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Vincent Herring’s concept for the live recording Bird at 100 (Smoke Sessions) was simple: gather three generations of alto saxophonists to pay homage to Charlie Parker on the cusp of his centennial year. Actually, he wanted four and settled for three, but that’s a different story. And so, Herring, 55, called on fellow altoists Bobby Watson, 66, and Gary Bartz, 79, who convened at Smoke nightclub in New York City for three dates in August and September 2019 to pool their musical impressions of one of the most celebrated and mythologized figures in jazz.
Supported by a superb rhythm section — pianist David Kikoski, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Carl Allen — the alto masters dived into the Parker songbook, offering muscular reads of “Klactoveedsedstene” and “The Hymn,” terrifically bluesy versions of “Lover Man” and “April in Paris,” and a couple of original tunes they’d brought to the sessions. While none of the participants sought to imitate Parker, his influence permeates their playing on an almost cellular level — as it has for so many musicians following Bird’s tragic demise in 1955.
Bartz was a teenager when Parker died, Watson a toddler, Herring not even a twinkle. Obviously, they experienced Bird’s music in different ways and in different musical milieus that were frequently straining to break free of bebop and find new expression within the sounds of the day. While Bartz found a home in the bands of hard-boppers Art Blakey and Max Roach, he also embraced the avant-garde jazz of the ’60s; in the ’70s, he incorporated funk, blues, soul and African music into his signature sound. Watson also came through the academy of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. But he studied at the University of Miami in the early ’70s, as well, befriending Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius, whose innovations brought new colors to his palette. Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, Herring, another Blakey alumnus, waded past the shallows of smooth jazz and swam to the deep end of the jazz pool, working closely with trumpeter Nat Adderley, the brother of his idol, Cannonball Adderley.
“I never thought of myself as someone wanting to play bebop or wanting to pay homage in my style of play to Charlie Parker and the bebop movement or era,” Herring explains during a phone interview in December. “I thought of myself as just someone trying to learn how to play the music.” But, he adds, “Bird — if you’re playing saxophone in jazz growing up — it’s hard to escape him.”
Even though he shares Kansas City, Kansas, roots with Charlie Parker, Bobby Watson didn’t grow up with Bird’s music, nor was he inundated with local lore about him. His dad, a tenor saxophone player in church, was a Gene Ammons man. Ironically, Watson didn’t really get hip to Bird until his dad moved the family to Minneapolis, where he attended high school.
So, naturally, his choice of alto saxophone was not influenced by Parker, but rather by aesthetics. “It was all serendipitous, because we got a bunch of new instruments that year in high school, and they had a brand-new alto,” Watson says during a recent phone conversation. “And I asked the band director if I could get one of those, because I just loved the way it looked; it looked like a piece of jewelry. I said, ‘Man, if I got to play that sucker, how beautiful it would be.’ Then I discovered Bird, and he plays alto, lo and behold.”
It was also in high school that Watson encountered Leonard King, a history teacher who was a jazz drummer by night. Recognizing an interest in his students, King turned the second half of the semester into a jazz-history course that included lessons about bebop. “He took us through the whole progression of the music up until that time, which was 1970-71,” Watson recalls.
This was the era when the bands of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea were exploding genre boundaries as they embraced the electric sounds and rhythms of funk and rock. Nonetheless, Watson says, Bird caught his ear. The spontaneity of his playing and the strong individuality of his sound appealed to him immediately. But there was something more. “He had a sound that lifted me up, the sound of optimism — triumph over adversity — when he played” Watson says. “And that seemed to be his passport, that saxophone, a magic carpet taking him all kinds of places and putting him in touch with all kinds of people at different social levels and expanding his knowledge. I like the spontaneity, that’s the part I get from it, and trying to have my own sound and speak with all my heart, tied in with the knowledge of the science of the music — the harmony, the theory and stuff like that — which he had.”
