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The Ko-ko session: November 26, 1945, Charlie Parker Reboppers' recording for Savoy

Let's take a look on a famous and much discussed recording session, about which there is still a bit of confusion, and the most absurd legends still live.

In cover notes of 'Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy Studio Sessions' we find:

"Documents from the Savoy files and the recollections of Teddy Rig, who produced the session, indicate that a standard three hours/four side session was scheduled for November 26, 1945, at the WOR studios in New York for which Parker would supply original compositions.

Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Curly Russell, Max Roach were booked for the date. Bud Powell had gone to Philadelphia, so Dizzy proposed himself to Reig as the piano player. Parker also contacted pianist Argonne Thornton (Sadik Hakim).

It had been agreed that the four sides would be two new Parker blues and two 'heads' on I Got Rhythm and Cherokee."

So let's have a look to what was recorded.

- three takes (take 2 is incomplete, stopped during Parker solo) of Billie's Bounce, the first of the two F blues

- a warming up on Cherokee, incomplete, issued as Warming Up a Riff

- two more takes (take 4 is incomplete, stopped during Parker solo) of Billie's Bounce

- four takes (take 1 and 2 are incomplete, stopped during theme and just after) of Now's the Time, the second F blues

- three takes (take 2 is incomplete) of Thriving From a Riff, based on I Got Rhythm changes

- another warming up on Embraceable you, incomplete, issued as Meandering

- two takes of Ko-ko (first take was stopped due to explicit quotation of Cherokee melody, that would mean royalty payment problems)

Here we want to focus our attention on this last tune, Ko-ko, around which the most absurd legends have arisen.

Ko-ko is based on the harmony of Cherokee (a song written in 1938 by Ray Noble), according to a procedure that we'll find many more times in Parker compositions: the song theme must be omitted, or it must be carefully masked in order to make it unrecognizable so no royalties have to be payed for it.

Ko-ko starts with a 32 bars intro, during which we hear only muted trumpet, alto and drums. We hear no piano and no bass.

Intro is followed by two 64 bars choruses of Parker solo, based on Cherokee harmony, then a 32 bars drum solo, and at last the intro used as coda.

There is neither trumpet solo, nor piano solo on Ko-ko.

Let's listen to Ko-ko intro, as played in take 1 , and as played in take 2 .

As we said, take 1 is not complete, being stopped a few bars after intro, as Cherokee melody has been recognized by Lubinsky.

In take 2, after a 32 bars drum solo, we hear again almost the same intro here used as a coda .

Ko-ko intro/coda is composed by four eigth-bars sections:

- 1st section, played in unison (alto plays an octave lower); here in take 1 intro

- 2nd section, improvised on muted trumpet; in take 1 intro , almost identical in take 2 intro , and a bit different in take 2 coda

- 3rd section, improvised on alto in take 1 intro , in take 2 intro , and in take 2 coda

- 4th section, played in thirds the first four measures (alto plays a third lower) and again in unison (alto plays an octave lower) the last four measures; here in take 1 intro

Now let's come to the critical point: who is playing trumpet on Ko-ko?

Legend has it that Dizzy Gillespie plays the intro on trumpet, then he goes to the piano for accompanying Parker, and then he comes back again to play coda on trumpet.

Altough it seems the most absurd you may think, this legend has received great claim; let's show how this happened.

1) In effect during Ko-ko 32 bars intro we hear only muted trumpet, alto and drums. We hear no piano and no bass.

2) There is neither trumpet solo, nor piano solo on Ko-ko. Intro is followed by two 64 bars choruses of Parker solo, based on Cherokee harmony.

3) After Parker solo there is a drum solo, and at last the intro used as coda, during which we hear neither piano nor bass.

4) In effect tempo is very up and it may seem very difficult to play intro on trumpet at that tempo.

5) In effect on this session Miles plays open trumpet with a very unusual style on the two blues: listen to his very first phrases on Now's the time, take 3 . Someone may think that he was not able to play more articulated. But we find the same in K.C. Blues , recorded on January 17, 1951, more than five years later.

There is much confusion about this recording session and people who were present have told different versions of events, but all far from truth.

