Bill Potts is turning out to be a one-man growth industry in the jazz reissue business. Having already inspired four albums of tenor saxophonist Lester (Pres) Young playing with a Potts-led trio in Washington during the mid-'50s, the composer-arranger is also responsible for a wonderful album of Charlie (Bird) Parker recording with THE Orchestra in 1953. "One Night in Washington" (Elektra-Musician E1-60019) is the latest gem drawn from Potts' substantial collection of private tapes.
In some ways, Potts was the right man in the right place at the right time. Postwar Washington was something of a jazz haven and THE Orchestra had come together in 1951 under the leadership of drummer Joe Timmer (it was sponsored by Willis Conover of the Voice of America). Arrangements were provided by Gerry Mulligan, Al Cohn, Johnny Mandel and Washingtonians Ed Dimond and Potts. Guest stars like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker would be featured with THE Orchestra at the Club Kavakos; Potts would dutifully record the performances, "as long as I got permission. I usually recorded the band every time it played anyways. It was a sneaky way of hearing my own charts."
"I wasn't that much aware of it being a treasure," Potts says of the Parker recording. "When I did it, I did it for kicks so I could look back and hear Bird playing on one of my tunes. I wanted to keep that for posterity."
For the past nine years, Potts has taught music and headed the recording division at Montgomery College in Rockville. His jazz tapes, numbering in the hundreds, sat in storage while he concentrated on newer projects: writing charts for "The Tonight Show" and rehearsing his own 18-piece big band. But 25 years after they'd been made, word of the tapes' existence started circulating in the jazz community and soon "everybody wanted to get their hands on them," Potts says. "People were even calling from overseas." The Pres tapes were leased to Pablo, whose owner, Norman Granz, had had Lester Young under contract when Potts recorded him "unofficially" in 1956.
After uncovering the Charlie Parker tapes, Potts approached Bruce Lundvall, then president of Columbia Records. They met at the Jazz Times convention, where Lundvall was the keynote speaker. "We only had about 10 minutes, so I played him a tape of two tunes. He was delighted. I asked if I should keep looking since everybody wanted to get them. He said 'Stop in your tracks!' "
The tapes were remastered (by Jack Towers) but by then Lundvall had left Columbia to start his own jazz label at Elektra; he brought the tapes with him. What he got was Parker in his prime, blowing with a fierce passion in an exhilarating nightclub setting. One surprise: Parker had never rehearsed with THE Orchestra, and had no charts or guidelines to suggest where the music was going. He also walked into the club with a plastic alto saxophone.
"At first I thought he was kidding," Potts recalls. "I found out it was all he'd brought with him. But that's some of the greatest alto playing I've ever heard in my life." Parker played with particular abandon that night and Potts' only regret is that "what's on the album, 28 minutes, is all there was of him. As for the band, it was a very happy day. They were all smiles. The tunes they pulled out that day were tunes they figured Bird could wail his way right through." Included were two Potts originals, "Light Green" and "Willis." The eight arrangements are all heard for the first time on record; there are no other takes, which makes the album unique.
After clearing the rights with the Parker estate, Potts also insisted that "all the musicians be paid union scale--today's union scale. I even located Joe Timmer's daughter he had died in 1955 and she got leader's pay for it." In April, Musician will release a Bud Powell recording featuring Roy Haynes and Charles Mingus (the brilliant but troubled Powell was the intermission entertainer). Future projects include Dizzy Gillepsie with THE Orchestra and the New Jazz Quintet, Potts' own group from the '50s. Somewhere down the line, there also may be a recording of his current big band (which will be playing at Blues Alley on March 8). "It's a kicks band," Potts says. "They don't make much money but anybody in town you call would love to do it. They don't have to rehearse for four or five hours the day before; we just go in there and play it cold, but it doesn't sound like it. It's hot on the first note."
Potts admits he's still discovering things on his tapes "that I never remember being that good, like Lee Konitz playing with Max Roach, Curly Russell, Kenny Drew and Buddy DeFranco at the Howard Theatre. They were rompin', man. How could I forget something swinging that hard? There's some more Parker and lots of Stan Getz, hours of listening" that may someday be shared with a jazz public still reeling with delight to the Bird and Pres tapes.