Charlie Parker’s sojourn in Sweden in November 1950 is the source of many stories. Among them is how he used to stay up evenings with manager Topsy Lindblom at Nalen (a dance and jazz venue in Stockholm) and that in spite of the fact that they couldn’t speak with each
other, a fellowship of souls grew. In his book Swedish Jazz History, Professor Erik Kjellberg tells how Parker travelled three weeks in Sweden. In Norway you can hear how norwegian trumpeter Rowland Greenberg travelled several weeks with Parker through Sweden. Many persons have related how they went to the movies with Parker since he could only sleep when there were lots of people around him. And yes, we’ve been told how Parker visited a Scanian farmer and played in the cowshed for his cows. However, so as to bring some order in the story flora, below is an attempt to follow Parker day for day during his time in Sweden.
Nils Hellström owned the Swedish jazz journal Estrad and was also a concert organizer. He had thought about bringing Charlie Parker to Sweden for a long time and had made several tries at co-ordinating a Parker tour with arrangers in other European countries. Still, though interest existed in several places, the co-ordinating dragged and Hellström finally tired of the whole thing, deciding to try to arrange a Sweden tour for Parker on his own.
When he got in touch with Parker’s agent Billy Shaw Artists, he thought the fee was on the high side. Shaw asked $1000 for one week, plus a first-class air ticket New York-Stockholm-New York at $785. Hellström hesitated, but finally chose to go with it, deciding on very short notice that Charlie would come to Sweden for one week at the end of November 1950. The contract was signed on the 3rd, meaning that Hellström did not even manage to get the news about Parker’s visit in the November issue of Estrad.
Parker landed at Bromma Airport in Stockholm on November 19 and was met by Swedish musicians and fans. He was accompanied by Roy Eldridge and checked into the Hotel Plaza close to Stureplan. As there was no program the first evening Parker asked trumpeter Rolf Ericson, who was going to play with him, to join him for a bite to eat. Parker had been given an advance by Nils Hellström and wanted to go to the finest restaurant in town. So Rolf took him to Berns Salonger where, according to Rolf, Charlie spent a lot of money. He spread C-notes like paper as tips to the waiters, bought several rounds for the orchestra and ordered only the most expensive items on the menu.
There is a copy of Hellström’s contract with Parker at the Museum of Jazz in Strömsholm showing what the financial terms were for the tour. At that time the exchange rate was 5.18 kronor to the dollar, meaning that Parker got 5180 kronor. However, half of this had been paid in advance to the New York agent, leaving 2590 kronor for Parker in Stockholm. One third was paid at arrival, another third on November 22 and the rest on November 26. In other words, prior to the evening at Berns with Rolf Ericson, Parker had received 865 kronor from Nils Hellstr_m. Some doubt at the story might be in order here, especially when one remembers that money was valued differently then. A male shop assistant received an average of 507 kronor per month and a female 340. In other words, Parker’s week brought him more than a female
assistant earned in a year.
If we return to Berns, it is worth noting that the most expensive item on the menu, including appertizer, main dish, dessert and coffee, cost around ten kronor. Add to this the allowable spirits ration of 15 cl, it too at ten kronor, and the fact that the diner could drink as much wine as he or she wished. It was probably a very generous dinner Parker laid out, but his largesse was sooner fives and tens than hundreds.
On Monday, November 20, Parker was with Carl-Erik Lindgren, musician and contributor to the Orchestra Journal, and drummer Jack Norén. Among other things, they went to Sturebadet to visit the sauna, followed by rehearsal at the Concert Hall for the two concerts that evening. It was a major jazz gala starting with a Swedish group conducted by pianist Charlie Norman. After that, the same group was joined by Roy Eldridge. After the intermission, the newly formed orchestra led by altoist Arne Domnérus and Rolf Ericson was introduced, a group that in addition to the two leads included Rolf Blomqvist on tenor sax, Lars Gullin on baritone sax, Gunnar Svensson on piano, Yngve Åkerberg on bass and Jack Norén on drums. After three numbers, Charlie Parker came in to play a section with Rolf Ericson, accompanied by Svensson, Åkerberg and Norén.
