A great man to be with: just one of many styles...

Charlie Parker

The experiences and opinions of Norwegian trumpetman


Rowland Greenberg

I was born in Oslo. My father was English; he was a Secret Service agent in the first war, and he met my mother in Stockholm. Then he had to scram out of the country in twenty-four hours. He thought it wasn’t so good to go as far as England; so he only went to Oslo, and my mother was able to join him there later. They remained there. My mother came from a family that was very involved in the theatre and the musical world. And it so happened that my father owned a cornet, which was given him by '>his father—I started playing that when I was about nine years old. It was given to me when I was ten, and I’ve been playing ever since.

With my father’s nationality, we always listened to Britain on the wireless, and heard all those old dance bands, which were really good at that time—bands like Lew Stone. And he brought home the first jazz records—which were Ellington and Armstrong. That’s the way I was introduced to jazz. I started listening to these records; after a bit, I’d try to sort of emulate their playing. I had my first professional jobs, in small combos, when I was sixteen.

The first out-of-the-ordinary job for me was the Paris Jazz Festival—in 1949, I think—where I played with an All-Star Trumpets session, which had in it Miles Davis, Bill Coleman, Jimmy McPartland and a Frenchman, Aime Barelli. But they also had a Swedish All-Stars band there, which made quite an impression on everybody. And it so happened that the trumpeter with this Swedish band was knocked down at the bar the first day; so they rang me, asked me to jump into his place. That made it quite different; I did a lot of playing at the Festival, instead of only the all-trumpet things.

And that was the first time I met Charlie Parker in person—he was at this Festival. It’s a bit of a funny story. I met a Norwegian, and he said: “Have you been down to the Club St. Germain Des Pres? You must go—they play exactly the style you play.” So I got the address, and I went down at about nine o’clock and looked for the place—I couldn’t find it. I went into a bar, sat down, had a drink and I asked the waiter where it was. “Oh, it’s right across the street, but they don’t open until ten o’clock.” I hadn’t found this small door, because they had a sign they hung out at ten, so you could find the place. This was a real hangout for musicians. There was a very good tenor player there, called Fohrenbach, who was very much in the Coleman Hawkins trend.

The combo, in fact, was a very conservative one, playing in the kind of Swing style that had been at its peak from about 1938 to 1940. When I came up and spoke to them, they tried to give the impression that they didn’t speak English—they thought I was a bopper, I believe, and they didn’t want me to play. They carried on playing, and after a bit I thought: “Well, this is exactly my kind of style—so I won’t ask”—I just took my trumpet out of the bag and started playing. Then they suddenly started speaking English!

We kept on playing, and, after the time that the concerts would have ended, down the staircase came Charlie Parker, with a French girl carrying his saxophone case. And he seemed to be amused by this playing; he was sitting there, laughing. I more or less wanted to lay off when they came down, as I thought perhaps he was wanting to play, but he said: “No —you carry on. This is great. Go on.” I kept playing for a while; then I put my horn away again, just about when Miles Davis came into the joint. They started playing, and Parker said: “Get your horn.” I said: “No, no.” “Yeah—get your horn, man.” And he insisted so much, that I had to pick up my horn and play with them.

But the thing is, Parker and Miles didn’t play bebop—on the contrary. The French rhythm section continued playing in the 1940 style; so they just had to adapt to it. They did it perfectly, and they were '>wailing on their horns. Parker seemed to be enjoying himself tremendously.  They never asked anybody to play any different on the drums or anything. Which goes to show.

So that was my first meeting with Parker. And later on, I had a Norwegian band, playing at this huge place in Copenhagen, called the KB Hall. Charlie Parker was there with Roy Eldridge, whom I’d met earlier, when he was with Benny Goodman. My band had a lucky strike in there—we more or less brought the house down—myself, a tenor player, piano, bass and drums.

It so happened that Parker was going on tour in Sweden for a week. and those Swedish guys asked me if I would come and do this tour with them. Which I was able to do. And being the best speaker of English, naturally, of the whole band, I got in touch with Parker a good deal during this time.

