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Great Encounters #42: When Horace Silver played with Charlie Parker

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Charlie Parker

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Horace Silver

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“Great Encounters” are book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons.  In this edition, the great jazz pianist Horace Silver writes of five different occasions he played with Charlie Parker.

Excerpted from Let’s Get to the Nitty Gritty: The Autobiography of Horace Silver

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I had the good fortune to play with Bird on five occasions, all one-nighters. The first was a dance gig in Stamford, Connecticut. My quartet, featuring Hank Mobley on tenor, Doug Watkins on bass, and Arthur Edgehill on drums, was booked for the gig with Charlie Parker and blues singer Annie Laurie as added attractions. What a soulful night that was! I wish I could have caught it on tape, The second time was when the Jazz Messengers played a Friday night gig at the Open Door in Greenwich Village. Bird came in and sat in with us.

The third time was when I played a dance gig with him in Buffalo, New York. Walter Bishop Jr. was his regular piano player, but “Bish” got sick and asked me to sub for him. The band was made up of Little Benny Harris on trumpet, Charlie Mingus on bass, Kenny Clarke on drums, myself on piano, and Bird. I met Little Benny Harris at the information booth at Grand Central Station and went up to Buffalo by train with him. We arrived there in the early afternoon. The dance didn’t start until early evening, so we went by the apartment of one of Benny’s musician friends in Buffalo to kill some time. While there, Benny and his friend started to shoot up some heroin. I thought to myself, “Oh, God, suppose the police come in here now and bust us all.” We made it to the gig, and the band was on fire.

The fourth time I played with Bird was at the Baby Grand in Harlem, where he had a quartet with Walter Bishop Jr. on piano, Roy Haynes on drums, and a bassist. They played three sets a night. I came in to listen to them on their second set and stayed for the third. Walter Bishop asked me to sit in on the third set. Naturally, I said yes. Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan also sat in on that set. At the end of the set, Bird came over to me and said, “Man, you sure are comping your ass off.” I was very elated to get this compliment from Bird. I was walking on a cloud the next two weeks.

I played with Bird for a fifth time at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, where he sat in with my quartet. We were on intermission, and I was standing at the bar when I saw him come in. He walked straight up to me at the bar. It was obvious that he was hight.

He started pushing me. I said to myself, “Why is he pushing me? I haven’t done anything to him.” He kept pushing me backward until he got me up against the kitchen’s swinging doors, and then he pushed me into the kitchen. The kitchen was closed at that time, and no one was in there. I didn’t want to try and fight him. I had too much respect for him to do that. Besides, I didn’t think I would come out the winner. I said to myself, “He’s gonna punch me and lay me out right on this kitchen floor.” All of a sudden, he lunged at me, put his arms around my neck, and said, “Man, where am I?” He was so high he didn’t know where he was.

Bird was playing his white plastic saxophone in those days. He came up on stage to sit in with us. He called the tune “Laura,” which was written in the key of C. I started the introduction in the key of C, and he started to play in a different key. He couldn’t seem to get with it. He got disgusted with himself and raised his horn in the air and started to throw it out into the audience. Luckily, he held back. That was the only time I’ve ever seen Bird when he couldn’t get his shit together. I don’t know what drugs he had taken earlier, but they sure fucked him up.

Art Blakey told me some stories about when he worked with Charlie Parker in the Billy Eckstine band. Art said that the whole saxophone section was using heroin. They all had empty Maxwell House coffee cans under their music stands so that when they had to puke, they could just duck their heads under the music stand and puke into the can, and the audience would not be aware of it. Art said that Billy Eckstine used to jokingly call him “Baa.” Billy pronounced it just like the noise a sheep makes. He said the initials stood for “Black Ass Art.”

According to Art, the band was playing a song that Bird was to solo on. Bird was high and had fallen asleep in the middle of the tune. Everyone in the band was wondering if he would wake up in time to come in on his solo. He woke up just in time, jumped out of his seat, went to centerstage to the mike, with the spotlight on him, and played a phenomenal solo. However, he had taken his shoes of beforehand and was centerstage in the spotlight in his stockingfeet with holes in both socks. Charlie Rouse was also in the saxophone section at that time. Rouse was so awestruck at what Bird played that he sat there with his mouth wide open and missed his own cue to come in when the section was to hit.

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Excerpted from Let’s Get to the Nitty Gritty: The Autobiography of Horace Silver