After the concerts Parker and Roy Eldridge went with members of the Stockholm Jazz Club to the ”van der Lindeska valven” a restaurant in the Old Town where food and drinks were waiting. The meal was followed by a jam session lasting to four in the morning and including Rolf Larsson and Reinhold Svensson piano, Lars Gullin baryton sax, Simon Brehm and Yngve Åkerberg bass, Jack Norén drums and Leppe Sundewall trumpet.
However, Topsy Lindblom at Nalen was not at all happy that Parker disappeared to an Old Town cellar that evening. Nalen was the jazz scene in Stockholm and foreign musicians playing in Stockholm would always arrive there and jam some tunes without pay. Topsy was so sure Parker was coming that he had placed a big advert in the Dagens Nyheter daily the day before
saying: "Charlie Parker at the Concert Hall. Simultaneous debut of Nalen’s new orchestra called the Sweden All-star Band with Rolf Ericson, Rolf Blomquist, Arne Domnérus, Lasse Gullin, Gunnar Svensson, Yngve Åkerberg and Jack Norén. We’re counting on the guys for the Monday evening jam session."
Many were the concert goers and others who came to Nalen to listen to Parker. Now and then the loudspeaker would announce his imminent arrival, but he never came. Topsy, who had to make good the damage in some way, was forced to try to reach an agreement with Nils Hellström. Only one open evening was left and that was Parker’s last in Sweden, one week later. An agreement was reached that he would come to Nalen, though for the first time Topsy was forced to pay to secure the celebrity visit.
Naturally the two jazz journals Estrad and Orchestra Journal were effusive in their concert reviews. Though most of the critics at the daily newspapers were positive, a certain Swedish self-conceit could be discerned. Öhn in the Dagens Nyheter daily opined that "during his visit to the Concert Hall, the 30-year old Negro displayed now and then that he is an extraordinary
alto sax player and musician. However, the primary reason for the evening’s success was the introduction of a new Swedish orchestra composed of a number of star soloists with alto sax player Arne Domnérus and trumpeter Rolf Ericson at the head of the list."
"And so Charlie ’The Bird’ entered the scene and poured out cascades of bop phrases loaded with dynamite," said Olle in the Aftonbladet evening paper. "He was on surprisingly good form, especially during the second concert when the public nearly brought the house down in joy as he put the pedal to the metal in one rapidly paced number after the other."
Svenska Dagbladet’s A.R.Ö. wrote in the daily: "He does have ideas, this Charlie Parker, and can play at a breakneck speed. And indeed he plays beautifully too, most often. But do not suggest that it promotes young people’s sense of harmony and balance to listen to much of this kind of music!"
And Lasse Klefelt wrote in the Expressen evening paper "that with due apologies to Roy Eldridge and Charlie Parker, the value from yesterday’s concert at the Concert Hall derives from the Ericson-Domnérus orchestra. I don’t believe I’m exaggerating when I opine that by now Charlie Parker with all his bebop skill is somewhat corny!"
Tuesday, November 21, saw Parker on a train to Gothenburg together with the musicians in his tour band. These were Rolf Ericson on trumpet, Gösta Theselius on piano, Thore Jederby on bass and Jack Norén on drums. Jederby was tour manager and Arne Domnérus was also part of the group. The tour concerts began with Domnérus and the other Swedes and after the intermission, Charlie came in instead of Domnérus. There were two concerts in the Gothenburg Concert Hall, which also included a segment with Roy Eldridge playing with Charlie Norman.