On the first day there, we had a terrific all-night session in a place called Linkoping; this was after we’d played a show, with the usual two sets. With us was the marvellous Swedish musician Arne Domnerus—absolutely the top, as far as alto players go. It was only when Parker was feeling at his best that he could really tackle him. Of course, Parker had this black thing going, you know which '>is different—but he wasn’t so good that he could surpass Domnerus when he was off form.

Anyway, this session went on till about six o’clock in the morning; it started off with this smorgasbord, which the Swedes have—all fish, done in different ways. Parker was really on top form—he loved this food, the Swedish booze and everything. So, after six, we got back to the hotel, everybody went to bed, and he didn’t ask when we were leaving the next day. But the train was leaving at eleven o’clock. At a quarter past ten, I had a call to my room, saying that they’d tried to waken Parker up, but they couldn’t get a reply from him. “Can you try?” They knew I’d been speaking to him all the time.

I went to his door, started banging; I listened carefully, and I could hear him snoring inside. I banged harder, kept on banging, and suddenly he woke up; “What’s the matter?” I said: “The train’s leaving.” “What train?” “We have to leave, to play in another town.” “But not as early as this! I’ve hardly fallen asleep . . . All right—come inside. Let’s have a drink.” This is at about ten in the morning.

He brought out this bottle of Danish Aquavit—which is hair-raising stuff. He asked me if I wanted some, and I didn’t just then, but he had a terrific sip; “This is really good, you know. It’s the best booze I’ve had.” I helped him pack his bag, and we went off to the station.

We all got on board the eleven o’clock train. He’d got up so late, he hadn’t had time to have any breakfast: so he said to the whole band: “Will you come and keep me company while I have breakfast?” Everyone else had been up and had theirs. He came into this dining compartment, and he said: “Well, let’s count now . .. six of us.” And to the waiter: “Let’s have six glasses of wine.” That was his first order! Nobody wanted wine, but I thought I’d keep him company; so I took one glass. He had an enormous Swedish breakfast, with eggs, bacon, bread and everything—and he finished five glasses of wine. After that, he said: “Now I feel real good.” Absolutely crazy. We went and sat down in his compartment; he had a lot of fan-mail he’d received, and he sat reading those aloud—grinning and laughing at them all the time. He was quite a character.

By the time we got to the place where we were due to play the next session, he was so tired—he was absolutely finished. In the dressing-room, before the first set, he said to me; Rowland—how do we get some booze?” I told him: “It’s just about impossible in '>this place.” Because this was one of the dance-halls they had in Sweden, run by the State; as they had very young people coming in they did not permit alcohol to served.

I said: “No, it’s hopeless.  But perhaps we can get it from the hotel. I’ll phone and ask.” So I was explaining to this head waiter “We’re at this place, we have Charlie Parker with us, and he wants a bottle of something to drink.” He said “Charlie Parker? Is that right? I’ll bring him a drink, but can I have an autograph?” I called out to Parker: “He wants an autograph.”—”Ah— he can have hundreds!”

Parker lit a cigarette, laid down on the sofa, and fell asleep. We took the cigarette away; then very soon we had to wake him up, as it was time to go in and play. Now, on that session Parker was feeling so bad Domnerus played him absolutely upside-down. Domnerus was so good that it only needed Parker to slip one millimetre for Domnerus to be better. The first set was no contest.

After the session, Parker got on the bed, fell asleep immediately; he slept for about half-an-hour. In the meantime, the waiter came along in a taxi with this booze, and I paid him. Then I woke Parker up, and I said: “Well, there’s another show to do”—and I showed him this booze. “Man—you fixed it!” “But he’s waiting for the autographs.” “Sure—just tell me how many he wants.” So he signed his name on three or four photos; the waiter went off, very happy. Parker asked me if I wanted a drink; I said “No, thanks”, and he put it to mouth, emptied half the bottle in one go. He sat there just looking straight ahead, and he said: “Now I’m feeling good.” 

