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Charlie Parker, Born 100 Years Ago, Made Jazz Complexities Sound Deceptively Easy

More blues singer than Broadway, the Bird helped introduce bebop to jazz — and along the way redefined jazz velocity with his scrappy sound and pithy melodic figures.

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Other segments from the episode on August 28, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 28, 2020: Tribute to Charlie Parker.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Alto saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker, one of the great American musical geniuses of the 20th century, was an originator of what came to be known as bebop. Tomorrow, August 29, marks the hundredth anniversary of Parker's birth. To celebrate, we've pulled interviews from our archive with two musicians who played with him - Max Roach, who invented a new style of drumming for the bebop era, and Red Rodney, a young trumpeter who Parker hired to replace Miles Davis. We'll also hear from alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, who idolized Parker and would even loan his horn to Parker when Parker's saxophone was in hock. We'll hear their stories later in the show.

But let's kick things off with a tribute from our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead, who calls Parker one of the most brilliant and influential jazz musicians ever and one of the most notorious for his use of heroin and alcohol, leading to his death in 1955 at the age of 34. Kevin says at the heart of Parker's art was his virtuosity on the alto saxophone.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIZZY GILLESPIE, CHARLIE PARKER, THELONIOUS MONK, CURLEY RUSSELL AND BUDDY RICH'S "AN OSCAR FOR TREADWELL")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Like trumpeter Louis Armstrong and saxophonist John Coltrane, Charlie Parker was so influential, even players of other instruments wanted that sound. Trombonists, pianists, guitarists, drummers and more copped his style or phrasing. His sensibility pervades jazz on multiple levels. But when Charlie Parker first came up, some luminaries, like Armstrong, didn't get it at all. For one thing, there was Parker's unvarnished sound. Before him, even alto players who got around on the horn and were free with the beat, like Benny Carter, got a thicker, sweeter tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENNY CARTER'S "SWINGIN' AT MAIDA VALE")

WHITEHEAD: Benny Carter. Charlie Parker's tone, by contrast, is thin and coarse, more blues singer than Broadway. His Kansas City elder Lester Young was a role model there. That lighter sound let Parker be light on his feet and quick. He redefined jazz velocity. Up tempo, when you needed a moment to think, he'd insert some pet lick, a place holder that also served as an identifier, signing his name to a solo. No mystery why his nickname stuck - Bird. His scrappy sound and pithy little melodic figures had the rough beauty of bird calls plus the cartoon cry of Woody Woodpecker. Here's Bird serenading the crowd at a Harlem Ballroom in 1952.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "ROCKER")

WHITEHEAD: Charlie Parker mostly developed his voice on his own. But in New York in the early 1940s he fell in with like-minded players who also took possibilities to extremes like his sometime partner trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Max Roach. Their new style was dubbed bebop - radical then, jazz's wellspring now. The boppers added colorful extra notes to enrich a tune's chords and effect-piling an unrelated chord on top of the first one. Then the boppers leaned on those dissonant added notes in their solos. To some old-timers, it sounded like they were in the wrong key and lost in time, starting and ending their phrases in cracks between beats.

To make the composed and improvised parts fit together, boppers wrote fractious tunes that mirrored their solo language. But those abstract lines had their melodic charms just as the solos did. This is Bird's calypso "Barbados" from 1948.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "BARBADOS")

WHITEHEAD: Bird came up in Kansas City, where jazz was soaked in the blues. And the blues, with its vocalized instrumental flights, rueful ironies and comic interpellations, stayed close to Parker's heart. He was a master of sly quotations from diverse sources, studying a solo with fragments of radio pop, the New Orleans standard high society or the English pastoral country gardens, a range that spoke to his broad, unsnobby listening. He liked the doo-wop group The Clovers and Stravinsky, with his wrong notes.

Bird's quotations, like his blues, confirm his populist side. The 1948 classic "Parker's Mood" is a modified blues that distorts blues form but still comes out 12 bars long. He launches a solo with a basic blues lick, then quickly complicates things, making use of a pet repeated note stutter we've heard him use already.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "PARKER'S MOOD")

WHITEHEAD: Charlie Parker made all these complexities sound deceptively easy, almost like he followed a formula, one plenty of musicians tried to replicate. Umpteen alto saxophonists echoed his tone and inflections, and the best of them, like Jackie McLean or Charles McPherson, put their own spin on his style, attracting their own disciples. And yet, as at least one early fan would insist decades later, nobody was able to do what Parker was doing - though generations of players tried. As Charles Mingus put it in a song title, "If Charlie Parker Were A Gunslinger, There'd Be A Whole Lot Of Dead Copycats."

