Interview with Ken Slone

Dewey Redman once told me, “Charlie Parker sounds better every day.” Dewey was impressed with the Charlie Parker Omnibook when it came out, and began playing “Dewey Square” because of it. At the session for Paul Bley’s BebopBebopBebopBebop Bley requested a copy (although he apparently didn’t even open it, just wanted it on the piano). I still have my edition that I saved up for in 8th or 9th grade. The cover and contents pages are missing. The first page of the first song “Confirmation” has two scribbles where I took down notes when I had no other paper at hand: Barry Harris’s phone number and the dates Charlie Haden hired me to play at the Regattabar. One of my playlists in my iPod is a group of Bird solos called “Omni 11.”

Charlie Parker Omnibook might be the most important jazz education text ever published. These days, in the age of computer-assisted transcription, it may seem slightly less impressive. One could quibble about certain notes and rhythms here and there in the solos, although the melodies of Bird’s tunes really are pretty damn good. At the time it was a glorious revelation for students ranging from total beginners to sophisticated professionals.

The book credits Ken Slone and Jamey Aebersold. Last week I had a short conversation with Slone about the Omnibook over the phone.

Ethan Iverson:  Hi Ken, thanks for the interview! Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.

Ken Slone:  I’m a trumpet player from New Albany. I went to Bloomington where I studied with David Baker and William Adam, both just great teachers. For many years I lived in Brooklyn but I’m back in New Albany now.

EI: How did you transcribe the solos?

KS: A tape player at half-speed. Did it at full speed too. I learned them on trumpet, then transposed them to alto.

EI:  Were you the only transcriber? How much did Jamey Aebersold actually do?

KS: Jamey was mostly the middleman between me and the publisher, Criterion Music. He contributed one solo that he had done in college, “The Bird.” Then we spent a couple of hours spot-checking the book together. But that was the extent of Jamey’s involvement with the pitches.

Actually I’d like to clear up one thing: I did 50 solos quite carefully. I was totally drained, having spent months in my basement working on them, but then they requested ten more. I had to do ten more Birds solo in a week, and those were essentially one pass. It’s always bothered me that ten were not quite at the level of the others.

By the way, I just did the Eb book, and never really checked out the transposed volumes.

EI:  Who was the copyist?

KS:  Pete Gerhardt, who did a lot of work for Jamey. Pete was a great. All the Jamey play-along books were in his hand, too. These days a computer score can be hard to read, but a great copyist can create something that really lays right on the page.

EI:  Do you get royalties?

KS:  No. I got twenty bucks a solo, and that was it. That’s nothing, really, but at the time I needed the money. And it certainly helped my ears and general musicianship.

EI:  How did you decide what solos to transcribe?

KS:  It was Criterion Music’s idea for the solos. Those were the pieces they had the rights to. They just sent me a list.

EI:  I have to tell you, Ken, that I got this book early on and I still consult it to this day. Many, many, many others have learned from this book as well. I think I can speak for my whole generation of jazz musicians: Thank you very much!

KS:  I’ve heard that over the years, that lots of people have used the Omnibook. Well, there’s nobody greater than Charlie Parker, so that’s cool.