Jazz Institute of Chicago

Bird lives: Year 43

Bird lives: Year 43
by Don Rose

When I was in high school just after World War II, I skipped lunch every few months to buy the latest Charlie Parker record—a 78-rpm disc running 79 cents a copy with three minutes of music on each side. That money would buy you a good sandwich, a glass of milk, some Twinkies and a pack of cigarettes. Later, the records went up to $1.05, the price of two tightly rolled joints.

Today, 43 years after his death, at longer intervals but with no gastronomic sacrifice, I am still buying the latest Charlie Parker records—glistening, $15 CDs with an hour or more of newly discovered music that someone, somewhere recorded off a radio broadcast four or five decades ago and just managed to put on the market.

Early last year I picked up a superb new disc on the Uptown label called "Charlie Parker, Boston, 1952," containing seven songs from December of the eponymous year plus four more from January 1954—the first session was hitherto unknown despite decades of musicological research and publication of two exhaustive discographies in the '90s alone.

More importantly, this session documents some of the very finest playing of the alto-sax genius' too brief career. Accompanied by his frequent drummer Roy Haynes, the celebrated bassist Charlie Mingus, an obscure trumpet player named Joe Gordon and the remarkable but long forgotten pianist Dick Twardzik, it turned out to be one of those searing, soaring Parker sessions reinforcing the view that his music truly came from the heavens.

They were all songs he had recorded earlier and played hundreds of times—his originals, "Ornithology," "Cool Blues," "Groovin' High," "Scrapple from the Apple" and "Cheryl," along with Lester Young's popular riff tune "Jumpin' With Symphony Sid" and one of Parker's favorite ballads, "Don't Blame Me." But something possessed him that Sunday afternoon, extending those already incomparable powers of improvisation into one of his rarest flights. He zooms through diabolical changes on "Groovin'," wrings your heart out on the ballad, then scorches the earth on "Scrapple." It was the kind of leap Bach made when he moved from a brilliant cantata into the B Minor Mass.

Parker had reached such heights before, sometimes during studio recording sessions and often during live performances—as those of us privileged to hear him knew, and as the rest of the world learned after his death when more and more bootlegged live-session recordings appeared.

What further amazed me about the Boston session was the belief that all the really great stuff had already been discovered and issued. The discoveries of very recent years often have been more notable for their historical value than for peaks of musicality. For example, Philology, a collectors' label, recently miraculously reassembled some broken, glass-based acetate discs from a test recording of 1945 and found wonderful music—though not at the level of the Boston date.

This on-going process of discovery, reconstruction and reissuance of Parkerana is one of the delights and one of the great frustrations of the jazz collector's world today. Year by year there is a new addition, much like the hitherto lost Boston session—sometimes just a musical fragment, a photo, a new anecdote—that becomes another building block in the Sisyphean effort to reconstruct Parker's life and works.

Drawing on the biographies and discographies, Ken Vail, an Englishman, brought out "Bird's Diary," in an illustrated, day-book format that attempts to fill in the days of his life between 1945 and his death in 1955. He manages to cover about a third of the days with anecdotes, memorabilia and scraps of conversations—citing all known recording dates and club dates from Bird's travels around the country.

A couple of years ago one of Parker's horns was sold at auction for $185,000—but another $150,000 was paid for photos, telegrams, letters, scraps of paper with his scrawled notes and other kitchen middens of his life.

As one of the—let's face it—cultists, at least four good reasons come to mind for this decades-long fascination: First and foremost, the music itself—once revolutionary, now timeless and permanently imprinted on the world. Beethoven's and Mozart's manuscripts are all there now; mostly all of Coltrane and Davis is either there on disc or waiting to be issued. The record companies, however, never documented most of Parker's live dates, so the world must rely on scores of home recordings—many of dubious quality—to approach the complete oeuvre.

Then, of course, there is the perennial, universal intrigue and romance with self-destructive artists, from Arthur Rimbaud to Bix Beiderbecke to James Dean to Jim Morrison. Parker's life and legend capped them all.