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "DEWEY SQUARE")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." Coming up, we go into the archives to listen back to my interview with Max Roach, the drummer on some of Parker's greatest recordings. That's after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "PERHAPS")

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Tomorrow marks the centennial of the birth of Charlie Parker, who was one of the originators of bebop in the 1940s. One of his musical peers was the late drummer Max Roach, who played on many of Parker's most important recordings beginning in the mid-'40s. Roach was one of the most influential drummers in the history of modern jazz, playing with Clifford Brown, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Abbey Lincoln, to whom he was married for many years. That's just a partial list. He was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant in 1988. Roach died in 2007. I spoke with him on FRESH AIR in 1987.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: I'd like to talk about your life a little bit. You got your start, I think, playing in Coney Island for - at sideshows. Is that right?

MAX ROACH: That's true. We used to do sometimes 12, 14 shows a day. And we'd have a barker outside. It was a barker who would say come on in. And the girls would go out and shake a little bit, and then public would come in. And we do, say, a 40-minute show and have 20 minutes off and they'd go back out - real sideshow. I enjoyed it.

GROSS: What kind of music did you play?

ROACH: Well, we played everything from small group versions of Khachaturian pieces where we - where the fire-eaters would - the ladies would dance and put fire all over themselves. And the comedian would say a few jokes. And a lot of fine musicians, dancers and choreographers had to do that for a living. I did it during the summers, you know? And yeah.

GROSS: You were a teenager then.

ROACH: Teenager - and that was it. You know, in order to master, I guess, your instrument, you have to do everything. I played with the local symphony orchestra. I played Coney Island sideshows and played with marching bands.

GROSS: Were you different than the other drummers who were playing in the same kinds of bands you were at the time? Did you know that you were doing something different?

ROACH: No. I'm - only - I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. So it's right next door, of course, to Manhattan. I think we all did the same things. Some of the guys dropped out. Some people - they got married or went to the post office or whatever. But there was some marvelous music - I grew up with some marvelous musicians.

GROSS: How did you first meet some of the people who you became very close with and made now classic music together with? I'm thinking of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Did they find you? Did you find them?

ROACH: Well, Dizzy Gillespie heard me in a jam session in a place called Monroe's Uptown House. Clark Monroe was the brother-in-law of Billie Holiday's first husband, Jimmy Monroe. And he was like a - kind of a patron for young talent in these after-hour clubs. These after-hour clubs would open up at 4 in the morning and go until 8. So we could work those places and still go to school - Bud Powell and a crowd of us. Well, he heard me. He was with Cab Calloway when he heard me. He said, someday when I get my own band - when I leave Cab Calloway, I would like for you to play for me. That's how I met Dizzy, and Dizzy got - introduced me to Coleman Hawkins, and I got my first record date.

And Dizzy was kind of like the catalyst of that whole movement that we call bebop. You know, he brought Charlie Parker. He discovered - in a way, you know, he brought Charlie Parker to New York and Bud Powell and all these wonderful people. He kind of had a group around him, you know? And I was just fortunate enough to be part of that. But that's how I really got started.

GROSS: You were one of the first drummers to play bebop. And you were one of the first people to figure out how to drum in the kind of fiery sessions that were being played. What were some of the challenges that that presented to you?

ROACH: Well, when they played fast, they played very fast. It was a period where instrumental virtuosity was - in our area - prevailed because during the war, you know, we had an extra - the Second World War - we had an extra 20% cabaret tax. It was very complex. To put it very simply, it was - if an entrepreneur hired, he had to pay for - say, he had to pay a city tax. Like, in New York, he had to pay a state tax and a federal tax. And upon that, he had - up on that - on top of that, he had to pay a 20% government tax called entertainment tax if he had a singer, if he had public dancing or dancing on a stage or a comedian.