From the Gothenburg visit Norman tells the story that he and Roy Eldridge were playing through Saturday Night Fish Fry in the warm-up room when Parker came and joined in Eldridge’s song. The bebop aficionados in the locale were surprised that Parker knew a swing piece like that. Nils Hellström wrote in Estrad later that when Parker was supposed to follow Dompan (Domnérus) and Rolf on stage after their intro, he said: "Oh my boy Arne, he makes it so hard for me, he makes it so hard for me!" There is a 16-mm silent film clip about one minute long from the warm-up room showing Parker both as he warms up and as he signs autographs. It was taken by Bo Tak, 16 at the time and later film photographer for Sweden Television.
In the Göteborgs-Posten daily TOBI wrote that "Charlie Parker is without a doubt one of the absolutely best alto saxophonists America has reared. He is a technician to the point of virtuosity and owns a sound seldom heard before. However, this reviewer was truly grieved when he heard the music they wasted time on, imagining the superb jazz these skilful musicians are capable of playing. What profit could not the evening have paid if it had been exclusively traditional, nay true jazz on the program instead of these endless scales up and down."
Cosy wrote in Göteborgs Handels- & Sjöfartstidning praising Parker for his boundless innovative richness and blinding technique. He also though that Rolf Ericson handled the trumpet part surprisingly well, but that he seemed to pale "when he was forced to stand as contrast to the dynamic Negro."
Wednesday, November 22, included a train ride to Malmö where Eldridge left the group, only to come to light again the next day in Copenhagen. That evening there was a concert at the dance emporium Amiralen for several thousand individuals, followed by dance music to midnight supplied by the Swedes. Parts of this concert were recorded and have later been released on
After the concert a young law student, Björn Fremer, succeeded in persuading Parker to come to nearby University town Lund for a jam session. Fremer, a few of his friends, Parker, Norén, Theselius, Domnérus and Ericson, rode in two taxis to the Academic Association. Lars Terje, one of the participants and now a retired district attorney, remembers that calls were made to wake several jazz enthusiasts. They and some buddies arranged for sandwiches and a bottle of Swedish aquavit. He recalls the hours that followed as a single flow of jazz. Parker never slowed – the bottle stood at his elbow. One by one the other musicians dropped out, but Parker was like a self-illuminating torch. Finally he was alone, playing into the wee hours.
Afterwards Björn Fremer wrote a thank you note to Parker that included thefollowing: "We all think that it is a lovely dream that you spent last night with us, a few students and music lovers. We just can’t understand you were so human, just like one of us, cause you are a star a genius, and we just nothing... Your playing, your talk, your wonderful smile, your cry of happiness, you in person gave me (and a bunch of other guys too) the happiest moments of my life..." Parker would carry the letter with him for a long time and eventually it was published in the book ”To Bird with Love” by Chan Parker and Francis Paudra.
The Malmö press was positive throughout. The headline in the Skånska Dagbladet daily was "Chocolate brown bebop king at the Amiralen." Cehå in the Kvällsposten evening paper stated "Success for Charlie Parker and the Swedish jazz elite." And when the paper asked Parker what he thought about Domnérus, he answered with a wink: "He’s almost as good as me!"
Thursday, November 23, took the group to Copenhagen for two concerts at the KB Hall. Everybody checked into Hotell Cosmopolite and the Danish jazz researcher Erik Wiedemann took the opportunity to visit with Parker in his hotel room. It was a rather short meeting, but Erik remembers asking about the name on the piece Klacto-veeseds-tene, only to be told that that is what the name was. Erik also wondered about Parker’s string recordings, but was told by Parker that these were mostly a commercial matter.
The attendance at the two concerts was low, only filling the hall to half. The concert was a big Scandinavian jazz gala and in addition to Parker and Eldridge the audience was treated to Leo Mathiesen Orchestra with trumpeter Jörgen Ryg, the Helge Jacobsen Giraf-Trio from Denmark, the Lasse Gerlyng Ensemble from Norway with Rowland Greenberg on trumpet, and the Swedish grup now named as Estrad-Orkestret. The Swedes first played alone, then with Eldridge, then alone again and then three numbers with Parker. The concert closed with a general jam including all the musicians.
