which Charlie (Bird) Parker plays some of the most popular songs of the day with a small string orchestra. These tracks were commercially successful, finding an audience well beyond the jazz one.

Charlie Parker, of course, was one of the great innovators of jazz with a dazzling technique and a charisma marking him out as the epitome of jazz hip and cool. “You can tell the history of jazz in four words”, said Miles Davis, “Louis Armstrong Charlie Parker”. But the work with strings doesn’t fit well into the Bird legend. For many, it’s a blot on an otherwise impeccable jazz pedigree, seen as a sell-out which puts Charlie Parker in the same category as Paul Whiteman or Kenny G.

Hard core Parker fans sometimes seem to find difficulty accepting their hero would voluntarily submit himself to the Charlie Parker With Strings project. He must have been inveigled into it. The villain of the piece is legendary impresario, Norman Granz, a sort of Jazz Svengali who was head of Mercury Records, Bird’s record label at the time. However, the evidence suggests that right from the beginning of his fame, Bird wanted to work with strings. What he probably had in mind was a genuinely innovative, Third Stream project with a contemporary serious classical composer such as Edgard Varese or Igor Stravinsky. He didn’t quite end up with this but, by all accounts, Bird was more than happy with his work with strings even though it wasn’t perhaps what he’d first envisaged. As for Norman Granz’s role, no doubt he recognised the commercial potential of the project but much of it was driven by Bird himself: “Charlie Parker begged me to let him use strings”, said Granz, “I don’t think that strings swing in a jazz context but he begged me so much, I gave in to him”.

Granz set up the first main recording dates of the strings project in November 1949. Bird was accompanied by a small chamber orchestra and a conventional jazz rhythm section. The orchestra was made up of viola, cello, harp, oboe and three violins. The rhythm trio was Stan Freeman (piano), Ray Brown (bass) and Buddy Rich (drums). The orchestral musicians were out of the top drawer and included Bronislaw Gimpel, a particularly noted classical violinist who later became professor of music at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. On oboe was another well regarded classical player of the time, Mitch Miller, who later found fame and huge influence as Head of A&R at Columbia Records.

These sessions were followed up with another in the summer of 1950. The orchestra was upgraded from three to five violins and a French horn was added. The players were different from the 1949 sessions so no Mitch Miller on oboe. The rhythm section was unchanged, however, apart from Bernie Leighton replacing Stan Freeman on piano. Then there was a third recording date in January 1952 on which the strings were only one element of a big band of almost 30 players.

The results of these sessions were released on various LPs which sold well and became the most commercially successful of all Bird’s recording output. In addition to recording sessions, Bird played with a string section in live concert performances.

My CD, Charlie Parker With Strings: The Master Takes, was originally released as a vinyl record on the Verve label in 1995. The CD version came out in 2006. It is a compilation of all the released numbers from the 1949, 1950 and 1952 recording sessions plus five tracks from a live Carnegie Hall concert in September 1950, and one track from a 1947 session also recorded at Carnegie Hall.

So, why does Charlie Parker With Strings keep appearing in my CD player? Well, first off, it is joyous, upbeat music guaranteed to get feet tapping and head nodding. It is easy on the ear but not so much that it becomes background wallpaper. By the standards of the 1940s, it is well produced and recorded. Above all, it shows Bird in superb form, in complete control of tone and mood, rattling off the most dazzling improvisations full of creativity and imagination.

Perhaps the more pertinent question is why has Bird’s work with strings often proved so controversial? Why have so many jazz fans not liked it at all? And it has to be admitted that there are some criticisms, beyond vague prejudices against anything popular and commercial, that need to be taken on board.

One criticism is that normally Bird played with a small group of fellow jazz musicians – Dizzy, Miles Davis, Max Roach and the like - attuned to bebop and as skilled and imaginative as himself. When improvising in performance, he relied on these musicians to bounce ideas off and stimulate him to even greater feats. With the strings project, he didn’t have this support since the string players weren’t improvisers and were playing written out charts. He was essentially on his own. Ross Russell, one of Charlie Parker’s biographers puts it like this:  “…the strength that Charlie had drawn from Miles and Max, and the freedom that he had enjoyed within the intimate, flexible setting of the Quintet, so essential to inspiration and real improvisation, had been lost…. There were no counter voices, no moving lines, no call and response figures to stimulate the soloist. No chase choruses”.

The counter argument is that Charlie Parker was such a consummate musician and improviser that he could play just as well on his own. He didn’t need Miles and Max. The evidence from the string recordings supports this - Bird’s improvisations are every bit as creative as in his small group work. And because he is the star of the show, all attention is on him - no distractions, no competition, just Bird in all his glory.

