Funky Blues: A Charlie Parker Story, Sort Of

I wrote this piece before Katrina sent New Orleans into agony. I almost held it back until the city revives. But that is likely to be years. Because I believe in the indomitable spirit of a place that is a part of my heartbeat and because WDSU’s news department is doing the kind of great work it always did in times of crisis, I offer this little recollection of the Crescent City in better times.
For a few years in the 1960s, when broadcasting companies still operated both radio and television stations, I had the good fortune to work for WDSU in New Orleans. The station was founded on the notion that public service was at least as important as profit. Edgar Stern, who owned the company, and A. Louis Read, who ran the TV, AM and FM stations, were committed to having the best broadcast news operation in the south, which they did. We covered the civil rights struggle, including school desegregation, not only for local viewers and listeners, but also for the network. NBC News had no bureau in the south then, and we frequently fed the Huntley-Brinkley show major stories on civl rights, Louisiana politics, Jim Garrison’s Kennedy assassination investigation, oil rig fires and hurricanes, among other things that happened in the best news town I ever worked in. I anchored the 6 pm and 10 pm television newscasts and did a fair amount of reporting.
Five nights a week, between the TV newscasts, I conducted a radio discussion program, Closeup, that had guests and invited telephone calls from listeners. This was years before Rush Limbaugh and his ilk laid waste to the idea of civil conversation on the radio. When I suggested that we try the same show on television, the station carved out a slot following the Tonight Show. We found, to our surprise, that a small late-night audience would watch a program whose only visual interest was two or three people discussing ideas and events, with calls from disembodied voices on a speaker phone.
Among the guests were politicians, sports stars, musicians and French Quarter characters. One memorable night during the New Orleans Jazz Festival, Jaki Byard, Danny Barker and Paul Desmond came on. I persuaded Byard and Barker to play a couple of piano-guitar duets. How I wish that I had a tape of that program. Desmond, sans horn, sat and grinned in that Cheshire-cat way. Another time, the guests were Woody Herman, George Wein and Sweet Emma Barrett the Bell Gal. Advertising revenues did not exceed the overtime costs of keeping the studio live and the technical staff on duty after midnight, and after a few weeks, Closeup bit the dust. Still, it was the sort of thing with which WDSU was willing to experiment.
Stern, Read and their radio manager Hal Wheelahan indulged my wish to do a jazz program on the radio. For several years, I taped a weekly hour that ran Saturday nights on WDSU-FM and AM. Jazz Review had reviews, plenty of music and visits from New Orleans musicians—Paul Barbarin, Alvin Alcorn, Monk Hazel, Al Belletto, Willie and Earl Turbinton, Eddie Miller, Pete Fountain frequently and, once, the magisterial trumpeter Red Allen. When they were in town, Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Joe Zawinul, Gary Burton, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson and other itinerant players dropped by. Jazz Review was well sponsored and more than paid for itself. The FM station had a signal that powered across the Gulf Coast flatlands as far as Alabama and up into parts of Georgia. I was astounded to learn years later that the governor of Georgia was a regular listener, long before he became president.
(I’m getting to the Charlie Parker part.)
The theme music for Jazz Review was Charlie Parker’s two perfect choruses on “Funky Blues” from the Jam Session #1 album on Verve. Googling recently, I came across a 2001 interview by the Boston broadcaster Christopher Leydon with the great writer Whitney Balliett. In the program, Balliett is reluctant to be analytical in answering Leydon’s questions. He maintains that music of the quality of Parker’s, Pee Wee Russell’s and Ben Webster’s is laden with secrets. He implies that it cannot be dissected. Leydon plays Parker’s solo for Whitney, who calls it one of his favorite pieces of music.
“He preaches the first couple of measures,” Ballilett says. “Now, that’s full of secrets.”
You can go here to listen to WBUR’s audio stream of the broadcast. Exactly six minutes into it, you’ll get that incredible solo. Whenever I hear Bird play those magical twenty-four bars, they conjure up for me a time in New Orleans when a commercial broadcasting operation had a community-spirited mission and a sense of adventure. If there is one like it anywhere today under the deregulated earnings-driven corporate pressures of 21st Century broadcasting, I’d be happy to know about it.

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Reddit