The Berlingske Tidender daily praised the Swedish group and opined that the brilliant soloists Arne Domnérus and Rolf Ericson raised it to the best of the evening’s Scandinavian orchestras. Parker received positive reviews from all. The Nationaltidender wrote that the "King of Bebop took the audience’s breath away when he let his expressive instrument with its wonderfully round vibrato soar into the farthest corners of the hall. This was truly bebop. Everything that could was swinging, including even the very structure of thebuilding." But the papers were disappointed that though the evening’s main attraction, Parker only played three pieces.
When Parker left the KB Hall he met the Danish song group the Gottlieb Quintet who sang a song written by their director Görgen Gottlieb titled Clap hands Charlie. Parker was thrilled and asked the group to follow him to the hotel for a bit of the bubbly. When they started to leave, he invited them back the next day to share lunch with him. Later on he went to the night club Adlon where he paid five kronor to become a one-week member under the name of ’Yhard Bhurd’. As Thore Jederby tells the story, Parker then followed a young Danish lovely home. Jederby, also he apparently after a nightly adventure, met Charlie early Friday morning in front of Hotel
d’Angleterre where they went to eat breakfast. Then they returned to Hotel Cosmopolite for some rest.
On Friday, November 24, Parker treated the Gottlieb Quintet to lunch at the hotel. Other guests were Nils Hellström and the Danish photographer Helge Mass. After lunch the quintet sang several numbers for Charlie in the banquet facilities, so impressing him that he then and there wrote a testimonial stating that the quintet surpassed anything he had heard in both the USA and Europe. Hellström described the events in an issue of Estrad, including a copy of the testimonial letter in the article. As a result, Topsy Lindblom invited the quintet to sing at Nalen, which in turn led to many, long gigs for the group in Sweden.
That afternoon Parker and the Swedes went back to Sweden, taking with them the Norwegian trumpeter Rowland Greenberg. The trip went to Helsingborg where two evening concerts were scheduled in the People’s Park. Before the concerts Parker, Jederby, Domnérus and a some others went to the movies. Arne Domnérus remembers the visit as follows: "We saw a film called ‘The Broken Arrow’ with Jeff Chandler as the Indian chief. In the film Chandler has a long controversy about race differences. And Bird slept the whole time – he was always so relaxed when surrounded by people. So he fell asleep and snored to beat the band. Still, he woke up just when they were discussing the race problem and began to comment on it in a loud voice. So the other viewers told us to throw the Negro out."
The positive reviews continued even after the Helsingborg performances. Coolman wrote in the Helsingborg Dagblad daily: "The Swedish orchestra opened the concert with Fine and Dandy, saving the evening from the start... Parker and all the others proved themselves as good as their reputations, scotching the thoughts of overselling as has been the case with some other artists." Parker’s own comment was: "Sweden’s the best country in the world! I haven’t been accepted this well anywhere else!" To the Skånska Socialdemokraten he opined: "Imagine if I could stay in Sweden. I’ve really come to like your country during these few days. I’ll come back as soon as I get the chance!"
Parts of the Helsingborg concert were recorded on a metal wire machine. After the concert there was a jam session at the restaurant in the park. That was recorded as well and both recordings have later been released.
Saturday, November 25, brought yet another one-night stand, this time reached by train to Jönköping with Rowland Greenberg in tow. That evening there was a concert at the Sports Hall for 2800 listeners. The Smålands Folkblad reported that it was Greenberg who played trumpet for the concert. Rolf Ericson seems to have had problems with his lips, probably not too surprising after six-days intense bop playing with Parker. In other words, Rowland stepped in to give Rolf an evening’s rest.