Add to this the mystery of how young Charles Parker Jr. from Kansas City, of modest talents, developed almost overnight into the ascendant Bird. With his cohorts Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, in 1945 he presented a full-blown new music to the world called bebop—a school that still dominates much of what we hear today.

Finally, because he destroyed himself so young—his mature career lasted a scant decade—many questions remain unanswered. What would he have done had he stayed alive and relatively healthy? Would he, as Armstrong did, stay on much the same course, losing a bit year by year, becoming something akin to a parody of himself in late life? Or would he, as Miles Davis and Coltrane did, chart new courses every five or ten years in an unending quest for a new musical expression? Critical opinion leans toward the first view, but scraps of music outside the studios at least suggest the latter.

Musically, Bird had it all: a superlative melodic sense for ballads and tempo tunes alike, propelling swing, boundless imagination, wit, speed, technique and a revolutionary approach to tonality, harmonics and especially rhythm that affected and influenced all the music that came after him.

After all the years and all the books about him, we still find enlightening new efforts to scrutinize his works musicologically and to reinterpret them—much as we have had new looks at Mozart. In 1996, saxophonist and musicologist Carl Woideck brought out "Charlie Parker: His Life and Work," blending an updated biography with carefully transcribed and annotated analyses of a dozen major improvised solos.

Though there were a number of reissues and collections put out in 1995 to mark the 75th anniversary of his birth, the best of them did not come until 1997. It is a remarkably well selected, two-disc collection of 38 mainly undisputed masterpieces called "Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Collection" issued on the Rhino label. The works draw on his studio work for the three labels he recorded for under contract—Dial, Savoy and Verve—as well as a selection of live performances from a variety of sources. It includes most of his 1945 sessions with Dizzy Gillespie for Guild, which announced the bebop revolution, but sadly omits the stunning solo on "Lady Be Good" from a 1946 Jazz at the Philharmonic concert that announced the revolution had been won.

There are his inestimable ballads, including "Embraceable You," the smoking, convoluted "Koko," the contrapuntal "Chasin' the Bird." A magnificent version of "Night in Tunisia" from a live performance at Birdland is there, but one wishes too for the torrential, incomplete take of the song from a Dial session issued as "The Famous Alto Break." It is easy to quibble, but I would have preferred his extended, polytonal rendition of his own tune, "Confirmation," from a 1948 Carnegie Hall concert with Diz rather than the later Verve studio version included.

This is, however, rarefied quibbling. The set is the best extant introduction to Parker—including artful program notes from critics Bob Porter and Ira Gitler. (In his new Playboy Guide to Jazz, Neil Tesser recommends the collection as THE Bird set to have if you're only going to have one.)

Bird did it all in music and overdid it all in life: drugs, drink, sex, food and at times madness. Born in Kansas City in 1920, hooked on heroin from his teens, a cult icon by 25, married again and again, screwing anything in a skirt, lying, cheating and stealing for dope, excess was his real addiction. His body finally imploded in March 1955, five months shy of his 35th birthday. A medical examiner looked at the corpse and designated it a man in his 50s. Within days, the first graffiti appeared in New York subways and soon around the world: "Bird Lives!"

He was the self-destructive jazz genius compounded exponentially, long ingrained as a cautionary but romantic American legend—a legend that began for a general audience in 1947, after a bizarre emotional crack-up put him in a California mental hospital. Writer Elliott Grennard wrote a short story about it in The Altlantic Monthly called "Sparrow's Last Jump," barely disguising the Parker character—and winning a literary prize.

His personality was as complex as his harmonics, as jagged as his rhythms. He was the essence of hip, a lover of art, a funny and caring man much of the time, with the ability to converse with almost anyone about anything—he had this strange gift of anticipating and understanding what someone would say on any subject, including things presumably foreign to him. He once saved the life of trumpeter Red Rodney by carrying him in his arms to a hospital—yet an earlier protege, Miles Davis, denounced him as a thief and a mooch.