Another criticism is that the vast majority of the tracks are popular standards of the time and that, with a couple of exceptions, there no original, contemporary compositions either by Charlie Parker or anyone else. But then this is common practice in jazz – to take a familiar tune and then make something else out of it. It was certainly a key element of Bird’s modus operandi. Also, the standards aren’t throwaway Tin Pan Alley pop songs – they are the carefully crafted miniature works of art with wonderful, inspired melodies which are part of what we would now call the Great American Songbook. Songs like April In Paris, Temptation, I’m In The Mood For Love and Summertime have endured and are still popular today. Indeed, a song like Summertime has entered the classical repertoire. The tunes are strong enough to provide a solid base for Bird’s improvisations.

A more common criticism concerns the orchestral arrangements of the songs. Ross Russell is particularly scathing: “Glib”, “uninspired”, “played note for note”, “monotonous”, “without distinction” are just some of the epithets he throws at them. And it’s true many of the arrangements have a lush sentimentality about them. The schmaltz, though, is a large part of what makes Charlie Parker With Strings so unique and appealing. If he wants and the context demands it, Bird can blend effortlessly with the strings but the recordings are at their best when his soaring alto breaks free from the smooth structure provided by the strings. The contrast between Bird’s free, hard-edged improvisations and the sleek orchestrations “played note for note” is utterly thrilling.

The contrast effect can be heard on, for instance, Just Friends. The track begins with a very short harp and violin shimmer. So far, so conventional; then, suddenly, boom, Bird kicks in with a brilliant solo. The tempo increases and the whole mood changes. Bird’s improvisations are occasionally interrupted by the briefest of string interludes and short solos from oboe and piano. At one point, the alto seems to shift into another gear and goes off into even greater heights of imagination and creativity. The lark ascends. On Just Friends and on other similar tracks – April in Paris, Dancing in the Dark, Easy to Love – the strings are a light whisper in the background, almost, but not quite, an irrelevance. They are there to provide contrast, the sweetener to the sharpness of the alto. In the words of Joe Goldberg, author of the booklet accompanying the Master Takes CD, “The strings were a carpet for [Bird] to walk on”.

Just Friends is, by common consent, the best track of the whole strings project. Even Ross Russell, normally the fiercest critic of the whole strings project and my main witness for the prosecution, thought it was pretty good: “The alto saxophone soars majestically over the lush background”, he writes, “Its tone is brilliant and its virtuosity compelling”. Charlie Parker regarded Just Friends as the best record he ever made. Praise indeed and an indication of just how highly he regarded his work with strings. Listen to Just Friends here.

To a modern ear (well, to mine, anyway), the arrangements do not seem all that corny. Age has given them a patina of charm and nostalgia. They represent the sort of music which now gets played at, for example, the Proms, not necessarily in a jazz context, and we marvel at the professionalism of both the orchestrator and the players rather than carp at any sentimentality or lack of imagination.

Furthermore, at least some of the arrangements stand up on their own terms even without the gloss of age. On Summertime, for example, the orchestration is full of invention creating a sultry and slightly ominous mood. Bird falls in with this and plays with a wonderful bluesy intensity. The beauty of the melody is such that he wisely keeps any embellishments to a minimum - no bebop pyrotechnics here. Strings and alto are in perfect alignment with the orchestra investing as much passion into their playing as Bird. This is not the bloodless “note for note” playing implied by the critics. Listen for yourself here.

This brings us to a further criticism – that on Summertime and other tracks, Bird plays too straight. The lack of improvisation then leads to the claim that Charlie Parker With Strings is watered down jazz, in fact, may not be jazz at all. However, as we have seen with Summertime, playing straight may be the right thing to do – it doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t jazz. On other tracks, often the slower ballads, it’s not always clear why Bird plays straight. Examples include Everything Happens To Me and Laura. Tellingly, perhaps, I hadn’t noticed the lack of improvisation on these tracks which still contain much to admire – Bird’s tone, for example, or the interaction between alto and strings. And, sometimes, you just need to wallow in the lushness of it all… You can listen to Laura here.

On some tracks, arguably, there is rather too much of the strings and less of Charlie Parker. But even here, some of these tracks include Bird’s most brilliant solos – you just have to wait a while before they come along. On Repetition, for example, there is such a lengthy build up that one wonders if Bird is even there but then, suddenly, he explodes in all his bebop pomp and throws down a superb solo. To the thrill of the sweet/savoury contrast is added the pleasures of delayed gratification. Listen to Repetition here.

Critical hostility to Charlie Parker With Strings has largely dissipated over time and many would now recognise it as an important part of the Parker legacy. Also, the boundaries are coming down between what’s seen as jazz and what’s not. More broadly, the distinctions between high and low culture are growing fuzzy, which is partly why the participants in The Times’s My Culture Fix treat the notion of a guilty cultural pleasure with such levity. Intellectual snobbery is going out of fashion.

So, is there such a thing as a guilty jazz pleasure? No, not really. It’s a game, a joke, an exaggeration that, nevertheless, hides something that may be slowly disappearing but of which a trace still lurks deep in jazz and in western culture more generally. Anyway, enough. We should like what we like, regardless of what others may think. And I love Charlie Parker With Strings, no guilt necessary.

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