The Charlie Parker-Paul Desmond interview
I was on the phone with a music industry veteran a few weeks ago when I made a passing reference to the interview that took place between Paul Desmond and Charlie Parker on a Boston radio station in 1954. At the end of the call, he mentioned that he’d never heard of the interview, and asked me to send him a copy. With this fresh in mind, I mentioned the interview to a few other jazz aficionados and was surprised to learn that they weren’t aware of it either, but all were eager to hear it, of course.
As it happens, my Charlie Parker collection is all over the place at work and home. I finally got around to purchasing the Dean Benedetti collection of Parker nightclub performances from Mosaic this fall, and as I’ve immersed myself in that trove of Birdlore, I’ve also been listening to the extensive series of Parker air checks that are scattered among labels like Savoy, Uptown, Rare Live, Stash and Philology. The interview is on Philology, but before I could put my hands on it, it popped up on Facebook, and now it’s just a mouse-click away.
Boston venues like the Hi-Hat and Storyville became regular stops for Parker in the early ‘50’s. Given the chaotic nature of Bird’s life and the cabaret card hassles that made it problematic for him to work in New York nightclubs, Boston became a more routine option for the saxophonist. By then, Symphony Sid, whose radio voice was an indelible feature of Parker’s air checks from the Royal Roost (“Metropolitan Bopera House”) in the late ‘40s, was working in Boston and occasionally broadcasting from these clubs. John McLellan, the radio name of John Fitch, was a colleague of Sid’s who hosted these remotes on his radio show on WHDH, and in 1953 and ’54 he interviewed Parker at the station’s studios.
The first of these took place on June 13, 1953. According to Birdologist Carl Woideck, Fitch picked up Parker at a rooming house and had to wake him up, not an auspicious beginning for an interview that Fitch had meticulously planned. Fitch wished to probe deeper than the more clichéd questions that were typical of jazz interviews, and he began by asking Bird to comment on a recording by Bartok. What ensued was one of the more substantial interviews we have with Parker, but Fitch was disappointed with it, so the following January he struck the idea of having Parker and Paul Desmond together on his show.
In what is the only known taped interview between Parker and another musician, Desmond approached Bird with the same reverence that virtually everyone accorded this legend of modern jazz. But Bird displayed a mutual respect for his fellow altoist, and the interview flows with a conversational rapport. In his biography of Desmond, Take Five, Doug Ramsey quotes a letter in which Desmond says that "old Charlie talked up a storm." Notwithstanding his own well-earned stature as a jazz artist (and non-Parker copy cat), Desmond surprised me when he hears Bird describe his extraordinary practice habits ("11 to 15 hours a day" in his teens) and replies, "That's very reassuring. Somehow I got the idea that you were just sort of born with that technique and that you never had to worry too much about keeping it working. "
One wonders if Desmond is here echoing an old stereotype about blacks having a "natural" gift for music? More likely, he's expressing a specific view that was held by musicians who were astonished by Parker's technique and expressiveness, what Desmond calls his "impressive" ability to tell a story through his horn. Bird acknowledges the presence of genius within oneself, but emphasizes that "schooling" is required to bring it out, and that his came from practicing "with books, it wasn't done with mirrors." Listen as well for Parker's neat summation of his art: “Ever since I’ve ever heard music, I thought it should be very clean, very precise…and more or less to the people…something they could understand, something that was beautiful.” Thank you, Bird.
Here’s a link to transcripts of the McLellan and Desmond interviews as well as interviews that Leonard Feather and Marshall Stearns conducted with Parker in 1951.