Life-changing jazz albums: 'Charlie Parker with Strings'

Keyboard-player Lonnie Liston Smith talks about the album that changed his life, Charlie Parker With Strings, by Charlie Parker. Interview by Brian Glasser

I know the one straight away – it was ‘Just Friends’, Charlie Parker With Strings. I was in high school, about 15. I grew up in a musical home, so we were always surrounded by music. We’d be sitting on the stairs on the front porch, singing – that was just natural for us. My father was in the Harmonising Four, they bin’ all over the world and went to different festivals every year. They’d have their own one in Virginia, the Dixie Hummingbirds would have theirs in Philly, and so on. I’d be running about backstage as a kid, and there’d be the Blind Boys, Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers. Bobby Womack was singing gospel then. But when I heard Bird, I said ‘What is that?’ They said, ‘that’s Charlie Parker, Bird. He’s playing jazz – you know, improvisation.’


‘He was so free and warm – he was flying around the whole universe, just playing’


I was at a friend’s house. His dad had a nice jazz collection. They were playing it there one day, and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness!’ It was just unbelievable. I didn’t buy it – way back then, it was mainly radio. We had a piano in the house, but I wasn’t taking lessons. I could play the basic things, but when I heard that, I thought ‘I gotta learn about improvisation!’ That was the thing – playing different all the way through, changing the tune and so on. Bird was amazing because he could do that, but at the same time it was beautiful. A lot of people do improvisation and they can’t make it beautiful. He was so free and warm – he was flying around the whole universe, just playing.

So I just started to figure out things on my own. [Evidently sitting at piano, he plays down the phone: C major – A major – G major – F major chords.] Those are the chords for doo-wop and lots of R&B. All the songs were basically that – ‘Stand By Me’ and so on. I thought, ‘I can play this, but I’m tired of playing it!’ So I’d start playing: [plays expanded harmonies on the same chords and changes rhythm]. You’d keep on expanding. You try to figure out different sounds. That’s when I started listening to everybody – all the pianists, Art Tatum, Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson. Another great thing was when the jazz shows would pass through town – I heard the Count Basie Band when he played ‘April in Paris’, which I loved.

I never saw Bird play, but I worked with Max Roach and Miles Davis. My thing was, after [high] school I wanted to go to New York and try to meet and work with all the masters; and I did that. When I worked with Max, I’m quiet and laid back and he used to say ‘Man, Charlie Parker would have had a field day with you!’. Charlie was a genius but he had another side too!

I didn’t have no lessons – that’s the thing. Now you talk to kids, they go to jazz school; or they listen to records and write every note down. We were just experimenting. Then you start working, which brings you on – the first band I played in was the Metronome All-Stars, we’d be playing dances and everything. But I guess my thing was always to try to come up with a different sound, to figure out different things. Sometimes you’d be playing and something would just happen, and you’d think ‘Oh, my goodness’. That’s what you’d always be looking for – when that magic happens.

I worked with everybody – Pharoah and Gato and Rahsaan. The producer Bob Thiele said, ‘You’re getting known everywhere, it’s time for you to do your record.’ A few months later the record came out – Astral Travelling – and I was still with Miles. Bob said ‘You gotta support your record’; and I said, ‘Man, I’m not leaving Miles. I just did the record so I could say I’d done my own record.’ I told Miles: ‘They want me to support the record and I don’t want to do it’; and he just laughed and said, ‘You shouldn’t did [sic] the record!’

The art of music is fantastic, but the business – oh man, it’s bad. The whole thing for me has been love of the music. You start in church, then you get to studying all kinds of things, philosophies and religions and you say, ‘Wow – everyone’s saying the same things, so why are we fighting?’ That’s why I wrote ‘Expansions’. But people still doin’ crazy things …!

The album

Charlie Parker with StringsCharlie Parker

Charlie Parker With Strings

Mercury (1950)

PERSONNEL :: Charlie Parker (as), with orchestra.

TRACKS :: ‘Just Friends’, ‘Everything Happens To Me’, ‘April In Paris’, ‘Summertime’, ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’ and ‘If I Should Lose You’.



This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit:

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