While studying at the University of Miami — and later on bandstands alongside Bird familiars Jay McShann, Art Blakey and Max Roach — Watson gained his mastery of those elements, which he continues to pass along to his students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance. He considers himself fortunate to have interacted with great jazz innovators, some of whom were happy to share stories about Bird. Blakey told Watson about after-hours sessions that most jazz aficionados would sacrifice a limb to have attended. “He said Bird would say, ‘Arthur, come with me,’” Watson recalls. “Then he and Dizzy [Gillespie] and Bird would be up in a hotel room and they’d just be playing all night. Art would have a phone book and some brushes, and Bird would have a towel over his head, and they’d be playing. Bird said, ‘The music will bring everything to you, Arthur. You don’t have to chase after it.’”
Clearly, Bird at 100 is a project close to Watson’s heart. He had worked with both Herring and Bartz over the years, with the latter of whom he recorded the excellent 1997 live release Altos Peak and with whom he remains close. “I call him ‘Uncle Gary,’” he says. The players met at Herring’s place in New York a few days before the club date to rehearse, discuss repertoire and share ideas. Along with an arrangement of Parker’s “Mohawk,” which didn’t make the record, Watson also penned “Bird-ish” — a scintillating bop showcase for the three altos based on the chord changes to Parker’s “Confirmation” — which did.
“I’m not so concerned about playing Bird’s licks,” Watson says. “I wanna play ‘Bird-like,” you know, ‘Bird-ish.’ I’m ‘Bird-ish,’ I’m ‘Trane-ish.’ I like to take the spirit of what these men were doing and try to make it my own.”
Not long before he died, Charlie Parker played a weeklong gig at The Tijuana, a nightclub in the heart of Baltimore’s black nightlife district. A 14-year-old Gary Bartz, who lived right around the corner and whose dad also owned a jazz club, wasn’t going to miss a chance to see his hero in person. “So I went around there every night, hoping that he would come out and that I would meet him,” Bartz says, conversing by phone in December. “Because I had met Johnny Hodges, I met Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, I met Lou Donaldson. I met all these guys, because I would go around there to listen to them. I couldn’t get in, but I could hear the music from standing outside, the same way Bird listened to Lester Young.” With a chuckle he adds, “That’s when you know it’s serious.”
In declining health, Bird never came out, preferring instead to stay in his dressing room at The Tijuana between sets. Bartz heard from Henry Baker, who had booked the gig, that Bird would return home to New York each night after the show and come back the following evening. And so Bartz never got to shake the hand of the man who had had such an enormous impact on his life.
Bird’s music was what had inspired him to pick up the saxophone in the first place. At the age of 6, he heard a Charlie Parker record at his uncle’s house and thought that it was the most beautiful music ever made. “I told my parents, ‘I want to do that,’” Bartz remembers. “Whatever he was doing, that’s what I wanted to do. When my parents would ask me what did I want for Christmas, I would say, ‘I want a saxophone.’ And it wasn’t until I was 11 that I got one.”
When he was in high school, Bartz began transcribing Parker’s solos from 78s such as “Star Eyes” and “Au Privave.” He credits the lyricism of Bird’s playing with capturing his attention, more so than the frantic tempos and bebop freneticism that most listeners seize upon. “That’s the virtuosity they’re [reacting to],” Bartz says. “That has nothing to do with any kind of genre. Beethoven was a virtuoso. Mozart. They were virtuosos, and they were composers. And that’s what I heard [with Bird].”
Bartz would go from the halls of Juilliard to the universities of Max Roach and Art Blakey, both of whom would talk about Bird. However, the jazz figure he really wanted to hear about from his elders was Lester Young, whose playing on tenor influenced Bird’s playing on alto. “That was his man,” he notes. “Consequently, I like to sound like a tenor, and I like alto players that sound like a tenor. And I like tenor players that sound like altos. Lester Young sounds like an alto, John Coltrane sounds like an alto. I thought the alto doesn’t have the attitude that a tenor has. A tenor has an attitude. So that’s what I was going for. And I thought that Bird had an attitude, too; that’s what struck me.”
