Leo Parker: Savoy, 1947

Leo Parker is one of the most under-recorded and under-appreciated baritone saxophonists of the bebop era. Like many jazz musicians in the late 1940s and early ’50s, Parker succumbed to drug addiction and recorded far too little as a leader. He probably was more at ease as a sideman, leaving the responsibilities of contracting players, writing songs, arranging and holding rehearsals to others. [Photo above of Leo Parker in 1947 by William P. Gottlieb]

(Portrait_of_Leo_Parker _New_York _N.Y. _ca._May_1947)_(LOC)_(5354784684)
A clear example of Parker’s brilliance was his first leadership session for Savoy Records in October 1947. Four songs were recorded in Detroit for two sides of a 78. The recordings were Charles Greenlee’s El Sino and Parker’s own Ineta, Wild Leo and Leapin’ Leo. Leo Parker’s band for the session included Howard McGhee (tp), Gene Ammons (ts), Leo Parker (bar), Junior Mance (p), Eugene Wright (b) and Charles Williams (d).

By October 1947, Parker had been part of several important recording sessions. These included the Coleman Hawkins date for Apollo Records in February 1944, for which Dizzy Gillespie contributed Woody’n You, considered one of the first recordings with bebop touches. In 1946, Parker anchored Billy Eckstine’s big band before teaming with Tadd Dameron in May ’46 and then Illinois Jacquet in 1947. He also recorded with Fats Navarro on the trumpeter’s Fat Girl session later that year.

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If Greenlee’s El Sino sounds familiar, that’s because its intro and melody seem related to what would become known as Gravy, and later Walkin’. Since El Sino predates both, it likely was responsible for inspiring Ammons’s Gravy, which he recorded in 1950. The song became known as Walkin’ in 1954 when Miles Davis recorded it and Richard Carpenter, Ammons’s manger, gave himself the sole writing credit. A footnote: Greenlee converted to the Muslim faith in the late 1940s and changed his name to Harneefan Majeed.

Bill Kirchner, in his liner notes for the re-issue of Ammons and Sonny Stitt’s Boss Tenors in Orbit, wrote:

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Pianist Junior Mance had been working with Ammons’s group since 1947. As Mance described it: ‘Sonny was stranded without a gig in Chicago, and he used to sit in with us all the time in a little joint called the Congo Lounge on the South Side. So they played together a hell of a lot before they ever recorded.’ Ammons and Stitt made their first recordings in March 1950 in New York for the Prestige label; the session produced their first hit, ‘Blues Up and Down.’ In April, they returned to a New York studio with a four-horns-and-rhythm septet and recorded a blues called ‘Gravy.’ The tune later became much better known as ‘Walkin’, with Ammons’s manager credited as composer; it was a staple in the repertoire of trumpeter Miles Davis and many others. However, Mance states unequivocally that the piece was composed by the veteran composer-arranger Jimmy Mundy, who was writing for the Ammons septet . ‘I stayed at his house with him [Mundy] and his wife,’ says Mance, ‘and we talked a lot about music, and he wrote this thing called ‘Gravy.’ He wrote the original tune, the melody; I was there when he was doing it. That’s the last time I noticed it was ‘Gravy’; next time it came out, ‘Walkin’ had Richard Carpenter’s name on it.’ No one is sure why or how this happened.

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If all of this is true, Mundy clearly heard Leo Parker’s El Sino and built on it. Since no one seems to have registered the song with BMI or received the writing credit on Gravy (original 78 and 10-inch Prestige labels above), Carpenter must have assumed the blues was up for grabs when Davis played it.

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is a jumpy blues that gives Ammons, McGee and Parker plenty of room to solo. Ammons delivers his solo with a smoky tone while McGee’s solo is tight and punctuating. Parker lays it on thick, working the bottom of his instrument. Great comping by Junior Mance on piano.

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Wild Leo
is an even stronger R&B-flavored blues, with Parker out front, inserting a Lester Leaps In tag along the way. Mance takes a glorious jazz-blues solo that tags Lady of Spain before Parker jumps back in with a honker’s outro.

Leapin’ Leo
is a similarly paced blues building off a bop riff. Ammons takes a spirited solo, at one point rising high on the register. McGee’s solo is impossibly great, weaving and bobbing as he descends the chords. Parker plays a bossy bop solo.

Leo Parker died of a heart attack in 1962 at age 36.

JazzWax tracks: You’ll find three of the four Leo Parker tracks here. You’ll find Leapin’ Leo here.

Or treat yourself to one of Mosaic’s finest boxes—the hair-raising Classic Savoy Be-Bop Sessions 1945-49, a 10-CD set here. All of the Leo Parker recordings for Savoy are on the box.

JazzWax clips: Here’s El Sino, which foreshadows Gravy and Walkin’

Here’s Gravy

And here’s Miles Davis’s Walkin’ in 1954, with the El Sino-influenced intro…