The Norwegian jazz researcher Johs Berg has revealed that Greenberg’s role in the tour has often been exaggerated in his country. He blames naive reporters for creating the impression that Rowland toured with Parker for several weeks. Nor, according to Johs, was this ever denied by Rowland. But the fact is that his collaboration was limited to this one concert in
It was a while before Parker came up on stage this evening. According to Tore Jederby he had disappeared when he was supposed to play. After some worried searching, Jederby found him setting pins in the bowling hall, something he claimed to have done as a boy back in Kansas City. However, Arne Domnérus remembers it differently, stating that Parker refused to come
up on the scene until he had taken something strong – no easy thing to arrange on a Saturday evening in a city known as Sweden’s Jerusalem. Finally a journalist was sent to a restaurant to order what was legal, pour it in a bottle under the table and hurry back to the Sports Hall. And so it was finally possible to introduce Parker to the audience. He also came in later in the evening and played a few numbers with the band during the dance.
After an interview with Parker, Smålands Folkblad put a picture of him on the front page with the text "Famous blackie". The interview included the comment by Parker that "bop music won’t die as long as I live! For that matter there are many other musicians who continue to work on developing bop music. I’ll do it myself when I get back to the States. The argument that
be-bop is a trend on the way out is only loose talk... I’ve just cut several records with a string section, but that isn’t part of developing bop. It’s just a commercial thing to make sure those records go well."
To the question of how it felt to be in Sweden working with Swedish musicians, he answered: "Everywhere you go you’re met by a true New York spirit. It’s almost like being at home on 52nd Street even if you’re standing on a Jönköping stage. The Swedish – and Norwegian, Rowland Greenberg – musicians are very good and this tour is the best gig I’ve ever had. And as to Sweden... Parker used his hands when he lacked words to described our country. His way of describing his feelings was to make a sweeping movement with both hands reaching from the floor to the roof and finishing by throwing a kiss”.
Even if Parker was on his best behaviour that week, he could be difficult to work with. Arne Domnérus has told about that as well: "Too true that times with the Bird included some ups and downs. Mainly you really came to understand how restless he was. Nights would drive Parker up the wall – he didn’t dare to sleep alone. He would pound on our doors and wanted to keep
going all night. The result was that several of the nights we sat and jawed. He was most open when he started to talk about his existence and his life in America and all, how badly he’d been treated by whites... He got a bit annoyed at us sometimes when we were going to play together, because he thought we represented the establishment. But we made up after a while."
Sunday, November 26, was an early morning. It was a dark and cold and before the train left Jönköping the group took a cup of coffee at the station restaurant. Parker gave the waitress a big tip with the comment: "For your smile!" The group got on the train for the trip to Gävle where the last concert of the tour was advertised for the People’s Park at "exactly 8 p.m.!" Rowland took the train home to Oslo. During the trip Parker and Jack Norén went to the dining car. Somewhere along the way the cars were switched around and when Domnérus and Jederby looked out the window they saw Parker and Norén on the train opposite. They finally ended up in Stockholm where they called Nils Hellström, who was forced to arrange car transport to Gävle. The concert started way late, but according to Saxo in the Arbetarbladet it was a great success: "There have been many rumours that the Bird has lost his wings, falling into a flat, commercial playing style. But all of that proved to be plain bullshit disproved by Parker himself... But Parker was not alone in creating the success. The Swedish elite musicians contributed strongly to the musical background and framework."
Monday, November 27, the group returned to Stockholm. According to the contract, Parker was to return to New York the same day. But Nils Hellström had booked him in Nalen that evening, so Parker stayed an extra night in Stockholm. Topsy Lindblom’s advert offered the following: "It is possible that tonight the Nalen audience will share in sensation they missed last
Monday. Everyone is welcome! Except for mafia-style kidnappers! The wise fan comes around 11."
That day Nils Hellström did a final financial accounting, including ticking off advances, hotel costs and champagne checks against the rest of Parker’s fee. It was a worried Jederby who understood that there were only 55 kronor left to give to Parker. But Charlie accepted the money without comment, thanked the messenger and laughed heartily. The sum seems very small, but if you once again compare it to that day’s Swedish salaries, it corresponded to a bit more than one-tenth of a monthly wage for a shop assistant, something that today would stand around 1500 kronor.