This really heralded the demise of big bands during that time. This tax was just awful, you know? So the people who really got the jobs were the virtuoso instrumentalists. Everybody went home and practiced, practiced, practiced. And then that was the beginning of bebop - like, the people who - so Charlie Parker and Dizzy and Shearing. The virtuoso players were the ones who people would come and sit down. Everybody began to sit and listen to the music rather than get up and dance to it. That was the beginning of it.

GROSS: What rhythms had you been playing before? And what rhythms did you shift into playing once you started playing bop because you really had to - you had to invent new rhythms. You had to invent new styles.

ROACH: Yeah. Well, I also - I had help, too. I had a lot of help. My mentors were people like Big Sidney Catlett and Chick Webb and Jo Jones with the Count Basie band. For folks who don't know, these were people who played with Louis Armstrong and - Sidney Catlett did and later went with Benny Goodman. Sidney Catlett took Gene Krupa's place when Krupa started his own band. But all these folks, they were doing pretty much the same thing but only in large band contexts. When you played in a small band, you had to do more. More was required of you because there were less people. It was like playing in a string quartet vis-a-vis a symphony orchestra. It's much more interesting for the individual player. Of course, an orchestra's interesting for the composer and the conductor and the soloist.

But when you play in a smaller context, everybody has to do more to fill up the sound. So this was required of us, actually. I don't think we were aware of it except in that first small band I worked in. The first was Dizzy's. I worked in small bands, of course, all around the city at that time. But Dizzy was the one that - his band with Charlie Parker and Oscar Pettiford and Bud Powell or Charles Mingus, that was a real - all the virtuoso people got together. And that's - and we knew that you - everybody had to be kind of busy. So consequently, there were - you heard more drums. You heard more piano. You heard more this and that and the other to fill it out. That's to put it very simply, of course (laughter).

GROSS: Right. Well, to put it less simply, we'll hear some of what you were playing, then.

ROACH: Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: This is from the mid-1940s, and this is my guest Max Roach as recorded with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. And we're going to hear "Ko-Ko."

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "KO-KO")

GROSS: That was "Ko-Ko." It was recorded in 1945 with my guest, Max Roach, on drums and Miles Davis on trumpet, Charlie Parker on alto saxophone. Does it bring back memories for you? Do you listen back to that much?

ROACH: It sure does. Charlie Parker at that time, as well as Dizzy, the music was very, very fresh. And I guess you would equate it with what we hear today from people like Anthony Braxton, at least they treated us that way. We were the new breed on the scene. And they would say things, well, like - the critics would say, Dizzy sounds like he's playing with a mouthful of marbles. And Charlie Parker was playing scales from a saxophone both - just only scales. And Max Roach dropped bombs. I don't know (laughter) but it was interesting. But Powell had no left hand. And it was, you know, we were criticized. But some of it was valid, I thought. You know...

GROSS: Really?

ROACH: ...We had a long way to go, you know?

GROSS: My interview with Max Roach was recorded in 1987. He died in 2007. After a short break, we'll continue our tribute to Charlie Parker with interviews from our archive featuring two other musicians who had a close association with Parker, trumpeter Red Rodney and saxophonist Jackie McLean. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "I REMEMBER YOU")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Tomorrow is the centennial of the birth of one of the greatest musicians in jazz history, saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker. We're celebrating by listening back to interviews in our archive with musicians who knew him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RED RODNEY: Dizzy took me up to New York one Sunday, sat me in the middle of The Three Deuces to hear his band. And I heard Charlie Parker. It was like a religious experience. I was completely overwhelmed. I remember leaving that place, 4 o'clock in the morning, and walking around like I didn't know what to do, where to go, how to think. But I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. That's how powerful that affected me.

GROSS: That was trumpeter Red Rodney. In 1949, after playing in the bands of Claude Thornhill, Gene Krupa and Woody Herman, Rodney ended up in the place that every young jazz musician wanted to be - Charlie Parker's band. Parker hired Rodney to replace Miles Davis. Rodney left the band a couple of years later, and his career floundered, in part due to a drug habit. He made a comeback in the '70s and played until his death in 1994. I spoke with Red Rodney in 1990.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: One of the celebrated stories in jazz lore is a story of how, during one of your tours through the South with Charlie Parker, he knew that an integrated band wouldn't go over well in the segregated South, that there were places you wouldn't be allowed to play. So he had the band advertised as Charlie Parker with Albino Red. So you were passed off as a Black albino. This is a true story, right?

