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.
With no general knowledge of the Wichita session, discographers considered a three-song recording Charlie Parker made on April 30, 1941, to be his first. Released on the Coral label, the cuts reveal the saxophonist playing with the intensity and ability that prevailed throughout most of his career.
But jazz historians heard rumors of earlier songs that revealed a different, less developed portrait of Parker. In 1957, historian Frank Driggs asked McShann's bassist Gene Ramey about the purported Wichita date said to have taken place five months earlier than the first known Parker recording. Ramey recollected having played with Parker in a Wichita studio around that time. Jay McShann confirmed Ramey's statement. So did Gould. Driggs' eventual contact with Fred Higginson, one of the other frat boys who adulated McShann, resulted in the the Wichita session resurfacing.
"I received a number of calls from Driggs regarding the session," says Gould. "He finally said that the recordings had been found and that they would soon come out on record. They didn't come out until 1974, almost fifteen years later."
Driggs had been elated over the find, but could not interest a label in his treasure. Not until 34 years after the original recording were the worn transcriptions repaired and released on the Onyx label as Charlie Parker: The First Recordings. It contained the Wichita transcriptions and some later Parker material. The release won a Grammy for Best Jazz Recording. But the Onyx label went out of business soon after, relegating the important session to obscurity once more. And it'll be at least another few months--late this year or early 1991--before they're available again, this time on Xanadu Records.
Until then, there's pretty much only one way to hear what the earliest Parker recording sounds like--in live performances by Supersax. This sextet keeps alive the memory of Charlie Parker in a unique manner, focusing its playing on harmonized versions of recorded Parker solos.
Med Flory, Supersax's leader, got hold of the Wichita material after a recent conversation with Bob Davis, who happened to have located a copy as far back as 1960. ("I can't tell you where I got them," says Davis. "I promised to keep the source a secret.") It struck the historian that Supersax would be the perfect band to pay tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of the transcriptions. Davis then shipped a copy to Flory, who eventually devised arrangements for his group.
Flory and his band gravitate toward implementing some of Parker's most colorful and complex solos. For years they have played Flory's arrangement of Parker's tune "Scrapple From the Apple." What Flory intends to convey to the crowd at the Sedona festival is that the chord progression to "Scrapple From the Apple" is derived from the song "Honeysuckle Rose," one of the tunes on the Wichita transcriptions. Flory may couple an intricate Parker rendition of "Scrapple From the Apple" with Parker's immature but promising solo on 1940's "Honeysuckle Rose."
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When Bud Gould and Supersax take the stage on Saturday, the first and latest figures in the saga of the Wichita transcriptions will meet, their past and present efforts bringing us as close as we can come to the young Charlie Parker.
Supersax will perform at the Sedona Jazz on the Rocks Festival in Oak Creek on Saturday, September 22, with Ernestine Anderson and Her Trio; Ann Patterson's Maiden Voyage; the Doug MacLeod Band; Ronnie Bedford and Friends With Bill Watrous, Derek Smith, and Pete Huffaker; and Banu Gibson and the New Orleans Hot Jazz Orchestra. Showtime is 9:30 a.m.
"I was flabbergasted when I heard Parker. I didn't understand a lot of what he was doing."
"Parker tended to be distant," says Gould. "He wasn't particularly easygoing. There was an intensity about him that put him in his own world.