When saxophonists Med Flory and Lanny Morgan lead their quintet next week at Jax, they should hang a sign in front that reads "Be-Bop Spoken Here." The two, who primarily play alto saxophone, are starting a series of Wednesday night gigs at the Glendale establishment.
Both are devotees of be-bop, which came to the forefront of jazz in the mid-'40s, as performed by such archetypal innovators as alto saxophonist Charlie (Bird) Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell and drummer Max Roach. It was an outgrowth of the music of the swing era (the mid-'30s and early '40s), exemplified by virtuosic, melodically rich improvisations, expansive chord progressions and medium-fast to riotously fast tempos.
"Be-bop is a separate language, advanced over anything that came before. As a musician, either you speak it or you don't," Flory said.
Still, appreciating be-bop is not like entering a war zone. For instance, Bird Parker, who died in 1955 at the age of 34, was once quoted as saying the style was about "playing fast and clean and picking the pretty notes." Indeed, most of Bird's recordings feature emotional improvisations marked by abundant passages of great beauty.
"I don't think this music is that complicated," Morgan said. "It grabbed me when I was young because I liked what I heard. It's happy music."
Flory, 65, an Indiana native who lives in North Hollywood, and Morgan, 57, who moved with his family from his native Iowa to Los Angeles when he was 10, have each been profoundly influenced by Parker. In 1972, in fact, Flory and bassist Buddy Clark formed the band Supersax, which plays transcriptions of Bird solos, orchestrated for five saxophones, trumpet and rhythm section. Flory's latest album with Supersax is "Stone Bird" on Columbia Records. Clark left the band in 1975; Morgan, who now lives in Van Nuys, has been a member since 1977.
Like many listeners, Flory was perplexed when he first heard Parker (on a 1941 recording of "Jumpin' Blues," with Kansas City-based pianist Jay McShann's band) while he was a clarinetist in high school. "I thought, 'What is this?' " he recalled. Later, he attended Indiana University, earning a bachelor's degree in philosophy, and eventually got Parker's message.
"Taking his solos off records, you look at his music and it's perfect," he said, sitting up straight and gesturing for emphasis with his palms open and fingers spread. "It's like Mozart or something. His music is beautiful just looking at it, not even playing it. You can tell his mind was huge."
Morgan, who played violin at age 6 and switched to alto saxophone a few years later, recalled hearing Parker on a recording made by producer Norman Granz's group, Jazz at the Philharmonic, an all-star jam session that toured during the '40s and '50s. This particular album featured such swing-era greats as saxophonists Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter and Ben Webster.
"All these guys played, and then Bird came on, and it was like the sky opened and suddenly you could breathe. He played so freely," Morgan said.
Morgan's debut album was 1981's "It's About Time" on Palo Alto Jazz Records, and he is featured on trumpeter Don Rader's just-released "A Foreign Affair" on Bellaphon International Records.
Flory and Morgan have been performing off and on for a year at Jax with a quintet that includes pianist Tom Ranier, bassist Dave Stone and drummer Kim Edmundson. They usually include plenty of Parker material, or tunes associated with the saxophonist.
"We play Bird's 'Confirmation' and 'Scrapple From the Apple,' or Dizzy's 'Groovin' High,' or tunes like Jerome Kern's 'The Song Is You,' which everybody knows," said Morgan, wearing tan slacks and a green sweater that complemented his blue eyes.
"Except me," cracked Flory, who wore a gray sweat shirt and matching slacks. "The bridge, the middle part, on that one is tough. I'm working on it," he said, breaking into a smile.
Both said that as much as they enjoy the songs they've been playing, it's time to add some new ones.
"Yeah, the people at the bar are starting to hum the tunes," Flory said.
"He's only mad because they're starting to hum his solos," Morgan countered. They both laughed.
Both musicians have played in their share of big bands--Flory with Claude Thornhill, Woody Herman, Terry Gibbs and others, Morgan with Maynard Ferguson and now Bill Holman and Bob Florence. Since the '60s, Flory has also appeared as an actor in films and on TV. Both said they appreciate the opportunity for small-group work that their stint at Jax gives them.
"I love it because I've never really had a chance to play jazz since I got out of the Army in the mid-'40s," Flory said. "I'm always playing lead alto, or with Supersax, where I get to play two tunes a night. Here I'm getting back to where I never was. And now I know a lot more harmonically, and I get a chance to apply it."
"And as much fun as a big band is, they're suffocating as far as solo space is concerned. At Jax, we get to play what we want, when we want and as long as we want. I look forward to it," Morgan said.
So do the fans, apparently. "We seem to have built up a little following, and people are responding to what we play," Morgan said.
"It's fun. People are there to have fun, and that's the premise on which I've built my entire existence," he said with a smile. "I've never had a moment when I was shy about getting up on a stage. That comes in handy."
Both players admitted that they play at Jax not to convert fans to be-bop, but for themselves. The results can be mixed. "Sometimes it's great. Other times, nothing seems to work, and you can't figure out why," Morgan said.
But when it's right, it's like a broken drum: You can't beat it, Flory said. "It's the best feeling in the world."
Med Flory and Lanny Morgan perform at Jax, 339 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Wednesdays in January and February. No cover, no minimum. Call (818) 500-1604. Stewart writes regularly about jazz for Calendar.