RODNEY: Yes, it is. We didn't fool anybody. Everybody was very nice, and they had me singing blues like the kid in the movie did. I think I sang better than that, though.

GROSS: Is the story true that you ended up moving to a white hotel and Parker said, I'll come with you; you could call me your valet?

RODNEY: Yeah.

GROSS: So tell me the valet story.

RODNEY: Well, after about a week or 10 days, we were in Atlanta, and I saw this big, beautiful hotel. And I said, you know, I'm going to go check in there. I'm going to take a bath. I'm sorry, but I'm doing it. He says, that's a good idea, and I can go with you as your valet. And I thought he was crazy, but he knew the South. If any white man at that time would register and say, John Jones and valet, they would not question it, and they'd give the valet a room along with him. And that's what happened.

GROSS: Let me play something that you recorded with Parker. Let's hear Parker's composition "Blues For Alice." And would you like to say anything about your memories of this recording session?

RODNEY: Well, that particular session, I was playing in the Jewish Alps, the Catskill Mountains.

GROSS: (Laughter).

RODNEY: And all of a sudden, I got a phone call while I'm in the swimming pool. And he said, you better get down here quickly; Norman Granz is doing a record date with us, and told me the studio. And I said, I'll be right down. Well, it took four, three, four hours to get there, but I made it. And that was it. That was the "Blues for Alice," "Swedish Schnapps" date. I think it's called "Swedish Schnapps," the album. At least originally it was.

GROSS: So this is Charlie Parker with Red Rodney on trumpet, John Lewis at the piano, Ray Brown on bass, Kenny Clarke, drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "BLUES FOR ALICE")

GROSS: My guest Red Rodney on trumpet in that recording of "Blues for Alice," recorded with Charlie Parker and Red Rodney. Well, Charlie Parker eventually hired you to replace Miles Davis. Did you feel prepared for that?

RODNEY: Not really, no. I told him, too. I told him I really wasn't ready for that. And he said, well, let me be the judge of that. He said, I know a good trumpet player when I hear one, and I think you are ready. And you'll be more ready once you come. And, of course, I grabbed it. I often say that was like going to college and graduate school the three and a half years I played with him.

GROSS: Did Parker take you under his wing in addition to taking you into his band?

RODNEY: Well, I don't know about that. We were very friendly even before that, and, of course, we became more friendly when I was working for him. I was thrilled that a man like that could like me. I don't think I liked myself very much, but I was really thrilled that he did. And I guess you might say he took me under his wing a little bit, yeah. Of course, when he saw that I was trying to emulate him, he protested violently.

GROSS: Emulate him in which ways?

RODNEY: Well, in his drug use. He got very, very upset, and, of course, he didn't like it at all.

GROSS: Did you start using heroin as a way to emulate him? Is that what it was about?

RODNEY: Yes. I was very immature, and I kept looking and looking and saying, oh, my God. If I cross that line, could I possibly play like that? Curiosity killed the cat, you know? And pretty soon, you wind up with a little habit. You don't play any better. In fact, you don't really live up to your potential because you have to be healthy to play well. And there it is. It took me years to get away from it.

GROSS: What did Parker do to try to discourage you - anything - discourage you from using?

RODNEY: Well, many things. He threatened to fire me every day. He let me know in no uncertain terms how terrible a thing it was and how he couldn't handle it. What made me think that I could? Well, it turned out that it killed our greatest - or one of our greatest musical giants at the age of 34. And the young kid that was there who was able to get straight is now 63 years old and fairly successful. So there's the paradox.

GROSS: My interview with trumpeter Red Rodney was recorded in 1990. He died in 1994. We'll continue our tribute to Charlie Parker with an interview from our archive with the late saxophonist Jackie McLean after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "MILESTONES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our tribute to Charlie Parker. Tomorrow is the centennial of his birth. One of Parker's many disciples was alto saxophonist and composer Jackie McLean. McLean soon found his own voice as one of the leaders of hard bop. In the late '50s, McLean played with the band most associated with hard bop, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Mclean's mentors, along with Parker and Blakey, were Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus. Later, McLean became a mentor to many young players. In 1968, he founded the African American music department at the University of Hartford. Jackie McLean died in 2006. I had the opportunity to speak with him five years earlier in 2001.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You got your first alto saxophone at the age of 15. How did you get it?

