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“Remembering Charlie Parker”, Wall2Wall Virtual Jazz Festival 2020, Abergavenny.

by Ian Mann

October 21, 2020

A Centenary Tribute to Charlie Parker from a sextet featuring saxophonists Ben Waghorn & Martha Skilton, trumpeter Jonny Bruce, pianist Dave Jones, bassist Ashley John Long & drummer Alex Goodyear.

“Remembering Charlie Parker”

Wall2Wall Virtual Jazz Festival 2020, Abergavenny

First Livestreamed 18/10/2020

Available via Ticket Only until 28/11/2020

Ben Waghorn –  Alto & Tenor Saxes
Martha Skilton – Alto & Tenor Saxes
Jonny Bruce – Trumpet
Dave Jones – Piano
Ashley John Long – Double Bass
Alex Goodyear – Drums, Narrator

Wall2Wall’s second “Remembering” event was a tribute to the genius of the pioneering saxophonist Charlie Parker, who was born in Kansas City in 1920 but died at a tragically young age in 1955.

During his short life Parker helped to transform the language of jazz and his influence is still an inspiration for contemporary jazz musicians.

To celebrate the centenary of Parker’s birth Festival organisers Black Mountain Jazz had assembled a stellar sextet of musicians with the Bristolian duo of saxophonist Ben Waghorn and trumpeter Jonny Bruce joined by the South Walian contingent of saxophonist Martha Skilton, pianist Dave Jones, bassist Ashley John Long and drummer Alex Goodyear. Goodyear also provided the narration that told the tale of Parker’s prolific but troubled life and career.

The members of the sextet are all BMJ / Wall2Wall favourites and Bruce had been due to lead his own group at the July 2020 Club night, a trio featuring organist Anders Olinder and drummer Jon Whitfield. Unfortunately this event had to be cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic which was a great shame, the music of a trumpet led ‘organ trio’ would have been extremely interesting.

Olinder subsequently turned up elsewhere at the Wall2Wall Virtual Festival as the keyboard player with saxophonist /vocalist Kim Cypher’s excellent quintet. Review here;

Meanwhile Bruce was invited to be part of the Festival’s “Remembering Charlie Parker” production, sharing the front-line with old pals Waghorn and Skilton.

The video was ushered in by an archive recording of Parker playing “Now’s The Time” and we first heard from Goodyear, who told us something about Parker’s early days in Kansas City.

Born on 29th August 1920 Parker moved from the Kansas to the Missouri side of the city at the age of seven. He began on baritone saxophone in the school marching band before switching to alto. At this time the entertainment scene in Kansas City was controlled by the corrupt Democrat governor Tom Pendergast and was an entertainment centre, jam packed with bars, clubs and gambling dens. The city has been called “the Las Vegas of its day”, drawing patronage from a huge geographical area, and its dozens of music venues made it a veritable musical melting pot, with jazz, gospel and blues combining to create a distinct Kansas City jazz sound.

Attention now switched to the music and a programme of compositions written by either Parker or his musical ‘partner in crime’, trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie.

Things kicked off in rousing fashion with a fiery version of Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia”, performed by a quintet of Bruce, Waghorn, Jones, Long and Goodyear. This featured incendiary solos from Waghorn on alto and Bruce on trumpet, with Jones inserting quotes from other Gillespie tunes such as “Salt Peanuts” into his solo. Goodyear also enjoyed a brief drum feature before picking up the narrator’s reins once more.

Parker dropped out of school to become a professional musician and between 1935 and 1939 became a regular presence on the Kansas City music scene, learning his trade. However his humiliation at a ‘cutting session’  presided over by Count Basie’s drummer, Jo Jones, precipitated a period of serious ‘woodshedding’ as Parker endeavoured to improve his technique and to find his own sound.

Back to the music and a version of Parker’s own “Scrapple From The Apple” with Martha Skilton replacing Waghorn on alto and sharing the solos with Jones on piano and Bruce on trumpet. Fiery and fluent Bruce was obviously relishing the Gillespie role, and despite the fact that this event was a tribute to a saxophonist there was sometimes the feeling that this was essentially the trumpeter’s gig, a recompense for the cancelled Club date in July.

In 1940 Parker joined the Orchestra led by pianist Jay McShann. It was with this KC based ensemble that Parker really began to establish himself, making his first ‘pre-bop’ recordings and also acquiring his ‘Yardbird’ nickname, later truncated to just ‘Bird’. The origins of the nickname remain shrouded in mystery, but possibly stems from the fact that Parker was the worst dressed member of the McShann band.

Next up was Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High”, announced by Goodyear and also introduced by him at the drums. This featured the pinched power of Bruce’s muted trumpet and further solos from Waghorn on alto, Jones on piano and Long on double bass. A frequent visitor to BMJ Long is an asset to any band, here his propulsive backing of his fellow band members was augmented by his virtuoso soloing.

