Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Part 32: Leo Parker

On July 20, 1950, baritone saxophonist Leo Parker went into the Prestige studios with an all-star rhythm section of Al Haig, Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach. He recorded six tunes, and came away with almost nothing. The first, "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," was never released. "Mona Lisa," "Who's Mad" and "Darn That Dream" only saw the light of day in the 1970s, as part of the Fantasy/Prestige 24000 series, which was theoretically all reissues, even though in this case the initial issue never happened. We aren't counting 24000-series releases in this history, but these were originally recorded for Prestige, so they'd count. "I'll Cross My Fingers" and "Mad Lad Returns" were released as a 78 RPM single, so they would definitely count, but for one small detail. None of them are available on Spotify or YouTube, or any of the other video sites, so I wasn't able to listen to them.
Leo Parker made his first recording in 1944, at age 18, with Coleman Hawkins, on alto. After that, it was baritone all the way. Some say he abandoned the alto when he joined the legendary Billy Eckstine big band, so as not to be confused with the better-known alto player named Parker in the same organization. More likely, Eckstine needed a baritone player, handed the instrument to Leo, and said "You're it."

If that was the way it was, Eckstine made a wise decision, but Parker was not able to build the career his talent merited. The heroin scourge of the Fifties claimed him. He did make a comeback in 1961, making two albums for Blue Note -- one of which, one again, went unissued until 1986. Parker died of a heart attack in 1963, at the age of 38.

Searching Spotify for the Prestige sides, I entered "Leo Parker Darn That Dream," and came up with something that deserves a side excursion, which I was more than willing to make: a road trip to the intersection of Bebop and Rhythm and Blues Avenues, one of the neighborhoods that interest me most.
Bill Jennings made a whole series of recordings for King Records in Cincinnati in the 1950s. King was one of the great indie labels of the Fifties, recording rhythm and blues (James Brown, Wynonie Harris), country (Grandpa Jones, Cowboy Copas), and rock and roll (The 5 Keys, the "5" Royales, even the Platters' first records). Very little jazz.

And not all that many people share my enthusiasm for this first fusion music, so Bill Jennings has languished in obscurity, but you have got to listen to this stuff. It's been collected in a 2-CD set called Bill Jennings - Architect of Soul Jazz 1951-57. His band includes Leo Parker, Bill Doggett and Willis "Gator Tail" Jackson.
You can also find "Mad Lad Returns" on Spotify and YouTube, but it's from the 1961 Blue Note, not 1950 Prestige session. It's worth a listen to--talk about rhythm and blues meets bebop...and beyond. Wow.

Here's Leo Parker with Bill Jennings:

 And here's the 1961 version of "Mad Lad Returns":

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