JACKIE MCLEAN: I got it on my 15th birthday, but I had been playing a year. My godfather, Norman Cobbs, played the saxophone, and he gave me a soprano saxophone for my 14th - when I was 14. And then my mom and my stepfather bought me an alto when I was 15.

GROSS: You said that you really preferred the sound of a tenor saxophone and you tried to make the alto sound like a tenor. How come you didn't get a tenor?

MCLEAN: Well, I didn't know that much about the instruments at that particular time. All I wanted was a saxophone. My mother went out and, I guess, bought the cheapest one. A tenor costs more than an alto, so she bought me an alto. And that was good in a way because I took the alto. And even though I loved Lester Young and the tenor players - Dexter Gordon - I just tried to do the best I could on my alto to make it sound that way - until I heard Charlie Parker. And when I heard Charlie Parker play the alto saxophone, that kind of settled it for me.

GROSS: Were there things that other guys your age were doing that you shut out of your life so that you'd have more time to practice?

MCLEAN: Oh, yeah. My friends were running behind Zorro and Batman, Superman, all those people.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCLEAN: And I was running behind Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie (laughter). They were my heroes.

GROSS: Bud Powell was one of your friends when you were still a teenager, and you learned a lot from him. How did you meet the pianist?

MCLEAN: Well, his brother came to my dad's record shop. And I was playing a record with Bud playing the piano on one of Charlie Parker's recordings. And he just happened to be listening to it. And I happened to tell the person that was buying the record that this was Bud Powell on the piano. And when the guy bought the record and left, he came to me and said, that's my brother, Bud Powell. And I said, really? I said, what do you play? Do you play music? And he said, no. And I took a good look at him. And I said, sure, right. I don't believe Bud Powell's your brother.

So he said he'll prove it to me. He came back that Sunday and took me around to his house, where I met Bud. And it frightened me to death when Bud came into that room and sat down at the piano and started playing. I almost passed out. I mean, I was sitting in the room with this great master that I didn't believe was his brother.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCLEAN: And from that moment on, Bud and I became friends. Of course, there was a great deal of difference in our ages. Bud is - I guess was about seven or eight years older than me. But he used to let me come down to the house and bring my saxophone and play. He would play with me. And it was very helpful. It really helped me a whole lot to get myself together musically. And he did that for Sonny Rollins, too. In fact, Sonny made a recording with Bud, I think when he was very young, maybe around 18.

GROSS: So when this guy told you that he was Bud Powell's brother but that he didn't play, was that Richie Powell? 'Cause Richie Powell...

MCLEAN: Yeah, it was Richie.

GROSS: ...Did play.

MCLEAN: Yeah, he did. I'm the one that started him playing 'cause Bud didn't want him to play music. And he did everything he could to keep Richard from learning how to play. And...

GROSS: Why? Why was he opposed to it?

MCLEAN: I have no idea. I think it was kind of to be protective of Richard 'cause during those days, it was a lot of things going on in clubs amongst musicians. And I guess it was kind of a protection. But at any rate, I encouraged Richard to study with somebody else - a piano player named Bob Bunyan that I knew. And Richard was another genius. I mean, he learned how to play immediately - as soon as he sat at the piano.

GROSS: When Bud Powell walked into the room, did you recognize him and realize, OK, it really is Bud Powell? Or was it not until he started playing that you were sure?

MCLEAN: It wasn't until he started playing because I had never seen him in my life. He walked in and said, you don't believe that I'm Bud Powell? And that got - I couldn't answer. I just looked. And he stepped over to the piano and sat down and started to play. And oh, boy - I knew it was him the minute he touched the piano.

GROSS: Were you embarrassed or apologetic?

MCLEAN: I was flabbergasted. I was happy and all kind - I was all mixed up. I mean, it was an incredible moment for me in my life. You know? I mean, it - that time that I spent with Bud was - I guess I was just 15 at the time. For the next two years, I was down his house every week. I'd go down and spend the weekends. And sometimes he would play, and sometimes he wouldn't.