He got his saxophone, we went onstage, and he played simply terrifically on that session. It just shows. If I’d done the same thing, I think it would have been impossible to play at all. When you wake up after having had very little sleep, more often than not you feel really terrible.  He was the opposite—he played like crazy. But he kept talking all the time about drugs. He told me: “Never touch drugs. Booze is all right, if you’re careful, and if you '>eat enough. I eat a lot, all the time. But drugs—taboo!”

Very few people know who his favourite jazz player was. One time, when we were sitting alone, I asked him: “Have you got any favourite?” He said: “Yes—without doubt. Chu Berry. There’s never been a player like him.” And another thing—he was always carrying this LP record around with him, and I was dying to know what it was. Finally, I had to say: “I’m so curious. What is this record?” He said: “Man, it’s my favourite musician of '>all”. And he showed me—Jascha Heifetz.

As far as I could see, Parker’s whole outlook was music. Certainly, he had a special style. But, in my opinion, there have been other people who have been just as great as Parker—for instance, Art Tatum. We’d come to a time, you know, when jazz had much more publicity; it was behind Dizzy Gillespie and Parker to a far greater extent than it was ever behind Roy Eldridge and Hawkins. The earlier ones didn’t have the long-playing records—and that makes a '>lot of difference. In Parker’s time, the LP became the important medium, but all the terrific players we had before, like Lester Young, missed out on this.

Today, nearly all the jazz musicians you hear are playing phrases by Parker or Gillespie. Which I think is a terrible thing. They had their own style, and every other player has to try to find his own style, somehow—otherwise jazz is finished. No, I definitely don’t regard Parker and Gillespie as founders of a whole new modern movement. In classical music, all this has been done ages ago; Ravel and Debussy played all these chords, and more, a long time before they were played by any jazz musicians. It comes entirely from that publicity angle. You could say just as much that Lester was a complete new change in jazz, and that Eldridge was, but they just weren’t publicised in that way.

Then again, if you look at the scene today, having said that Gillespie and Parker were the start of modern jazz—compared to Archie Shepp, they’re not modern. So where are we? In another ten years, you’ll have another style, and compared to that, Archie Shepp won’t be modern. So I think all that is baloney. It’s got nothing to do with jazz and music at all; it’s only a gimmick. There are ways of playing, that’s all.

Take the piano playing scene—which is always interesting, because at the piano you have all the harmonies together with the phrasing and everything. If you go back to the early ‘forties, everybody agrees that we had five giants on the piano, each with their own style—Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Mel Powell, Nat Cole and Fats Waller. But you don’t find that quality in one piano player today—even taking the very top into consideration. When you go to an Oscar Peterson concert, you hear him incorporating some Tatum stuff—and that, to me, is a silly thing to do. Because then you hear the difference. This is not putting Peterson down, because he’s a terrific piano player—but if you compare him to Tatum, then you have to start raising question marks. It’s the same if you compare him to Teddy Wilson at his peak.

I think that Teddy Wilson’s playing round about 1935 to 1945 was tremendous musically and rhythmically, in the jazz idiom—if we say that Armstrong was the basis of the idiom.. Then you can say that, if Armstrong; is jazz, a lot of the other stuff can’t be jazz—and vice versa. Teddy Wilson’s best playing is in the same idiom as Armstrong; so is Eldridge, Chu Berry—and even Parker.

About ten or fifteen years ago, it was the general opinion that it didn’t matter as long as they played jazz, and as long as you got the thing swinging. But that’s not the case, and they’re finding out more and more that one style is totally different to the other. It’s got a completely different feeling, and completely different people playing it—though it may be just as good as the next style. So nowadays you have this thing going with four, five or six contrasting styles of jazz. I mean, you can never say that Dizzv Gillespie’s better than Bobby Hackett—different, yes, but not better. Yet you get some people calling so-and-so “the world’s best”. There’s no such thing—it’s a matter of style. A person who’s really sold on Gillespie won’t be sold on Hackett. I knew Armstrong personally, and I know that he would think that Bobby Hackett was a much finer jazz trumpet player than Dizzy—because that was the way he felt. Yes, it was closer to his musical language.  

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1976

 Copyright © 1976, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved