Feb 11, 2017 - Bird with Strings

Back in 1949 and 1950, the celebrated jazz saxophonist Charlie “Yardbird” Parker recorded a pair of albums that became the biggest sellers of his career. Done for record producer Norman Granz, these two discs – both titled Charlie Parker with Strings – surrounded the bebop pioneer with a full string section, turning him loose on a variety of pop and big-band standards like “Laura,” “April in Paris” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”

As often happens when a genre star tries something different, many jazz critics of the time weren’t kind to Charlie Parker with Strings, considering the whole project a kind of sellout. With time, however, recognition has come to the discs; in 1988, they were admitted to the Grammy Hall of Fame, which honors “recordings of lasting qualitative or historic significance,” according to the Grammy website (

At this point, you may be wondering why something about Charlie Parker is appearing in this column. After all, he wasn’t an Oklahoman (although he was close – a Kansas City, Kansas native who grew up in Kansas City, Missouri). I could tell you he’s here because his first extensive recording sessions, done just about a decade before Charlie Parker with Strings, came while he was with the band of pianist Jay McShann, the jazz and blues legend from Muskogee. The real reason, though, is a brand-new Parker-related CD by Clark Gibson, director of jazz studies at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah. Released on the Chicago-based Blujazz label, Bird with Strings: The Lost Arrangements features treatments of 14 songs arranged for Parker during his Charlie Parker with Strings period but never recorded.

Most of them weren’t, anyway. As saxophonist Gibson notes, a few showed up later in recordings of Parker’s live concerts.

“‘Repetition’ was one that he played in concert, and the reason we did it was because, historically, it was the most important piece of that whole [Charlie Parker with Strings] project,” he explains. “It was the first piece Charlie Parker ever recorded with strings. And it stayed in his repertoire for live shows. He performed ‘Stardust’ live at his Rockland Palace concert [in New York, 1952], and there’s a bootleg recording of that, but the sound is so bad you can’t hear the arrangement. The same goes for ‘Gold Rush,’ which he played on that same concert. Other than those three, he never recorded any of the songs we put on the CD.”

“Repetition,” written by Neal Hefti (best-known to baby-boomers and nostalgia fans for composing the theme to TV’s Batman), was one of the songs producer Granz wanted for a recorded collection of what Gibson describes as “a snapshot of everything happening [in New York’s jazz scene] around the late ’40s.” In addition to Hefti, the producer hired several other top jazz figures of the time, including Parker, to record their own tunes.

“Norman Granz had rented out all the rooms in Carnegie Hall for these recording sessions,” notes Gibson. “So Bird finished recording his song in one room and, as he was walking out, he heard Neal Hefti rehearsing ‘Repetition’ with a big band and strings.

‘Repetition’ had been written for no soloists, but when Bird went in and asked if he could play on it, Neal Hefti said, ‘Sure.’ And that’s how it all started.”

Flash forward to a year or two ago. Gibson, a longtime Parker fan, as well as a professional, working saxophonist and recording artist, was deep into his doctoral dissertation at the University of Illinois, writing about Charlie Parker with Strings. His research led him to a publishing company that owned the arrangements from those two records – and, as it turned out, quite a bit more.

“While I was on the phone with them, they told me, ‘You know, we have all these arrangements that were commissioned by Charlie Parker in the early 1950s in our archives. He played some of them, he didn’t record any of them, and some of them we don’t think he even rehearsed. We’re looking for someone to do an album of all these.’

“I said, ‘Well, I’d love to do it.’”

This is a great project to be doing with colleges, because it gives the opportunity for their classical programs and jazz programs to collaborate,”

And just like that, Bird with Strings: The Lost Arrangements was born. Recorded in one day at the University of Illinois, it features Gibson in the Charlie Parker role, fronting a group of musicians that strove to recreate the original Charlie Parker with Strings sound.

“We recorded it all live, in a big concert hall, and maybe my biggest challenge was being 30 feet away from the rhythm section,” he says with a chuckle. “Sometimes it’s hard to keep time when you’re that far away from the bass player and drummer, and we did it a traditional way, with no headphones or anything like that.

“One thing I’m really happy with is the guy who recorded it, Kevin Bourassa, went out and researched everything they did on Charlie Parker with Strings, right down to the mikes and all equipment they used. He really tried to replicate that situation.”

However, Gibson adds, he personally knew better than to try and replicate Charlie Parker.

“I can’t sound like Charlie Parker,” he says, laughing. “Nobody else can, either. I don’t think there’s anyone alive today, or since Bird’s death [in 1955], who can really sound like him. Bird heavily influenced me, and I’ve been studying him since I was 13 years old, so he’s a huge part of my own artistic voice. I played it in my voice.”

The numbers on the disc fall into two categories: Great American Songbook standards, including “Stardust,” “They Didn’t Believe Me” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and jazz originals like George Russell’s “Ezz-thetic” (built on the chord progression of Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale,” making it what jazz people call a contrafact) and Parker’s own “Yardbird Suite.”

“I can’t say why he never recorded some of these,” Gibson says. “Norman Granz was very commercially minded, and he might’ve listened to ‘Ezz-Thetic’ and thought, ‘This is not going to sell.’ And Bird didn’t like the arrangement of ‘They Didn’t Believe Me,’ so he didn’t do it; I think he thought it was a little too campy. But some of these arrangements are beautiful, like ‘I Cover the Waterfront’ and ‘You Go to My Head.’

“It’s hard to speculate,” he adds, “especially with Bird’s health problems and his addiction issues. I think a lot of these just went by the wayside.”

Thanks to Gibson, they’ve now been rescued. And in addition to the disc, he’s got several Bird with Strings concerts planned, including one in conjunction with the orchestra and jazz departments of Tulsa Community College on March 25, just about the time this issue sees print. Another is tentatively scheduled for the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame’s Jazz Depot in April. And he’s working on more.

“This is a great project to be doing with colleges, because it gives the opportunity for their classical programs and jazz programs to collaborate,” he notes. “I hope we’ll see a lot more bookings, too. I’m not trying to be egotistical or anything, but the great thing about hearing this music played live is that you’ll probably never get a chance to hear it that way again.”


JOHN WOOLEY, Oklahoma Magazine