In 1947, saxophonist Charlie Parker gathered a group of talented musicians (including a young Miles Davis) for a recording session in Detroit’s historic United Sound Systems’ recording studio. Nearly sixty-seven years later, a group of Detroit musicians (and a Canadian producer) gathered at the same studio to recreate this landmark session as closely as possible. The Detroit Bop Quintet, assembled specifically for this project, included Dwight Adams (trumpet), Pete Mills (saxophone), Paul Keller (bass), Rick Roe (piano), and Nate Winn (drums).
We’re delighted that producer Ron Skinner took the time to talk with us about this intriguing project.
This album is a recreation of the 1947 recording (at United Sound Systems in Detroit – we’ll come back to that shortly…) by Charlie Parker with a quintet featuring Miles Davis, Max Roach, Duke Jordan, and Tommy Potter. What drew you to recreate this project specifically?
It was actually a love for Detroit and the music of Detroit that brought me to the project. I grew up near Windsor and spent a lot of my teen years going to concerts in Detroit and being that close to a major music city has an effect on you as a child. I just get absorbed in the music. So, it was the recording studio, United Sound Systems that really was the thing that peaked my interest. I grew up hearing about this Studio. It was in the credits of many of the records I bought when I was a kid. Later when I was working as a Music Producer and Recording Engineer I became a bit obsessed with the place. It had fallen in to disrepair and I would drive by whenever in Detroit and just fantasize about the place and all the magic that happened in that studio. A few years ago it magically re-opened and was in the process of being saved from demolition. As soon as that happened I decided I had to do a project in this room. My research showed that this session with Charlie Parker was one of the very first recordings of national and international note that was recorded in the studio. From there I just turned my fantasy in to reality.
Following up on that question, what’s involved in recreating an album like this – are you playing note for note, or is this more of a recreation in spirit with your own touches added?
I spent about six months planning and researching. The first thing was to find what technology was used at that time. Also was the room the same dimensions. Had it changed much since 1947. For me it was all about acoustics. What effect does the room have on the recording. I also did a lot of listening, not just to the original session but to any other music that was recorded in this studio space. Other jazz projects and John Lee Hooker recorded in that room in the same time period. I also reached out to Ed Wolfrum and surprisingly he responded and was a tremendous help. Ed is a recording engineer from Motown Records. Probably one of the most successful recording engineers in the world. He worked on so many hits. In the early 1970s he was the chief engineer at United Sound. He was friends with Jimmy and Joe Siracuse the original owner and the engineer that worked on this Charlie Parker session. He knew the history, the room and how it was used and set up. With his help I was able to place the musicians within inches of where Miles and Charlie would have stood back in 1947.
As for the music, I’m the producer and not a musician. But I’ve worked with enough jazz musicians to know that if I asked them to play note for note that wouldn’t be cool. I also thought if they played note for note then they would deliver an uninspired performance. My first words to Dwight Adams, the trumpet player on the session, was that I wanted the musicians to be themselves, to play as they felt and to bring new life to the compositions. The project was more about capturing a spirit than recreating note for note the original tunes. Giving them this direction was the smartest thing I could have done because it feels as if these tunes are new, they live in 2017 not 1947.
You not only recreated the two tracks but you also recorded them at the same location, a historic recording studio which was nearly demolished in 2013 but thankfully saved by a conservancy. Can you talk a bit about this particular studio and what it’s meant to you, and to musicians generally?
I think this particular studio tells the story of Detroit music, even more than Motown. Motown was a closed house, used exclusively for Motown. United Sound was for anyone and everyone, including Motown. The very first Motown single was cut in this room and if you look at the building you can tell Berry Gordy built the Motown studio to mimic United Sound. In Studio B, where I recorded, John Lee Hooker made his first recording and the strings for Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On were recorded in the bigger Studio A. Those two projects alone makes this place legendary. Add to that all of the George Clinton records and Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul, Aretha Franklin, Prince, The Rolling Stones. The list is just endless.
I also think for the music community of Detroit that United Sound was a powerful place. If you had a song and enough cash you could make a record and they welcomed anyone. That is what community building is all about. It must be very powerful for a musician living in Detroit, to know that so much magic happened and continues to happen in this studio. It must be an inspiration.
I truly believe that because music is physical waves of sound moving through the air that those notes are still there. The notes live in the rooms they were performed in. Walking in to this type of place is very special. Everyone who enters the doors of United Sound can feel it. The musicians on my recording had never stepped foot in United Sound before this session but each one of them commented on the feeling they had when they walked in the door. There is an energy. It is true of many of the great historic recording studios and it is alive at United Sound for sure.
This group was put together specifically for the purpose of recording this album at United Sound Systems in Detroit – would you consider working together again, or was this strictly a one-off?
I hope we can work together again soon. Each of the musicians on the session had played individually with the others in different settings. They all knew each other and respected each other but they never played together as a group. In fact, “Blue Bird”, the A Side of the single is the first take, the very first time these musicians played together. We were only together for about 2 hours for the session but each of the musicians commented that they felt something special. I hear something special in the recording and I am hopeful that there will be a full length project with the band soon. But these things are always hard to pull off, there are so many factors. My fingers are crossed.
The mission of the label releasing this is to “record acoustic music in unique acoustic environments while telling interesting stories about the history of recorded music.” Not long ago, we interviewed Canadian jazz singer Alex Pangman, who recorded her most recent album directly to 78 RPM; I was trying to explain this process to one of my young students, who couldn’t really grasp it (being from this thoroughly digital age). What do stories like that of “Two Birds” and United Sound Systems have to say to younger generations of music fans, do you think?
Well, I think the important lesson is that the best music is performed by living, breathing people together in a room. Technology is great. It serves a great purpose. And music created with and by technology can be great. But something is lost when every performance is created in isolation. There is an emotion to a live performance, to a group of people all standing together in one room, listening to each other and performing as one. There is immediacy in these older recordings. The technology was expensive and the fewer takes the better. So the musicians were always on their game because they had to be. No fixes, no mistakes. Or if there was a mistake it better be a big one that warrants doing another take. And it was those mistakes that made music beautiful and perfect in its own way. I think the best projects being done today are when there is a combination of all the new technology combined with as much live performance as possible.