And for some mysterious reason, people often prefer to believe in strange tales, like someone playing on a broken horn or similar: such tales arouse interest and curiosity.

In cover notes we find:

Thornton says he played piano during the intro and coda (while Dizzy played trumpet) and then moved over so that Dizzy could accompany Parker.
Teddy Reig, who produced the recording session, says: "Dizzy plays trumpet on the opening and then goes to the piano and we put in the drum solo so Dizzy would have a chance to get back for the ending".
The total evidence [sic] suggests that Dizzy plays trumpet on the introduction and coda of both takes and plays piano during most of Parker's solo on take 2; Thornton plays piano only during the Cherokee theme of take 1 and at the beginning of Parker's solo on take 2.

But can you really imagine the scene? Dizzy plays trumpet, then he goes to the piano, and at last he comes back to play coda!!!

And a 32 bars drum solo to give Dizzy the chance to get back, while after the intro he would have switch from trumpet to piano in a few measures. It sounds a bit strange.

Let's listen to this fragment of Ko-ko (take 2), and imagine the scene .

In the first four bars of Parker solo , we already hear piano comping (already on the first beat of the first bar!), but that's not the point.

(By the way, even on take 1, we hear piano comping already in the first bars, behind trumpet playing melody and alto paraphrasing)

The fact that it would be technically impossible for Dizzy Gillespie to play the 4th section of intro and soon after to be comping Parker at piano has lead to an even more absurd recostruction of what happened: Thornton playing piano only at the beginning of Parker's solo on Ko-ko (take 2). (this is what we read on cover notes).

We'll use incontrovertible arguments to show that things went differently, paying attention only to what we're able to hear.

The Ko-ko/Cherokee harmonic structure is a sixtyfour-bars A-A-B-A, with sixteen-bars A section in Bb major:

Bbmaj F7 | Fm7 Bb7 | Ebmaj7 | Ab7 | Bbmaj7 | C7 | Cm7 G7 | (Cm7 F7)

and the sixteen-bars bridge essentially made of a cycle of II-V-I

C#m7 F#7 | Bmaj | Bm7 E7 | Amaj | Am7 D7 | Gmaj | Gm7 C7 | Cm7 F7 falling to the next section Bbmaj.

(I grouped chords as in eight bars sections to have better readabilty)

Let's focus on the A section of Ko-ko/Cherokee, on bar 4, where there is a Bb7 chord to go on Ebmaj.

During Parker's solo (two choruses on A-A-B-A) this passage occurs exactly six times; so let's listen to the way pianist plays this passage:

1st chorus, first A
1st chorus, second A
1st chorus, last A
2nd chorus, first A
2nd chorus, second A
2nd chorus, last A

Pianist plays exactly the same chords (in 2nd chorus' first A he doesn't play any chord at all).

In particular, and this is the matter, pianist on 1st chorus' first A (bar 4) is clearly the same as that on 2nd chorus' last A (bar 52).

Pianist never changes in the whole Ko-ko execution, and he's playing from the beginning of Parker's solo, and he definitely could not play trumpet on intro.

By the way, who plays trumpet on intro?

The trumpet player uses a Humes & Berg "Stonelined" mute, made from cardboard.

Mute flats the istrument tonal quality so we can't recognize who is playing on a sound basis: we need to use different evaluation criterias.

Let's turn for a moment our attention to another tune recorded during this session, Thriving on a riff, which is based on the harmony of I Got Rhythm (Gershwin, 1930), according to the same procedure descripted before.

Here the song theme is omitted, and after a short piano intro, we hear improvised choruses based on the song's harmony.

At the end we'll hear a theme that will become the basis for a new Parker's composition, Anthropology.

The harmonic structure is a thirtytwo-bars A-A-B-A, with the eight-bars A section in Bb major and the eight-bars bridge essentially made of a cycle of 7th dominant chords D7 | G7 | C7 | F7 falling to the next section Bbmaj.

This is very interesting, because even Ko-ko intro is essentially based on Bb major.

Let's listen to trumpet solo on Thriving on a riff - take 1 : .