I first met him in 1948, just before I turned 18 and he was 28 and already viewed by the modern jazz coterie as God incarnate. He was always kind and encouraging to me, but I also saw his cold side inflicted on others. He was worldly and wise—or seemed so to a teen-age idolater—and well read, though he sometimes spoofed literacy with a slug of big words, the way Harold Washington did. The one thing he was not is the naif portrayed by Forrest Whittaker in Clint Eastwood's film "Bird."

A lot of little things bothered me about that movie. The first time I saw it, I half shrieked to my companion, "He didn't hold his horn that way!" But there were good parts, too, especially Diane Venora's characterization of Chan, his last sort-of wife. Venora captured perfectly the woman I first met in 1949 and still visit whenever I go to Paris. I recently asked Chan what she thought of the movie and the first thing she snorted was, "He didn't hold his horn right!"

Chan's memoir, "My Life in E Flat," published in French four years ago, is expected to come out in English sometime soon. She is featured in an excellent hour-long video documentary called "Celebrating Bird," produced by the critic Gary Giddins, with an outstanding companion volume subtitled "The Triumph of Charlie Parker." There are a half dozen more books and scores of essays—including one by Ralph Ellison—on Bird's life and music. The "definitive" biography has been promised by the critic and columnist Stanley Crouch for several years now.

Because Parker recorded only twice in the studios with Jay McShann's band in 1941-42—before a union-led recording ban went into effect until late 1944—when he first recorded for the Savoy label most of the world was unaware of and could not chart his musical development. Particularly significant and little known was his work with Earl Hines' and Billy Eckstine's big bands, which included Gillespie, Dexter Gordon and Sarah Vaughan. Then, in the '70s, a stream of early performances captured on home equipment in hotel rooms, private studios and even arcade recording booths, began to appear on LP. They plotted the first Gillespie-Parker collaborations that led ultimately to bebop. They were literally the Dead Sea scrolls of modern jazz.

An incredible amount of material has subsequently been issued, most of it valuable but much with damnably bad sound, added to which there are dozens and dozens of bootleg and legitimate reissues being reshuffled and repackaged as something new. Without a good discographical guide the collector and the novice Parker fan alike can waste hundreds of dollars on duplicated or overlapping batches of song.

DaCapo Press recently reissued the fascinating but not always accurate biography, "Bird Lives: The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie Parker," by Ross Russell, who, as owner of Dial Records, recorded 89 sides including many of Bird's masterworks. It was Russell who discovered that because of Parker's astonishing improvisatory powers, successive takes of the same tune were so different that he could issue them as separate records. Thus, on one 78, Bird's riff on How High the Moon was issued as "Ornithology," and a later one was issued as "Bird Lore." Sometimes, to make more money, Dial and Savoy would issue a disc with Bird on only one of the sides. There went another lunch.

Everything he recorded for Dial between 1946 and 1948, including alternate takes and breakdowns, is available in a four-disc set on the Stash label. Savoy once issued a similar three-disc set from 1944-48, but it is out of print and Denon, which took over Savoy, is issuing this material haphazardly and irrationally. A 10-disc box from Verve contains everything Parker recorded for Norman Granz's various labels from 1946—including the JATP solo on "Lady Be Good." Plus his first efforts backed by strings, a reunion with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk and the "concept" sessions recorded specifically for issue on LP. A 1994 reissue of his work with strings actually hit the Billboard magazine jazz charts.

While he was still alive, musicians and idolators wanted more than the morsels provided by the studios. They would come to clubs and concerts with whatever equipment was available: paper-based wax discs on home-recording machines, wire recorders, and eventually early tape machines. These recordings were kept for personal use or passed around to other musicians, often to transcribe and incorporate into their work.

Today they are as important to the reconstruction of his life and ouevre as the studio sessions or the biographies.

