I bought a few jazz records over the weekend, as I do whenever the opportunity arises.
One was a 10-inch Mercury LP from 1950, produced by Norman Granz and titled “Charlie Parker with Strings.” The disc was a bit controversial when producer Granz brought it out. Critics wondered whether Bird Parker, who had fought the hard fight over the previous decade to introduce the new melodic and rhythmic approach of small combo be-bop, was “selling out” to produce a more marketable sound. (They needn’t have worried. More mature evaluation has concluded Parker merely refused to stay in a rut, was always willing to try new combinations.)
The second disc I bought was something I normally wouldn’t have given a second look. Not that I wish to say anything negative about “The Moanin’ Sax of Ace Cannon,” 1964, Hi Records number 12014. After all, Cannon played with Bill Black, who was once Elvis Presley’s bass player (so there!), and he indeed has no problem carrying the tune of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” It’s just that there are millions of discs out there in Herb Alpert/Mitch Miller/Andy Williams land, and I believe in leaving most of them — including the “Memphis Soul” sound of Hi Records, whose heyday came a little later in the ’60s when they signed Al Green — to those who will appreciate them more than I.
In fact, I bought the Ace Cannon record for one reason: So that I could share with you, verbatim, the liner notes of one Elton Whisehunt, billed as representing the Memphis Press-Scimitar (a Scripps afternoon daily that closed in 1983 after losing circulation for decades) while also serving as a “Billboard Music Week Correspondent.”
“The true artist will strive . . . to play the music as it is written,” the authoritative Mr. Whisehunt advises us.
“The days of great popularity of the so-called ‘improvising’ artist are over,” he explains. “It is true this type of music had a great following in the decade during and following World War II. The reader no doubt recalls the late, great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, who died at 34 some years back in a cheap room in New York, broke and friendless. At his peak, he was the best and in demand where ever (sic) jazz devotees gathered. But the famous jazz impresario Norman Grantz (sic) recognized, and tried to correct, the one weakness in Parker’s great talent: Parker would not stick to the melody, but play his own notes as he felt them and the listener frequently would never hear the melody and never recognize what Parker was playing.
“This weakness is not present in Ace Cannon, who has been playing saxophone since he was a child. He is capable of improvising jazz with the best. But he has recognized, under the expert tutelage of Hi Record Co. President Joe Coughi” (most source spell it Cuoghi — and Joe was actually what most of us would call a Memphis record store owner) “that the public wants to hear music — not a disorganized series of sounds which comes to the musician the instant he is playing and often intelligible only to the player.
“This album by Ace Cannon will in all probability be a collector’s item in future years, . . .” concludes Mr. Whisehunt, who appears to have shortly thereafter gone back to covering Memphis murder trials.
For the record, Charlie Parker had undoubtedly burned the candle at both ends, especially following the death of his infant daughter Pree of cystic fibrosis. He had pneumonia and had suffered a heart attack, and the autopsy also revealed a well-advanced case of cirrhosis when he died March 12, 1955, in the suite of his friend and patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter at the Stanhope Hotel in New York City, while watching the Dorsey Brothers stage show on TV.
What rent the baroness was paying for her “cheap room” at the Stanhope I have not been able to learn.
But I wonder how many other “friendless” men have had Dizzy Gillespie pay for their funeral arrangements, including a lying-in-state, a Harlem procession officiated by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and a memorial concert. Appreciations flowed in from Leonard Feather, Lenny Tristano, and of course Norman Granz. Jack Kerouac worked his tribute for the “friendless” Parker into the tail end of his book-length poem in progress, “Mexico City Blues.” Granz, in the liner notes for “Charlie Parker with Strings,” called him a “genius” who has “inspired and given ideas to a whole new school of musicians,” while also noting that on the disc in hand he “plays the melody very closely.”
Miles Davis said you could summarize the history of jazz in four words: “Louis Armstrong. Charlie Parker.”
My copy of “The Moanin’ Sax of Ace Cannon” isn’t worthless, exactly. You can pick one up, in nice shape, for about 10 bucks online. Whether that makes it “a collector’s item” I leave to others to decide.
Charlie Parker, that “so-called improviser” who couldn’t carry a tune and whose “popularity was over” by 1964? Fifty-nine years after the musician’s death, the 10-inch LP “Charlie Parker with Strings” that I picked up this weekend — in near mint condition, as it came from a neighbor who once played jazz trumpet in Vegas — has a catalog value of $500. Parker’s LPs from the year before, on the Dial label, will bring $800 or more . . . if you can find them.
Personally, I don’t entirely buy into this “speak no ill of the dead” business. Revile politicians and other thieves and slavers to your heart’s content, either side of the grave.
Nor are “jacket notes” an art form in very high repute, in the first place. Every new discovery is “unique, a breakthrough talent” heading directly for the stars . . . except Elvis, of course, who was advised by band leader Eddie Bond, right there in Memphis back in 1954, to “stick to driving the truck.”
But chomping your cigar, snarling out of the side of your mouth, dismissing Charlie Parker and all the rest of of modern, improvisational jazz (and rock as well, I suppose — can we now remind Brian May, Jimmy Page, Don Felder, and Eric Clapton to stop “playing your own notes” and just “stick to the tune as it’s written,” please?) as “over” . . . in 1964?
What a maroon.