Near the end of the trumpet chorus, just before the theme re-exposition, we find something interesting; it's the time when trumpet player relaxes, before playing the not very easy theme (there is no piano solo on this take).

Let's listen to this Bbmaj phrase played on the last three bars of trumpet solo on Thriving on a riff - take 1:

At the end of trumpet solo on Thriving on a riff - take 3 we hear a similar Bbmaj phrase .

Let's compare what we've just heard with two Bbmaj phrases from Ko-ko intro in take 1 and in take 2 .

Similarity becomes more evident if we slow down a bit what we're listening: let's listen to the same Bbmaj phrase from Ko-ko take 1, at 70% of original speed .

It's very hard to claim that he's not the same trumpet player, isn't it?

And who is he?

We can find the answer here, by simply comparing the Bbmaj phrase from the trumpet solo on Thriving on a riff - take 1 and on Thriving on a riff - take 3 with this Bbmaj phrase from this Anthropology solo and observe how much they sound similar.

And if we compare the first 4 bars of the bridge ( D7 | G7 ) from trumpet solo on Thriving on a riff - take 1 and on Thriving on a riff - take 3 with the same bars again on the same Anthropology solo .

Well, this version of Anthropology comes from an audience recording at the Finale Club in Los Angeles, early 1946, and trumpet player was Miles Davis.

Not much surprising, because the phrase we've heard on Ko-ko is one of Miles most used phrases in that period: we hear it even during his solo on Moose the Mooche, take 3, recorded on March 28, 1946 for Dial with Charlie Parker.

So definitively: Miles plays trumpet, and Dizzy plays chords on piano; so no ptolemaic epicyles, as we could expect.

Based on the ridiculous preconceptions that Miles would not be able to play that passages in Ko-ko.

And who plays piano on the other tunes?

Well, during the whole recording session pianist should have been Dizzy Gillespie.

But a little exception contributed to create further confusion about this recording session.

Let's turn to the first take of Thriving on a riff; here, during trumpet solo, we hear comping chords on piano with a particular style

we recognize a familiar style; we've already found it on Now's the Time (take 4) ; this is Dizzy playing piano.

But now let's compare piano intro on different takes of Thriving on a riff:
Thriving on a riff (take 1)
Thriving on a riff (take 2)
Thriving on a riff (take 3)

Intro on Thriving on a riff we hear on take 1 sounds very similar (expecially for the rhythmically rough use of left hand) to Billie's Bounce intro, here on five different takes:
Billie's Bounce (take 1)
Billie's Bounce (take 2)
Billie's Bounce (take 3)
Billie's Bounce (take 4)
Billie's Bounce (take 5)

Intro on Thriving on a riff we hear on take 2 and 3 sound very different from what we hear on take 1.

In take 3 we hear also a thirtytwo-bars piano solo (there's no piano solo on take 1, and take 2 stops during Parker solo); let's listen to a short fragment of this piano solo: .

We recognize the poor piano phrasing of Argonne Thornton (Sadim Hakim) comparing this fragment with this solo fragment on "Sunday" , taken from an October 1946 recording with Lester Young.

So Dizzy Gillespie plays piano on first take, and Argonne Thornton plays on second and third takes.

And these are the only contributions of Thornton to this recording session. Pace of any lasting legend about it.

On Meandering, a warming up on Embraceable you, we hear a piano intro and a piano solo .

But this is not definitely Thornton's style.

Let's compare this fragment from Meandering piano intro with a fragment from piano intro of Billie's Bounce (take 5) : this is Dizzy Gillespie playing piano.

On Warming Up a Riff, the other warming up, based on Cherokee, again we find Dizzy playing chords at the piano.

Let's compare the way he plays near the end of the first A section of Warming Up a Riff and on the same section in Ko-ko

By the way, how similar is Parker phrasing here!

List of referenced discography:

- Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy Sessions

- Charlie Parker: At the Finale Club & More

- Charlie Parker: The Complete Verve Master Takes

- Lester Young: The Complete Aladdin Recordings

Complete transcriptions of referenced Miles Davis solos are available on themusicofmiles

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