It’s singing with soul that counts. Billie has so much soul. When I sing a tune, the lyrics are important to me. Most of the standard lyrics I know well. And as soon as I hear an arrangement, I get ideas, kind of like blowing a horn. I guess I never sing a tune the same way twice.
But Bird never encouraged me to do anything that would prove wrong for myself. And on that record date, he really told me what to do so far as music and my life was concerned.
He asked me how I had been doing because he knew I was a young wild kid running around and not knowing what was happening. That day he showed me the thing he wanted me to do and the thing he stood for. The purpose of his whole existence was music and he showed me that music was the paramount thing and anything that interfered with it, I should stay away from. Later on I was able to take advantage of his advice, but he died before I had a chance to see him and tell him I had.
What is most important is not the style itself but how you are developing that style and how well you can play within it. You can definitely be more creative exploring specific things within a style. Sometimes, Paul, Scott, and I play the same tune over and over again. Occasionally, everything falls in right, and we think it’s sensational. Of course, it may not mean much to a listener at the time, but, then, most people in clubs don’t listen closely anyway.
It turned out that Milhaud was the one who convinced me to go back, saying I couldn’t possibly give up jazz, that it was in me and if I wanted to represent the culture, jazz was such an important part. He said it was more important to express the culture and not gain the technique. And he pointed out that every great composer had expressed his culture in which he was familiar and was completely familiar with the folk idiom and jazz was the folk idiom of America. He talked me back into it. It took a period of six months, I guess, and then I became interested in jazz again.
I’ve never been in jail so I can’t write about chain gangs or cotton fields. Then I remembered when I was in Chicago and the watermelon man used to go through the alley-a couple of times a day-and he had a little song, ‘Wah tee mee lo-w.’ There were cobblestone alleys, and the first idea I got was to try to make some kind of rhythmic sound like a soulful wagon going over the cobblestones, with the horse’s hooves and everything. For the melody I started thinking, ‘Suppose somebody were calling the watermelon man-what would they say?’ They’d say, ‘Hey, watermelon man.’ So I tried to write a melody that sounded like that. And even before the lyrics came out, any time anybody joked with me about ‘Watermelon Man,’ they’d sing, ‘Hey, watermelon man,’ to the first melodic phrase, even though they didn’t know I had this in mind. I guess the melody sounds so strongly like it that you automatically get that kind of verbal image.