Parker spent his last afternoon in Sweden with Carl-Erik Lindgren and in the evening he appeared as promised at Nalen where he played with Putte Wickman’s band. Toots Thielemans was on the scene as well. The events of that evening at Nalen and the night that followed it has been described by Wickman’s drummer Sture ’Stubben’ Kallin. Parker began with Anthropology and Stubben stated that neither before nor after has he gone through such an intense experience. At the same time [as Parker] there was a black band from the West Indies playing at Nalen. The leader Cab Kaye, who also played the drums, felt that Parker should really have been playing with his band. After a few pieces, Kaye went over to Stubben and said he wanted to play. But Stubben figured that you only get to play with Parker once in a lifetime and told Kaye to butt out. Finally Kaye forced his way onto the stage and tried to push Stubben away. In the resulting hullabaloo, the jam session broke off. Once in the warm-up room, Kaye attacked Stubben, who in turn said something insulting, upon which Kaye started to choke him. Topsy came in and separated them and Stubben told Kaye he was sorry.
Afterwards Parker wanted to talk to Stubben and eventually he followed Parker, Lindgren, Simon Brehm and Leppe Sundevall to Parker’s hotel room. Around four in the morning they went to a night cafe, ate Falu sausage and drank some light beer. Then they went to Cab Kaye’s hotel room, woke him up and Parker bawled him out for his behaviour at Nalen. Then the party continued into the morning hours.
Tuesday, November 8, was the day for Parker to leave Sweden. Carl-Erik Lindgren and Leppe Sundevall went with him to Bromma Airport where he took a plane for Paris, instead of directly home to New York. He spent a chaotic week in the French capital, but then that is another story.
So far we have been able to confirm that Parker’s visit to Sweden lasted from November 19 to the 28th, he seems to have gone to the movies one evening, spent about two hours in all at Nalen and Rowland Greenberg performed with him one evening. But what happened to the story about the farmer and the cows Parker serenaded?
In the 1958 summer number of the Orchestra Journal Lennart Stenbeck wrote an article where, among other things, he commented on the immense flood of re-releases of recordings from the 1920s and on. He also joked about how people were giving high praise to tapes of Parker with worse sound quality than those by King Oliver from 1923, even though it sometimes was only
intros and final ensembles clipped together with Parker solos. The last seemed to begin and end wherever, regardless of the customary chorus structure.
Tied to that article was a humoresque by Björn Fremer that was so completely imaginary that it should have been impossible for anyone to take it seriously. However, story-loving jazz aficionados being what they are, the tale has stayed and over the years has been retold as if it were true. What Fremer described was a jazz enthusiast in Arlöv who had made an amazing discovery while visiting a farmer Jöns Jönsson (Old McDonald) in Lomma. He heard music on an old tape-recorder in the cow shed featuring Charlie Parker. The story was that during his Sweden tour Parker had come to the farm when the car he was travelling in needed fresh water. Parker stepped out of the car with his sax and heard that Jönsson was playing for the cows on a tape-recorder – it was namely a scientific fact, said Jönsson, that cows gave more milk whil listening to music. Parker began to improvise to the music and Jönsson asked him to record a few melodies he could use with the cows. Having listened to the tape, the journal’s expert Lars Werner thought that Parker seemed noticeably inspired by the setting and that his version of Cow Cow Boogie was the most significant Parker you ever heard.
In addition, author Larry Sährendal used this history in his novel ”Charlie, Charlie...” published in 1979. The novel was pure fiction, where the autor, according to the text on the dust cover, "used Parker’s visit to Sweden to weave a tale about a fantastic journey through a fantastic country".
As an additional memento for jazz researchers and a proof of how easily tall tales spread in the jazz world, it is interesting to note that the story about Parker playing for cows has gone so far as to Ken Burns’ TV-series on the history of jazz.
Martin Westin is a contributor to the Orchestra Journal and Secretary for the Group for Swedish Jazz History.
Translation by Sven Borei