But I also got a chance to - his mom used to let me take him to his jobs, go with him and accompany him to different jobs that he had. So I was able to go with him to clubs like the Royal Roost when they used to have afternoon sessions and take Bud down so - and watch him play, bring him back home because he was - he had just come out of the hospital. He had a lot of shock therapy, and he needed someone as a chaperone with him all the time during these years. So I was very fortunate that fate chose me to be the person to accompany this great genius. It was like going into a place with Bach or Beethoven, some real great master of music. I was very fortunate.

GROSS: What kind of mental illness was he diagnosed with? Was it schizophrenia?

MCLEAN: Well, he got beat up in Philly. The police beat him up when he was with Cootie Williams' band. And they hit him in the head with a blackjack. And he was sick from that. And I don't know how his - what his diagnosis was. But I do know that they did electronic therapy on him, shock treatment.

GROSS: Shock therapy.

MCLEAN: Yeah. And when he came home - I didn't know him before he had this shock therapy. So when he would ask me - who is Sonny Stitt, or did I make a record with Charlie Parker? - I mean, it was because he was trying to get his mind together. It was an incredible period in his life.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 2001 interview with alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUD POWELL'S "TEMPUS FUGIT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Charlie Parker's birth, which is tomorrow. Let's get back to my 2001 interview with the late saxophonist Jackie McLean, a disciple of Parker's and also of the great pianist Bud Powell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Jackie McLean, what are some of the things you learned from Bud Powell? What was his approach to teaching you?

MCLEAN: Well, you know, in a way, he kind of spoiled me because I would ask him about chord progressions and things like that. And he would say, don't worry about that. Just use your ears. And he'd play chords on the piano and teach me melodies. And I'd play with him. And I did as he said. I used my ears. And so I was very late in really learning the theory of music. By the time I started playing with musicians like Miles Davis, I had to really turn around and start to do a serious study on chord progressions and such because I was a little behind just playing by ear.

GROSS: Your first record date when you were 19 was with Miles Davis. And I'm wondering how you got the date.

MCLEAN: Well, you know, you don't get a date, you earn it. Bud called me to the house one day and told me, he said, listen; Miles needs an alto player. I want you to go down and sit in with him in Birdland, the club. So I'll never forget it. It was a Monday night. So I came in from school that afternoon and practiced and headed down to Birdland where Miles had left my name on the door. And I went in and sat in with his band. And I guess he liked the way I played. And he said, come out to my house tomorrow. And he gave me his address. I went to his house. We practiced the next day. Then I started getting a few jobs with him. And Sonny Rollins was also working in Miles' band. So we were together again in Miles' band.

GROSS: What was the advice or instructions that Miles gave you for this session?

MCLEAN: Well, one of the things that he told me, he said, you've got to learn something about the piano. You know nothing about the piano. You need to learn how to construct chords. And you learn - you've got to learn how to play by chord progressions as well as by ear. And so that was very helpful to me. Miles was very encouraging to me during those years.

GROSS: Do you want to choose a track from this session with Miles Davis, the "Dig" session, that you'd like to play?

MCLEAN: Maybe the title track, "Dig."

GROSS: Sounds good. Let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "DIG")

GROSS: That's "Dig" from the Miles Davis CD of the same name. It was the first recording session that my guest, Jackie McLean, was featured on back when McLean was 19 years old. Did this date change your life?

MCLEAN: It certainly did. It frightened me to death because the day that I went into the studio to make the recording, Charlie Parker was there. He was sitting in the room with the engineers. And when I walked in and saw him sitting in there, I almost passed out because he was my idol. And I just felt like I couldn't play with him there. But he came out of the booth. He saw I was nervous and came over and talked to me and calmed me down. And I was able to do it.

GROSS: Did he say anything about what he thought of your playing?

MCLEAN: Oh, yeah. He always encouraged me to play and always told me he thought I played well. You know, a guy like Charlie Parker could destroy a young player by just saying, you don't sound good at all; you need to go home and practice, or something like that. And it could really crush somebody who looked up and admired him as much as I did. So he - I imagine he could see that, and he really encouraged me a lot. He did a lot for me in my early days.

