“Bop Bop Bop”: The Charlie Parker Centennial

Today’s “That’s My Home” post is a different one because it will not feature the voice or music of Louis Armstrong. Instead, we are celebrating Charlie Parker, born 100 years ago on August 29, 1920, with some truly rare “unheard Bird!”

Armstrong and Parker might sound like an unlikely pair, given Armstrong’s many public criticisms of bebop. And unlike frequent partner Dizzy Gillespie, who originally blasted but later embraced Armstrong publicly, Parker doesn’t seem to have ever even spoken Louis’s name in any of his surviving interviews.

But a deeper dive shows that there must have been a mutual appreciation society between the two. Historian Allen Lowe tells the story he picked up from saxophonist Dave Schildkraut about how Parker would frequent record stores just to enter listening booths and listen to “West End Blues” over and over. He eventually absorbed Armstrong’s opening cadenza enough to begin incorporating it into his solos, such as this ingenious use of it on the blues “Cheryl” from Carnegie Hall in 1949 (starts at 1:32):

An examination of Louis’s reel-to-reel tapes finds that he listened to Bird as well, mostly music from Charlie Parker With Strings, which shows up on three separate tapes shows up on two separate tapes (Louis also enjoyed Clifford Brown With Strings; he liked his bop smoothed over).

But then there’s Reel 41.

LAHM 1987.3.74

This is one of the reels Louis numbered and cataloged as part of his 1958-1961 series of tapes. In fact, Side 2 features two totally disparate releases from 1954, Mitch Miller’s Sing Along With Mitch and Carmen McRae’s Mad About the Man:

LAHM 1987.2.22-03~90

But Side 1….wow. What Louis describes as “Kid Speaks” is actually the 500th broadcast of NBC’s Quiz Kids game show from January 8, 1950. Later in the reel, he mentions “A Basie Jump Tune,” which is really Count Basie’s 1939 recording of “Rock-A-Bye Basie” (happy birthday, Lester Young, born August 27!). Side 1 is rounded off by two 1951 recordings by the Lars Gullin Quartet of Stockholm, “That’s It” and “All Yours.”

Lucille Armstrong is pictured with Swiss fan Matthias Geiger on the bottom of the page. LAHM 1987.2.22-03~89

But in between is one of the true gems of the entire Louis Armstrong reel-to-reel tape collection: a 45-minute jam session featuring Big Nick Nicholas and CHARLIE PARKER!

In my opinion, Armstrong was not present at the original jam session, which he lists as emanating from “Bobby Johnson’s” house, though it’s more likely pianist Buddy Johnson who hosted the session. Armstrong doesn’t even mention Parker’s name in the catalog, but he does mention “Big Nick” twice. Thus, it’s my opinion that this was from Big Nick Nicholas’s personal stash and he made a copy for Armstrong. People don’t often think of Armstrong and Nicholas together but they were indeed good friends; Nicholas turns up in many Jack Bradley photos of the 1960s, either at recording sessions or backstage. This photo is from Newark, NJ on December 6, 1963:

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1655-21

Thus, nothing else is known about the recording, though the sleuths at the online Charlie Parker Sessionography have done a good job of putting it in context and guessing a date of 1950-1951. They write:

“The full group seems to consist of trumpet; trombone; Parker on alto; two tenors; piano; bass; and drums. The first tune sounds like ‘Three Little Words,’ and Parker has a long solo during which there is a lot of tape flutter and other noise. (The tape is off-speed as well, and the speed fluctuates — the times listed above are from a version that has been pitch-corrected.) Following the jam session there is a relaxed version of ‘Lady Bird’ probably by the same group; Parker has a beautiful opening solo. This tune is followed by a group without Parker playing ‘The Lady is a Tramp.’…The 500th broadcast of ‘Quiz Kids,’ which opens the tape, took place on January 8, 1950. The tape ends with the Gullin Quartet tunes, recorded in Stockholm on February 21, 1951 and issued on Metronome J-191. These tunes were released in the USA on New Jazz 841 (single) and Prestige PRLP 121 (10″ LP); one of these is almost certainly the source of the Gullin tunes on Armstrong’s tape. It is possible that the Parker/Nicholas recordings were made during this period. The quality of the recording is not good enough to hear many nuances of Parker’s playing, although his fleetness and precision when warming up before the jam session suggest the earlier date. This is Charlie Parker in his prime. So 1950-1951 seems plausible, certainly more likely than 1954-1959.”

Enough backstory, it’s time to listen to the music! But first, a quick note: all of Louis Armstrong’s tapes are available to listen to on our Digital Collections page as long as you create an account and login. We do not offer personal downloads of anything and all the audio files have a subtle, but regular aural watermark to prevent commercializing on the recordings without obtaining the proper rights. Of course, as the above Parker sesisonography discussion makes clear, folks still found a way to get the audio from our site and pitch correct it. Thus, knowing that some folks are going to attempt to rip this audio for themselves (they’ve been doing it with Parker’s music since he first hit the scene!), we are uploading here with the watermark intact. We hope you understand this decision.

Without further ado, here is the complete 45-minute jam session with Charlie Parker and Big Nick Nicholas and a host of unknown musicians, unissued in any form and unavailable anywhere else:

LAHM 1987.3.74

So spread the word–Bird Lives! Happy Birthday, Charlie Parker and thank you Louis Armstrong and Big Nick Nicholas for making it possible to listen to this incredibly rare performance on the centennial of Bird’s birth!

Published by Ricky Riccardi

I am Director of Research Collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

Leave a Reply

error: Content is protected
%d bloggers like this: