Charlie Parker: Old Folks


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It all started with Charlie Parker's walk-on solo during Neal Hefti's recording of Repetition at the tail end of 1947 just hours before the start of the second American Federation of Musicians' recording ban. Producer Norman Granz loved the results of Parker's bop backed by Hefti's moody strings. So in November 1949, Granz brought Parker into the studio for a session featuring standards and strings, a date that produced two jukebox hits—Just Friends and April in Paris. Granz had Parker record again with strings in the studio in 1950 and 1952.

By May 1953, Granz grew more ambitious. Instead of backing Parker with strings, he decided to let arranger Gil Evans score a session with woodwinds, French horn, Parker's rhythm section and a vocal choir—the Dave Lambert Singers, who were arranged by Lambert. Parker knew and liked Lambert, and everyone knew and respected Evans. But an idea that may have sounded nifty in conversations groaned under the weight of delivering perfect tracks in the studio. The problem wasn't Parker or the woodwinds. There were simply too many David Lambert Signers, increasing the odds of errors.

Here are the musicians on the session: Junior Collins (fhr); Al Block (fl); Hal McKusick (cl); Tom Mace (oboe); Mannie Thaler (bassoon); Charlie Parker (as); Tony Aless (p); Charles Mingus (b); Max Roach (d); the Dave Lambert Singers (vcl group) incl. Dave Lambert, Annie Ross (vcl) and Gil Evans (arr,dir).

And here's the construction of Old Folks, which took nine takes. But don't go anywhere after you've had a listen. Back in 2008, I interviewed the late Hal McKusick, one of the last surviving musician from the session, to find out what went wrong that day. First, here's the audio struggle to capture a master take of Old Folks...

Now here's my 2008 interview with Hal:

JazzWax: Where was this recording session held?

Hal McKusick: At Fulton Recording Studios, at 80 W. 40th St. in New York, on the fourth floor. The building is across from Bryant Park. It looked like a mansion inside. William Randolph Hearst had had a bachelor apartment there. The room where we recorded had huge ceilings—about 30 feet high—with thick curtains along the walls running from the ceiling to the floor to keep outside sound out and the music in. The engineer’s booth had a large glass window and was up high. You had to climb a small staircase to get to the control room’s door.

JW: How were the musicians set up in the space?

HM: The room was gigantic. The Dave Lambert Singers—10 or 12 of them—were on one end and the woodwinds and French horn were on the other. Both groups faced the rhythm section in the middle—drummer Max Roach, bassist Charles Mingus and pianist Tony Aless, who had played with Woody Herman for years. Bird played in front of the rhythm section. Twenty feet separated each group to keep the rhythm section from bleeding acoustically into the mics on the voices, and the voices from bleeding into the woodwinds' mics.

JW: Who wrote the instrumental charts?

HM: Gil [Evans] wrote the arrangements for the woodwinds, French horn and whatever if anything was needed for the incredible rhythm section. Dave Lambert was responsible for the vocal charts. We recorded three tracks that day—In the Still of the Night, Old Folks and If I Love Again.

JW: What was the big problem on that date?

HM: The voice parts were way too complicated. Gil’s charts were beautiful and complex, as always. His arrangements always could push your buttons, musically. But Dave’s vocal charts were heavy, and by the time everyone realized this, it was too late. The recording session was already underway.

JW: Was Dave aware of that?

HM: I'm sure he was. But in all fairness to Dave, he was in over his head. First, there were too many singers. Dave could have accomplished the same goal with better results if he had used four. All of us in the woodwind section knew it at the time. Second, Dave wasn’t skilled enough as an arranger to write for so many singers. What's more, the singers weren’t polished enough as a group to pull off what Dave had in mind and had written.

JW: But Dave led a group of singers.

HM: Dave was terrific when singing take-offs on jazz instrumentals and writing for small-group things. But to write structured charts for so many singers behind arrangements by a guy like Gil Evans requires enormous skill. When you're writing for 10 or 12 singers, you have no choice but to double up voicings. This means two or more vocalists need to sing the same notes. It’s the only way a vocal group can be heard clearly. But doubling up parts means greater room for intonation error, since you’re more likely to hear somebody wavering off the written notes. When a voice wavers, it throws everyone else off, or the producer catches it and calls for another take. It’s like two people walking a tightrope out of synch. Someone’s likely to fall. That happened quite a bit that day. The vocal charts were too hard to sing. The result was false starts and re-takes.

JW: Why did Dave get the job to write for voices in the first place?

HM: You know, I don’t know. I never understood why Gil didn’t’ write the vocal charts himself. I know he would have written for four singers and kept the lines simple—accompanying Bird rather than competing and running all around his solos. Or he would have scrapped the vocals entirely. Gil’s woodwind writing alone was good enough to have sustained the date. My best guess is that Dave pitched Bird on writing for a vocal ensemble. Bird had already recorded with strings, of course, and the voice approach was probably for contrast. Bird in turn must have spoken to Norman [Granz] on Dave's behalf, insisting that Dave be allowed to do the vocal writing. That’s the only way that could have happened. Gil's and Norman’s hands had to have been tied to some extent. It was a risk, but an experiment that fell short.

JW: Bird and Dave were close, weren't they?

HM: Yes. As you know, Dave and Bird had a good working relationship since the late 1940s, when the Dave Lambert Singers appeared with Bird at the Royal Roost. Besides, the Dave Lambert Singers were extremely popular in the early 1950s as vocalese became popular with jazz listeners. For Norman [Granz], adding vocalese was probably a commercial decision. I just don’t think he realized how hard and costly it was going to be to pull it off musically. He probably just thought he had to worry about Bird on the date. That day, Bird was the least of his troubles. Bird played beautifully, as he always did.

JW: What happened on In the Still of the Night? It starts out almost chaotic.

HM: In the Still of the Night was the first tune we recorded that day. On the first take, Bird counted off the tempo. But Max pushed it way up. I’m guessing it was a competitive thing between Max and Bird. Or Max may have been frustrated by the commercial sound of the date. He also could have been unhappy about his role as just a timekeeper and wanted to test or challenge the singers.

JW: So Bird just ramped up following the tempo?

HM: Bird being Bird, he responded to Max with majesty—and wasn’t going to be outdone. So he took the first take fast, too. But the poor singers, they could barely get the words out. We had several incomplete takes. At the session it was very funny. It broke up the musicians. Little by little, the later takes slowed. Norman was losing money and patience. By the seventh or eighth take, the pace was perfect for the singers, who had become more comfortable—or as comfortable as they were going to be.

JW: Was Gil actually there?

HM: Oh yes, he was conducting. Dave was standing with his singers. Gil was always very calm and concerned at record dates. When he wrote for Claude Thornhill’s band in the late 1940s, we rehearsed at Nola Studios on Broadway. He’d conduct and take us through the phrasing and dynamics. Then he’d go to the back of the studio and lie on the floor and listen to us play with his eyes closed. To shut everything out. But he didn’t do that on record dates. It was too expensive. Time was money.

JW: What was it like playing with Charlie Parker on this session?

HM: Fantastic. It was one of the most precious moments in my career, being close to the musician I admired most. Bird could play with anyone—strings, vocalists, it didn’t matter. You could put just a tuba in the room, and Bird would play beautifully with him. But there were only so many takes of a song Bird or anyone could record before becoming frustrated, especially when the problem had nothing to do with him or the musicians. Bird was always a gentleman, and he liked Dave, which is why you hear him calling for additional takes. He could hear the problems, knew the session was having trouble and wanted Norman [Granz] to have solid master tracks.

JW: So Bird must have sensed the session wasn't coming together.

HM: Oh that was clear from the start. To keep Bird focused and relaxed, Gil put a bottle of vodka behind the heavy curtains that lined the walls and told Bird about it. At one point, during a break, Bird went searching for the jug. He went behind the heavy curtains, and you could see his round form feeling his way along. Then you saw his form behind the curtain pause when he discovered the bottle. He was there for about a minute. When Bird was done, instead of going back the way he came in, he kept moving around the room, inside the curtains, hunting for an opening, which took a while. The guys in the woodwind section remained respectful but we were hysterical inside. Finally, Bird burst out through an opening, and the session continued.

JW: Gil Evans's writing for the woodwinds on the intro to If I Love Again is blistering. Did the ensemble rehearse that?

HM: Rehearse? No. You never rehearsed for a record date back then. You were hired because you could sight-read charts cold and play them perfectly the first time. If you look at the personnel, you had the best session musicians on that date. These guys didn’t make mistakes. Plus a rhythm section of Mingus, Aless on piano, and Max [Roach], whose brush work was great and remains overlooked on there.

Back in the 1950s, top record producers didn’t have time for musicians to rehearse. They didn't want to go into overtime because overtime meant money they didn't want to spend. Besides, most of the musicians on these dates had to leave by a specific time to make other recording sessions. You came in, the parts were on the music stands, you sat down and went to work. I never rehearsed for a single record date, except for some of the tracks on my Jazz Workshop album for RCA..

JW: Was Bird distracted by the Dave Lambert Singers' vocalese style of singing?

HM: No way. Bird blew through everything. Every take was a beaut. The vocalists were trying to get it together and Dave was struggling. He'd rehearse them the best he could in between takes to get them on track. Simplicity would have been better for Dave—a unison line with fewer singers rather than so many harmonies. It was too ambitious. The vocals wound up stepping all over Gil’s instrumental charts—but not Bird’s solos.

I think Dave knew the charts were a mistake. But there was nothing he could do about it once we started. They could have removed the vocals completely, of course. Actually, I’m surprised Norman and Gil didn’t at least try a take or two without them. We must have been running out of time, and without the vocals in place, Norman wouldn't have had the commercial effect he wanted. But just the instrumentals with Bird on top probably would have made for better listening today.

JW: On the alternate takes, when Norman announces numbers, he says the word “speed.” What did that mean?

HM: Back then, when a producer said “speed,” that was the engineer’s cue to hit the button on the tape recorder to start recording. By the time the musicians began playing a few seconds later, the tape-recorder reels would be up to speed.

JW: Rumor has it that there was supposed to be a fourth tune recorded that day. True?

HM: I don’t know. But a fourth tune would have made sense. Four tracks were the norm during recording sessions to cover both sides of two 78 rpm records. Three tracks is odd. But those three took so long to record that day—false starts, alternate takes and breaks. The session was probably over on the clock before we could record the fourth song. When you ran over the three hours of time customarily used to record, the producer had to spend more money. Norman must have decided against this.

JW: Did you see a fourth arrangement?

HM: As I think back, I don’t recall seeing a fourth chart on the music stands that day. Maybe Gil and Dave hadn’t finished it. Or maybe it was supposed to be recorded on another day with more arrangements. Since Norman wasn’t exactly thrilled about the first day’s work, I suppose there was little incentive to bring us back in to record.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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