An enterprising New Yorker named Boris Rose (no relation) set up his home disc cutter next to the radio and documented scores of Parker broadcasts from Carnegie Hall, the Royal Roost, Birdland and other nightclubs in the late '40s and early '50s. He sold copies through ads in down beat magazine. They became a major archive. The Savoy label once issued a complete, three CD set of the Roost performances, then Denon stupidly let most of it go out of print.

Saxophonist Don Lanphere, while playing in Stan Getz's big band on the same bill with Sarah Vaughan and Parker at New York's Apollo Theater, set up his tape recorder next to the tinny monitor in the band dressing room, documenting entire stage shows, comedians and all. Lanphere also captured Bird on tape in an amazing performance in a private apartment. But many of these personal recordists wanted only Bird: they didn't even want the other soloists, sometimes not even the theme or "head" of the tune being played, and so we have hundreds of isolated solos for musicologists to analyze painstakingly and catalog.

The most extraordinary such case is that of Dean Benedetti, another alto saxophonist and acolyte, who followed Parker around from club to club in California and New York in 1947-8, first with a home disc recorder, then using paper-based tape. He caught many brilliant evenings—and even a bummer. (Yes, once in a rare while there was a bummer.) Dean died young and his recordings were believed lost.

Then, in 1990, following a series of coincidental events, long negotiations, excruciating research and engineering wizardry, the reissue company Mosaic issued virtually all the Benedetti recordings: 461 Bird performances, including one where Thelonious Monk came up on the bandstand to teach the pianist the chords of his composition.

Another odd situation occurred in 1952 at the Rockland Palace ballroom, where Bird played a benefit for Ben Davis, the only Communist member of the New York City Council. Several amateur recordists, including Chan Parker, were there with their mikes set up on different parts of the stage. All except Chan's were issued on bootleg LPs and later CDs. In 1997, Jazz Classics Records assembled several of the original tapes and produced a definitive two-CD set. Because of the mike placement of two of the original machines, it includes one song, "Lester Leaps In," with true stereo sound—from a day long before stereo was in commercial use.

Fans recorded Bird live in Paris and Stockholm. They caught him sitting in with the big bands of Woody Herman in Kansas City, Stan Kenton in Portland and Dizzy Gillespie at the old Pershing Ballroom in Chicago—one of his most extraordinary nights, marred by painfully bad sound. I often heard him at the Pershing and relive one of those nights with a pair of CDs. He played at Joe Segal's original Jazz Showcase when it was the Roosevelt College Jazz Club. He played the old Blue Note in the Loop, but there are no known recordings from there. He was, however, recorded at the Argyle Lounge in 1948—an Uptown dive where, on one of his crazy nights, he pissed in the telephone booth. (His last Chicago date, with Ira Sullivan at the old Bee Hive on 55th St., went undocumented as far as we know.)

Philology, which issues a series called "Last Unissued," is up to 24 recordings and counting. Here and there on these odds and ends we hear a screech, a yelp, an altered tonality or a break from harmony that hints at new thoughts—if not new directions—from the master.

It is a pity Armstrong had no such followers. By the hey-day of Miles and Coltrane the major labels were hip enough to record their concerts and club dates. Their musical lives, essentially, have already been reconstructed.

Discographies published by Cadence Jazz Books in 1993 and by John Burton on the internet in 1995 indicate there are perhaps a dozen more sessions that were recorded but not yet issued—and they didn't even know about the 1952 Boston session. Chan Parker is still sitting on many unissued tapes.

Until recently there was only one live performance on film: a 1952 kinescope—before videotape—of Parker and Gillespie playing "Hot House" on Earl Wilson's variety show in New York. There was also silent filmed footage of Bird playing with the great tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins—though the sound track was believed to be lost for decades. However, it has been found and the audio-visual reconstruction—slightly out of synch because he was miming to a prerecorded improvisation—has just been issued as part of a larger, expensive jazz video.

Obviously, Bird still lives. Save your lunch money.

Copyright ©1999 Don Rose
Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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