A Twist Of Doc: The 67th Anniversary of Charlie Parker’s “Koko” Sessions

By Devon “Doc” Wendell

Charlie Parker is known as the creator of Bebop, the man who changed jazz as drastically as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Due to a ban on recording by the American Federation Of Musicians from 1942-44, Parker’s great musical discovery would remain a mystery until the release of his take on the Ray Noble classic “Cherokee,” recorded on November 26, 1945.

CHarlie Parker

Although Parker had recorded “All The Things You Are,” “Hot House,” “Salt Peanuts” and “Groovin’ High” back in February and May of that year as a side man with Dizzy Gillespie, these sides didn’t demonstrate what Parker claims to have stumbled upon as far back as 1939 during his first visit to NYC from Kansas City. While playing over the changes of Ray Noble’s “Cherokee,” Parker realized that by abandoning the traditional melody line and improvising over the chord changes with altered harmonies he could do anything.  “I realized by using the high notes of the chords as a melody line, and by the right harmonic progression, I could play what I heard inside me. That’s when I was born.”

Although many musicians were aware of what Parker had found and was using musically while attending or witnessing jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem or at the clubs on 52nd Street, the rest of the world came very close to never hearing this musical revolution on record.

There was chaos from the very start of the day for what turned into arguably the greatest jazz recording session of all time, exactly sixty-seven years ago.  On November 26th, 1945, Charlie Parker was booked to record a standard 3 hour, 4 side session for tiny Savoy Records at WOR studios in NYC.  This was Parker’s very first session as a bandleader. The band he had booked for this date was Charlie Parker’s Reboppers: Miles Davis: trumpet, Dizzy Gillespie: trumpet and piano, Bud Powell: piano, Curly Russell: bass, and Max Roach on drums.

The complications began when session producer Teddy Reig showed up at Parker’s apartment that morning to take him to the studio. There was no Bud Powell. Parker informed Reig that Powell had gone to Philadelphia to assist his mother in house shopping. Dizzy Gillespie was present and Parker told Reig, “Here’s your piano player.”  Supposedly, Parker also contacted a pianist he had heard on some of Dexter Gordon’s Savoy sessions from September named Argonne Thornton and asked him to show up and play.

Sixty-seven years later, there’s still confusion about what Thornton did in fact play on this date, since Gillespie was known to have played a bulk of the piano accompaniment according to Reig’s session notes.

Dizzy Gillespie

At WOR studios, Reig and Savoy owner Herman Lubinsky sat in the recording booth, with Parker, Davis, Gillespie, Russell, and Roach in the studio. They were scheduled to record two of Parker’s original blues; “Billie’s Bounce” and “Now’s The Time” and two covers, one based on the George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” and the other on Ray Noble’s “Cherokee.”

The band started with “Warming Up A Riff” which was based on the “Cherokee” chord changes. The original title of this tune was “Savoy Tea Party.”  The band was unaware that they were being recorded, which is evident in the existing track’s jam session feel, with Gillespie laughing loudly in the background.

The band then did several takes of Parker’s straight Kansas City blues “Billie’s Bounce.” The 5th take was the master from the session.  Followed by four takes of another blues, “Now’s The Time.”

Three takes of the tune based on ‘I Got Rhythm” were laid down and were titled “Thriving From A Riff,” which would later be known as “Anthropology.”  Parker was not happy due to some very obvious problems he was having with his sax.   Despite his brilliant playing, you can hear the squeaky mouth piece of his instrument on the master takes of “Billie’s Bounce” and “Now’s The Time.”

Miles Davis

At one point, Parker stopped the session to go downstairs to get his saxophone fixed at a music store. When he returned with his axe repaired, a 19 year old Miles Davis had temporarily vanished. A frustrated Parker went into a beautiful and haunting ballad, then titled “Meandering,” which was based on the changes of “Embraceable You” with Dizzy playing Monk-like, syncopated piano chords.

Next, it was time to record Parker’s version of “Cherokee.”  And there are still disputes over the exact personnel. Thornton claims to have played piano while Dizzy played the intro on trumpet along with Bird’s alto sax.  But Reig states that Roach’s drum solo after this intro was created to give Dizzy enough time to put down his trumpet and run to the piano.

It was also clear from the first take that Parker hadn’t intended on recording his version of “Cherokee,” using his masterful improvisational discoveries.

During the first take of “Savoy Tea Party,” using “Cherokee” chord changes, Parker played the classic “Cherokee” melody line.  But Reig and Lubinsky stopped the tape and reminded Parker that they would have to pay royalties for the song if he played it so obviously, which neither the label nor Parker could afford.

Parker and the band stopped. To simply warm up, Parker went into “Koko,” his own melody line based on the chords of “Cherokee,” demonstrating the enthralling musical discovery he’d made back in 1939.  Lubinsky shouted out “Wait, let’s record that!”

Max Roach

With the original stated melody line gone, replaced by his “Koko” melody, Parker could fly and he did. After a complex eight measure intro by Parker and Gillespie, followed by Roach’s bombastic drum solo, Parker let loose, gliding all over the instrument in a manner never heard before. “Cherokee” and “Savoy Tea Party’ were dead, giving way for the immortal “Koko.”  And Parker owned “Koko” with fierce determination.

To younger jazz musicians and people open enough to go where Parker was taking the music, Parker had provided the key to a golden kingdom. This wasn’t an easy task and only true virtuosos could follow Parker’s example.

Many musicians and fans of the swing era, previous to this, thought that Parker (rightly nicknamed “Bird”) was just playing any old thing and they hadn’t realized the complexities of the harmonies Parker created, not to mention his unparalleled dexterity. No one had done anything like this before, and generations of musicians would copy Bird’s every note and nuance from then on.

No instrumental jazz recording had broken similar barriers since Coleman Hawkins’ rendition of “Body & Soul,” recorded with his orchestra in 1939, in which Hawkins only hinted at the song’s melody and improvised freely over the chord changes for two choruses.

Bebop had broken free from the smelly taverns on 52nd street and smoky after-hour jams at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem. Now everyone could hear this music and everyone did.

I first heard “Koko” and the entire “Koko” sessions on a Savoy Parker Compilation called The Charlie Parker Story when I was 13.  The music frightened me. Parker’s tone was the deepest blues I had heard since Robert Johnson. The phrasing and harmonies seemed rebellious and daring like nothing I had heard before. There was a danger involved with what Parker and his cohorts were playing, as though, if one person made a wrong turn, everyone would fall off the tightrope wire.

Parker was like a laser beam, shooting through every interval on his alto sax.  Every time I listen to “Koko,” I still envision reaching the top of a giant hill on a rollercoaster.  And just when Max Roach’s drum solo ends, it’s time to take that dive into unknown twists and turns, and marvelous leaps and spills.

All of the players were perfect on that historical day. Many critics and players put down Davis because he didn’t demonstrate the freneticism on trumpet that Gillespie was known for. This can be heard on “Now’s The Time” recorded that day. Davis played very few notes but because they were the right notes, he created a counterpoint to what Parker was playing, a brilliant contradiction that would define his own sound.  Dizzy’s style wouldn’t have been right on “Now’s The Time” — this was the Kansas City blues Bird grew up on, and Miles knew it.

“Koko” was one of the greatest revelations in American music and unfortunately one of the last. The fact that it almost didn’t happen the way Parker conceived it, makes  everything played that day all the more precious and also makes one wonder what would have happened to jazz history had it not come off.  I don’t want to know.

To read more posts by Devon Wendell click HERE


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