Bartz doesn’t take the mythology surrounding Charlie Parker too seriously. He refuses to saddle him with responsibility for the musicians who started using heroin because Bird did. Just an excuse, he says. Drugs were prevalent and those who got hooked would have done so with or without Bird’s example. Besides, he says, Bird vehemently discouraged younger musicians from using.
What’s more, a spike in the arm was no likelier to make a musician sound like Bird than utilizing the same reed or mouthpiece he used. Bartz tells the story of how Benny Golson and John Coltrane went to hear Dizzy Gillespie’s band in Philadelphia and were awestruck upon hearing Parker. “So they went backstage to meet him, and they walked him back to his hotel and carried his horn,” he recounts. “And they were asking him questions: ‘What kind of mouthpiece do you use? What kind of horn? What kind of reeds do you use?’ Then, they didn’t see each other for a while, and the next time they talked, they said, ‘Well, you know, I’ve been using the mouthpiece and reed combination that Charlie Parker uses, but I still sound the same.’”
Growing up in Vallejo, California, Vincent Herring idolized Cannonball Adderley. Educators and peers were telling the young alto player to check out Charlie Parker, but he didn’t understand the fuss. One of the primary reasons? He couldn’t get hi-fidelity Bird records. “I would put on [an Adderley record] and it would sound great, and the [Bird record] would be crrrhhh,” he says during a phone interview in December, imitating the static that emerged from his speakers when playing an LP by the latter. Then, Verve issued a series of hi-fidelity Parker recordings, and Herring heard the music with new ears. “It was a tremendous, life-changing experience,” he says.
Herring started out playing tenor at age 11, because that’s what was available in his school’s band. He coveted a high-end Selmer Mark VI, although the instrument was out of his family’s price range. Then, serendipity struck. “My mom got hammered one night and just decided she would give me the money to get one,” he says. “And I did! And the next day she said, ‘Boy, you still have that money?’ And I was like, ‘No, I bought the horn.’ And it was an alto because that was the only one they had in the store. So it wasn’t my love of the alto, it was literally that was what was in the store. And that’s the horn that I bought and the one that I stuck with because I really love it. And it seems to be central to my voice.”
He would hone that voice at California State University, Chico, then with the Jazz Knights at West Point Military Academy, then at Long Island University. From there, his learning took place on bandstands with jazz greats including Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey and, perhaps most importantly, Nat Adderley, the cornet-playing composer and brother of Cannonball. Adderley would talk to him about Bird, and provide insights into the era in which they came up. “We used to have discussions on learning jazz today, versus the way he and Cannonball grew up learning jazz,” Herring says. “And he was just amazed that it was embraced at all the universities and the development of Lincoln Center and those things. To Nat, that was incredible.”
Jazz, while part of mainstream pop culture in the ’40s and ’50s, was not generally seen as high art. Bebop innovators were frequently reduced to punchlines, their style of dress and hipster lingo parodied by comedians and exploited by Madison Avenue. Racial discrimination played a major role, limiting opportunities for intelligent, creative individuals such as Parker and the Adderleys. “There were some exceptional people, but they didn’t have a lot of options because of racism,” Herring says. “And they had a lot of things to overcome, including Bird’s addictions. Somebody like Charlie Parker, if he didn’t play music, what was he going to be doing? Driving a truck?”
Herring relays an anecdote about how a classmate of his children displayed an unusual gift for numbers, multiplying and dividing dizzying sums in his head. When Herring commented on the child’s genius, the math teacher checked his enthusiasm by saying that a certain percentage of the population was capable of similar feats; what truly marks a genius is imagination. “And so what’s special about Charlie Parker, I dare say, is not his virtuosity, because the world has caught up,” Herring says. It’s that he took an existing music and vocabulary and changed all of it, changed the direction of it. That’s why he’s still relevant today — the imagination. To do what he did with those 12 notes and his imagination, that’s incredible.” - Bob Weinberg