GROSS: Was this the first time you met Parker?

MCLEAN: No. Oh, my goodness. I used to run around behind him like a puppy dog.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCLEAN: We used to go downtown and wait to see him come out of the subway when he was going to work at The Three Deuces on 52nd Street. And we'd be standing out there from 8:30 at night waiting for him to show up. Sometimes he didn't show up till 9, 9:15. And when he'd come out of the subway, we'd fall right in step with him and talk to him all the way around to the club, and then he'd go inside - just to be close to him, just so that he would know us, me and one of my buddies.

GROSS: Was he flattered? Did he mind?

MCLEAN: Yeah. He was - I think it knocked him out, especially when he asked me - asked my friend and I if we lived in that neighborhood. And we told him, no, we came down from Harlem to see him. So he said, you guys live all the way uptown? We said, yeah. You come all the way down here? I said, yeah. I said, I've got to get going to get home now, or my mother's going to kill me because I used to have to be home before 10:30 at night. And so we'd go downtown at 8:30, see Charlie Parker, walk him to the club, stand outside the club till about quarter of 10 and make a mad dash for the subway so we could get home.

GROSS: What would happen if you didn't get home by 10:30?

MCLEAN: Well, my mom would be very upset with me, you know? She would be very angry with me and say, listen. When I tell you to be in at 10:30, I don't mean quarter to 11 or 11. I want you in here at 10:30, or you can't go out next weekend. So she was very strict on me that way.

GROSS: And would she actually have prevented you from getting out, or would you have, like, walked out the window?

MCLEAN: Oh, no. My mom was - I was an only child. I knew how to hug and kiss her and get her to let me go.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCLEAN: Yeah.

GROSS: Now, there were times when Charlie Parker had to hock his saxophone in order to get money to buy heroin. And he would sometimes borrow your horn for days, and I think there were one or two times when he actually hocked your horn as well. How did you feel about giving it to him, knowing that that could happen?

MCLEAN: Well, it wasn't quite that simple. Charlie and I used to rent horns from off of 48th Street and 46th Street. And when he had the horn, sometimes I needed to use it. He would loan it to me. And one time, he came to me, and he asked me to go rent the horn from the store. And I went and did that, and then he came and borrowed the horn from me and pawned it. And so I had to go back to the store and say, the horn is gone. And the man was very upset with me and, you know, was angry at me for a number of years. And - but eventually, Charlie straightened it out.

GROSS: What did he do?

MCLEAN: I think he went by the store and paid him the $300 or whatever it cost.

GROSS: Would you get angry with Parker for that or just kind of accept it as part of who he was?

MCLEAN: I couldn't get angry with him for anything. I mean, he had - those problems that he had I didn't understand at that particular time. I never got really angry at him about anything.

GROSS: Now, how did knowing him and loving his playing as much as you did change your idea of what to do on alto saxophone?

MCLEAN: Well, it's like somebody teaching you the next step and showing you the next direction to go in. And I think that's what he did for all of us - I mean, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, practically all of us. I would say all of the saxophone players that came during that period. Charlie Parker was a person that pointed in the direction, and then everybody tried to develop their playing style according to what he had done prior to 1945, '46 because early on, he sounded very much like Lester Young. And it was much easier to copy some of his ideas that he played when he was working with Jay McShann. But from around 1945 on, his playing became so intricate and technical that very few young saxophone players could copy his stuff.

GROSS: My interview with alto saxophonist Jackie McLean was recorded in 2001, five years before his death. And that concludes our tribute to Charlie Parker. Tomorrow is the centennial of his birth. Parker died in 1955 at the age of 34.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "JUST FRIENDS")

GROSS: Monday on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Cherry Jones, who is nominated for an Emmy for her performance in the HBO series "Succession." She's already won two Emmys for her performance in "24" as President Allison Taylor and in "The Handmaid's Tale" as Offred's mother. On "Transparent," she played an iconic lesbian poet and professor. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram.

We want to thank Joel for responding to our call a few months ago when we really needed him. He was key in keeping us on track while we all learned to work at home. He's edited many of my interviews during that time from his home. This wasn't the first time we've been grateful to him for responding to our SOS. It's always a pleasure to work with him. Thank you, Joel. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "JUST FRIENDS")

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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