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When Bud Gould invited Charlie Parker and a few other musicians into a Kansas studio fifty years ago, he had no idea that history was in the making. Gould, a former NAU music professor now living in Sedona, had just graduated from Wichita University. While waiting to be drafted for service in World War II, he passed the time playing trombone and violin for the house band at Wichita radio station KFBI. He and a couple of fraternity brothers were avid fans of blues-based pianist Jay McShann, who happened to be employing Parker in his group. McShann, then working in Kansas City, was out on the road for the first time with his big band.
Their schedule put them in Wichita for several weeks, where they played at the Trocadero Ballroom. Gould and his friends were elated. They immediately made themselves known to the band members, who took a liking to the three fans. This McShann ensemble had not yet been recorded, and some of the band members jumped at Gould's bold suggestion that they sneak into the KFBI studio and make a vanity recording. The date was Saturday, November 30, 1940.
"I don't remember why the radio station was empty, or at least was running on minimum staff," Gould attempts to recall in a recent phone interview from his home. "The only answer I can come up with is that Thanksgiving was the Thursday before. Probably the station was pretty much shut down for the holiday weekend, allowing us to get McShann and the others into the normally busy studio."
McShann and six of the band members--including Parker--followed Gould to the downtown Wichita business building that contained a floor-and-a-half of radio station offices and studios. Gould soon realized he had more than just a souvenir recording of himself sitting in with his favorite band.
"My musical approach was much more traditional than the guys' in McShann's band," says Gould, scheduled to make an appearance Saturday at the Sedona Jazz on the Rocks Festival in conjunction with a fiftieth anniversary celebration of this session. He'll introduce Supersax, a Los Angeles group that plans to play material from the recording during its set. "I was used to playing Dixieland-oriented music. McShann's band was more advanced than myself, and Parker was farther along than any of them. I was flabbergasted when I heard Parker. I didn't understand a lot of what he was doing, and I couldn't believe he was doing it while only twenty years old. Everyone who played in the band was hot, but Parker was incredible. It appeared that he exerted a tremendous impact on those he was playing with."
Today, the Wichita session is in the books as Bird's first studio work. But perhaps even more significantly, it contains the opening recorded hints of a revolutionary style that would later be known as be-bop.
"You can actually hear Charlie Parker on the very verge of his musical breakthrough," says Chicago-based jazz historian Bob Davis of the recording. "Parker was already a formidable musician, but his phrasing and accenting, his rhythmic sense, was not yet the mature Parker."
The saxophonist had hit upon his new sound nearly a year before, one night at a gig in New York, as he recalled in a quote from the time. "I'd been getting bored with the stereotyped changes that were being used all the time, at the time, and I kept thinking, `There's bound to be something else.' I could hear it sometimes, but I couldn't play it. Well, that night I was working over "Cherokee," and as I did I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I'd been hearing. I came alive."
When Parker brought his near-be-bop style to KFBI, the recordings were made on sixteen-inch acetate, called transcriptions. Because of technological limitations, they could only be played several times before sounding scratchy and worn. Public availability of the McShann ensemble's eight songs was out of the question. The recordings were done without approval of the musicians' union, and the players weren't paid. Gould's collaboration with McShann's band constituted a jam session, which in those days would not gain union consent. The songs were taped only so that the band and three fans could have a personal memento of their encounter.
But Gould walked away from the session with more than just a piece of music history. The young trombonist found his curious personal encounter with Parker to be as memorable as his introduction to the saxophonist's style.
"Parker tended to be distant, less accessible than the others," says Gould. "He wasn't particularly easygoing. There was an intensity about him that put him way off in his own world. But it wasn't that he came across as thinking himself better than everyone else. It appeared that he was just beginning to have the mental problems that plagued him the rest of his life."
Gould, as he had predicted for himself, was soon after called into the army, where he was the musical director in the stateside swing band. Ironically, in his whirlwind of activites, he never obtained a taped copy of the transcriptions as his two fraternity brothers had.