In 1942, when Parker was in New York with the McShann band he stumbled across a new way of playing when experimenting at an after hours jam session led by guitarist Biddy Fleet. The war years represented a difficult time for musicians with a recording ban coming in to force, thanks to the shortage of Indian shellac. But it was during this period that Parker, now resident in New York, was expanding upon the epiphany he had experienced with Fleet and was developing the soon to be called ‘bebop’ style at Minton’s Playhouse in the company of such visionary musicians as Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk, drummer Kenny ‘Klook’ Clarke and later a young trumpeter named Miles Davis.  In 1945 Parker and Gillespie spent time and working in Los Angeles, with Parker remaining in California before returning to New York in 1947 to record for the Verve and Dial record labels, following the lifting of the recording ban.

The next musical performance was of “Barbados”, a tune with a Caribbean lilt and flavour, with Goodyear augmenting his kit drums by wielding a pair of shakers. With Waghorn sitting out Skilton was featured on tenor, sharing the solos with Long, Bruce and Jones.

Goodyear then talked about Parker’s notorious drug and alcohol addictions. A heroin addict since the age of sixteen he remained dependent for the rest of his life. His love life was no less turbulent and included three marriages to Rebecca Ruffing (1936, divorced 1939), Geraldine Scott (1942) and Doris Sydnor (1948), from whom he parted after just two years. Perhaps Parker’s most famous relationship was with Chan Richardson, with whom he had two children and who he considered to be his wife, although they never legally married, a situation that was to cause repercussions after his death.

The Gillespie tune “Dizzy Atmosphere” proved to be a feature for Bruce, with the band pared down to a quartet. Introduced by Long at the bass the first solo featured Bruce on muted trumpet, accompanied by Long’s rapid bass walk and Jones’ expert piano comping. The pianist was to take the next solo, followed by a second salvo from Bruce, this time playing with an open bell. Following Goodyear’s brushed drum feature the mute returned, with Bruce effecting a Miley-esque growl.

In 1946,  still in California and with his drug problems worsening Parker suffered a nervous breakdown and was treated at the Camarillo State Hospital, an experience that inspired one of his most famous compositions, “Relaxin’ at Camarillo”.

Another composition inspired directly by Parker’s drug experiences was “Moose The Mooch”, named after his dealer. This was performed by the full six piece with Skilton on alto and Waghorn on tenor. This featured solos from Waghorn on tenor, Bruce on dynamic high register trumpet, Skilton on alto and Jones at the piano. The horns then traded fours with Goodyear, who laid down a series of vigorously brushed drum breaks.

Parker was eventually arrested for possession of narcotics and his Cabaret Card revoked, meaning that he could no longer play the night clubs of New York City. This obliged him to play with pick-up bands in other US cities. Meanwhile his drug and alcohol addictions got even worse and he made two unsuccessful suicide attempts in 1954.

The Parker tune “Yardbird Suite” was partially inspired by his experiences of racism in the Deep South and was performed here by a quartet featuring Waghorn on alto in the Parker role and sharing the solos with Jones and Long, before trading fours with Goodyear at the drums.

On 12th March 1955 Parker collapsed and died at the apartment of his friend and patron, the ‘Jazz Baroness’  Pannonica de Koenigswarter.  The causes of death were multiple, with pneumonia, cirrhosis of the liver and a peptic ulcer all combining to trigger a fatal heart attack. Parker was only thirty four, the coroner’s report regarding his death describes him of “having the body of a man aged between fifty and sixty”.

The final musical performance was of Parker’s “Bloomdido”, by a quartet featuring Skilton on alto with the saxophonist sharing the solos with Jones and trading fours with Goodyear. Skilton, the daughter of BMJ promoter Mike Skilton, is a highly skilled saxophonist (and occasional pianist) who studied at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff and has made numerous Club and Festival appearances over the years in a variety of different line ups.

In his role as narrator Goodyear spoke of Parker’s influence and of how jazz could really be thought of in terms of “pre and post Bird”, citing how he had variously inspired Miles Davis, Art Blakey, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Through his own music, and through the music of those he inspired Bird’s music lives on, this event representing a musical and verbal homage to his “Icarus like flight”.

Of course Goodyear’s commentary could only scratch the surface of Parker’s chaotic life story. But for all his problems Parker’s musical career was highly productive and hugely influential and the musicians, in their turn could only dip into his vast and surprisingly well documented repertoire.

The playing, by a sextet featuring some of BMJ’s favourite musicians was excellent throughout and this event represented a welcome reminder both of their talents and of Parker’s mercurial musical genius.


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