Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker


Charlie Parker    Courtesy of Mosaic Records

Results-based analysis is baked into most myths. Because it so often directly leads to death or perpetual agony for the hero, daring is often portrayed as nothing more than hubris; Icarus’ permitting him to think he could fly close to the sun, and Prometheus’ allowing him to think he could get away with stealing fire from the gods. The images of Icarus’s broken body, feathers pasted to it with melted wax, and Prometheus’ bloodied, eagle-torn torso are necessary to the respective myths fulfilling their function as cautionary moral compasses, one well-served by the conveyance of myths through print media, be it an encyclopedia entry or a young person’s picture book.

But, what if these heroes had GoPro cameras strapped to them, and every spectacular second of Icarus’ first flights and Prometheus’ early escapades was posted on YouTube within hours, if not minutes? The question of whether or not the clips would have more views than the latest Dude Perfect trick basketball shot aside, the thrilling power of such images would radically change the arc of the myths, if only because they would have uploaded only the breathtaking glories.

Arguably, that’s what records did for Charlie Parker. In the TV-less 1940s, records had the closest thing to the instant saturating reach of social media content. They could be cut, pressed and on air within days and, unlike live radio performances, they could be in shops throughout cosmopolitan markets like New York City the next week. Because they could be spun at home, in a tavern, or at a radio studio, their speed in creating a national consensus of what was new and hot was unprecedented.

Granted, some adjustments need to be applied to truly gauge the velocity of Parker becoming a modernist icon. Though the foundations for his fame were laid during his sporadic, eight-year, nickname-endowing association with Jay McShann in the late 1930s and early ‘40s, Bird’s first history-shaping flights were in 1945 – Dizzy Gillespie sides like “Groovin’ High” and “Salt Peanuts,” as well as Parker’s own “Koko” for his first Savoy date. By 1949, when the saxophonist was making his first top-billing recordings for Verve, Parker was a “STAR” (the use of all caps was Phil Schaap’s in his annotations for The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve).

This was not the type of overnight, skyrocketing fame that became almost a weekly event in popular music a year after Parker’s death in 1955 with the imprinting of Elvis Presley upon the national psyche; however, there are significant factors why it took Parker such a relatively long time to ascend. The overhang of American Federation of Musicians’ two years-plus ban on recordings, which ended in late ‘44, should not be underestimated; with countless unmade records that would have familiarized bebop to listeners, musicians and promoters, doubts lingered mid-decade about bop’s commercial viability, typified by Savoy’s Herman Lubinsky’s initial reluctance to record Parker.

Certainly, the recording ban slowed bop’s rise, nationally. Even though swing and what is now called mainstream jazz had national audiences, bebop was still largely a New York phenomenon mid-decade. The trickle of recordings that made their way, for example, to California only intensified the thirst for the new music. As chronicled in pianist Hampton Hawes’ must-read autobiography, Raise Up Off Me, the enthusiasm with which Parker was received in Los Angeles in 1946 is on par with the arrival of drought-breaking rains or Santa Claus.

One of bebop’s early champions in Los Angeles was Ross Russell, who opened Tempo Music Shop in 1944. While photographs reveal that Tempo sold records by Leadbelly and other roots music artists, jazz was the shop’s stock and trade. Russell’s template was the Commodore Music Shop in New York, whose proprietor, Milt Gabler, launched the Commodore label in 1938. Russell followed suit in early 1946 with Dial. Unlike his model, however, Russell chose not to champion the largely white exponents of what became known as Condon jazz (ironically, the only musician for whom a style of jazz was named was not an innovative virtuoso, but journeyman rhythm guitarist Eddie Condon) but the mainly black heralds of what Dial’s labels proclaimed as “Contemporary American Music.”

Russell was obviously inspired by the recent arrival of Parker and Gillespie in LA to play Billy Berg’s in Hollywood in December, 1945. Their two-month run may not equal Ornette Coleman’s Five Spot stand in terms of controversy, but is comparable in that it brought a fully-realized, paradigm-changing approach to jazz to a qualified audience peppered with musicians like Hawes, who would give bebop a West Coast tinge, as well as sundry movers and shakers. Given the sensation Parker and Gillespie created in LA, it’s a little curious that the avid Russell waited until the end of February, 1946 to sign Parker to an exclusive one-year deal; but, given subsequent events, Russell’s timing arguably reflects a caution stemming from knowing of or even witnessing Parker’s unreliability and erratic behavior.

