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Exploring two very different kinds of vintage

Whisky & Culture | 04 Dec 2020 | Issue 172 | By Hans Offringa

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Live fast, die young. That would have been an appropriate epitaph for the man who’d earn his rightful place alongside Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

Born on 29 August, 1920 in Kansas City, Charlie Parker didn’t show a specific talent for music and his parents didn’t encourage him to play an instrument. At the age of 11 he picked up an alto saxophone and taught himself to play. At 14 he joined the school band, not very successfully, and was laughed off the stage. A year later he left school and decided to become a professional musician. Playing in a jam session with Count Basie’s band, he lost the key and was humiliated again.

As a reaction Charlie would practise for many hours a day, until he could play in all 12 keys, later to find out that in blues and jazz, usually only a few keys are used. By intense practising he also developed an incredible speed, showing he could play Lester Young’s solos at double speed. He earned his nickname Yardbird, abbreviated to Bird, due to his fondness for chicken meat.

Committed to the cause, Parker joined pianist Jay McShann in 1937 for almost five years. He would play the New York and Chicago club circuit frequently and was first recorded during this period. In 1939 Parker left the band, earning a living holding several jobs, working as a part-time musician and as a dish-washer, not surprisingly at Jimmie’s Chicken Shack in New York. There he met pianist Art Tatum who must have inspired him to play fast and pay attention to harmony, as can be heard in Parker’s later style. In 1942 Charlie left Jay McShann and teamed up with a group of young angry musicians, fed up with the swing sound of the big orchestras. Bebop was born. “Bird” would make waves with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.

Sadly he became more and more addicted to heroin, a drug he started using as a teenager, after being treated with morphine, recovering from a car accident. Often Parker would not show up, or too late, without an instrument, having sold it to score drugs. Legend has it that he once played a plastic Grafton saxophone during a session at the Savoy, since his fellow musicians couldn’t find any other instrument on such short notice. Eventually his drug abuse and excessive drinking led him to experience a nervous breakdown in 1946. Having run mostly naked, wearing only socks, into a hotel lobby after having set fire to his mattress in his hotel room, he was arrested and brought to the Camarillo State Mental Hospital.

Six months later he resurfaced, playing and recording as never before, soon using drugs and alcohol in large quantities again. In 1949 Parker saw a dream come true when he was given the opportunity to record songs with a chamber orchestra. Having heard Stravinsky one time, he’d wanted to record with strings.

When his two-year-old daughter died of pneumonia in 1954, Parker lost what little control he had regained over his habits. He died in a New York apartment on 12 March, 1955, only 34 years old, of pneumonia combined with a bleeding ulcer, undoubtedly caused by living in the fast lane. The coroner estimated his age at around 60 years. His zest for life killed him, but his many recordings made “Bird” immortal.

Contemporary musicians are still influenced by the man who is considered by many the greatest saxophonist of all time.
Now for the whisky harmony.

Campbeltown, on the tip of the Kintyre peninsula, has witnessed rocky times but showed to be a sturdy survivor through the ages. In the 17th and 18th centuries the name was almost eponymous with smuggling; the coastline with its many coves made an excellent hiding place for the men whose profession was once considered honourable. Whether it was illegal or not, that business meant an economic stimulus for this remote part.

Springbank’s history dates back to 1828 when the Reid family founded the distillery. Within nine years the Reids ran into financial trouble, regardless of the whisky boom and were offered help by their in-laws, the Mitchell family, who bought the distillery in 1837. Since then, descendants of the Mitchells have inherited the business. In 1897 a William Mitchell had the audacity to open a new distillery called Glengyle. His brother John continued operation at Springbank. William was the less fortunate of the two. Glengyle closed in 1925, having made whisky for 28 years.

Springbank suffered and closed between 1926 and 1933, but did start up production after that silent period. In 1960 the company closed its malting floors and began to buy malted barley from elsewhere. When independent bottler Cadenhead came up for sale in 1969, they were added to the Mitchell portfolio. A few years later the distillery began to experiment with a heavily peated variety that ultimately would become known as Longrow.

The next decade (1979-1989) Springbank would close for the second time in its existence, albeit that the first Longrow bottling was launched during that period, in 1985. From 1987 the production started on a limited base, not to use full capacity until 1990. Two years after that Springbank decided to reopen its malting floors.

In 2004 a little miracle happened. Glengyle arose from its ashes and was opened by Hedley Wright, Springbank’s primary owner and a direct descendant of the Mitchells. The Glengyle whisky cannot be called by its proper name, as another company owns the trade name, and is now known as Kilkerran.

Despite only having three working distilleries, Campbeltown survived as an independent whisky region. The distinctive tastes of Springbank and Longrow, and resurrection of Glengyle, surely contribute to that state.
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