Parker’s sides would become the core of Dial’s jazz catalog, reiterated by Mosaic’s 9-CD The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions. The nine sessions Parker recorded for Dial on both coasts over the next two years (not counting a rousing, if not groundbreaking sextet date for Comet led by vibraphonist Red Norvo, which Russell bought after Dial ceased recording jazz in ‘48) constitutes a major portion of the saxophonist’s legacy. The half-dozen California sessions led by or featuring Parker straddle his first legendarily spectacular crash and burn, and the hospitalization immortalized by the eerily carefree “Relaxin’ at Camarillo.” Three late ‘47 sessions recorded in New York six months after Parker’s return not only yielded staples like “Dewey Square” and “Scrapple from the Apple,” but infrequently discussed gems like “The Hymn,” one of Parker’s most breathtaking sprints.

Yet, the significance of Parker’s Dials is in their documenting a shift in the saxophonist’s aesthetic. Russell reports that Parker had lost interest in what the saxophonist called “frantic” tunes like “Dizzy Atmosphere,” and wanted to differentiate his take on bebop’s vista-opening innovations through his own compositions. He did not persuasively accomplish this in the Hollywood sessions; although he revisited the foot-patting inducing swing of “Yardbird Suite” during two sessions, “Bird’s Nest” and “Cool Blues” were the rule, hard-hitting heads whose tempi approached Mach speed. However, there was a markedly more joyful side to Parker’s solos when playing trumpeter Howard McGhee’s tunes like “Cheers,” a wonderfully salutary theme, and the ebullient “Stupendous.” During this time, Bird soared on his own tunes, but he gracefully glided on McGhee’s.

The Dials also present something of an environmental impact study on this rarest of birds. Compared to the sides recorded in California, Parker’s New York Dials have a sharper edge. Themes like “Klact-oveeseds-tene” are heavily segmented; there’s a return to frantic tempi on tunes like “Crazeology;” over all, it seems like Bird is more cognizant of, and responsive to, the pressures to fly faster, higher and with a dash of recklessness. This edge is largely attributable to Max Roach, who by 1947 had become jazz drumming’s answer to cubism, making Bird’s Los Angeles drummers like Roy Porter sound provincial by comparison. However, the same can’t be said of Miles Davis, who is inconsistent on the New York sessions, rarely matching McGhee in terms of concept, execution and style.

Given that they have been repeatedly reissued, there isn’t anything new to be gleaned from this new incarnation of the Bird Dials. This extends to the repackaged annotations of Spotlite’s Tony Williams, whose salvaging of the Parker’s Dials for a comprehensive 12-LP series in the 1970s was a Herculean feat. However, the presentation of Parker within the wider scope of Dial’s total modern jazz output is new and noteworthy, particularly the sessions featuring Dexter Gordon and pianist Dodo Marmarosa. Three dates recorded within six months of each other in 1937 document LTD finding his stride. Unfortunately, there’s only a pair of takes of two serviceable tunes from a June quintet date with trombonist Melba Liston in the front line. However, just a week later, Gordon not only cut “The Chase,” his first classic tenor duel with Wardell Gray, but also “Chromatic Aberration,” which has much of what John Coltrane is said to have drawn from Gordon. Before the year was out, Gordon recorded a convivial two-tenor date with Teddy Edwards. In addition to the Parker All Stars date that yielded “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” Marmarosa is heard co-leading a scorching sextet with McGhee and leading a thoroughly engaging trio session with Harry Babasin picking bass lines on cello; on all three ‘47 dates, Marmarosa’s chops and his tweaks of the then-hardening bebop template were often stunning.

Hearing Parker and Marmarosa in close proximity begs the question: What is the less cruel fate? Parker tumbling out of the sky to an early horrific death, or Marmarosa, his early ecstatic brilliance dulled by electric shock treatments administered by the Army in the mid-‘50s, spending his last decades tethered in his native Pittsburgh, and residing in a VA hospital when he died in 2002 at 76?

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