Two years ago, a revelatory suite of Charlie Parker’s recordings, made between 1945 and 1952, was released as a two-CD set, titled “Bird in L.A.” Now
this collection of concert and radio performances has dropped online (on Spotify and elsewhere) and has also been reissued on vinyl. Parker is the crucial hero of modern jazz, and, in his brief life (he died at thirty-four, in 1955), he was recorded copiously by record labels in the studio—and, more importantly, he was recorded fanatically in concert, privately. It’s a sign of his preëminence that he was constantly followed by bootlegging recordists; their activity, whatever its legality, has offered incomparable treasures to the history of music and expanded Parker’s legacy.
Most of Parker’s official recordings were made in studios on 78-r.p.m. records, which maxed out at around three minutes (in the usual ten-inch series) or five (in the premium twelve-inch recordings). His live recordings—whether at Birdland, in 1950, or Rockland Palace, in 1952, or the Open Door, in 1953—are, to my mind, the ones that show how far-reaching, audacious, and boundary-breakingly advanced his music was and remains.
So it is with “Bird in L.A.” (Parker’s nickname likely came from his reputation for eating chicken, which was called “yardbird” where he was from. The prime New York jazz venue Birdland opened in 1949, barely four years after Parker cut his first records as a leader—a hint of his importance.) The recordings feature Parker in a wide range of settings and playing with a wide variety of musicians. These contexts both inflect the music itself and reveal the idiosyncratic conditions under which some of the greatest musical minds of modern times produced their singular art.
The earliest session, from December 17, 1945, is from the most classic setting: a jazz club, Billy Berg’s, where Parker, an alto saxophonist, was performing as a nominal sideman in a band led by the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, his prime cohort in the creation of the style known as bebop. It was an advance as significant to jazz as Abstract Expressionism was to painting. (Indeed, the two innovations developed alongside each other, in New York, in the forties.) Bebop was marked by harmonic and rhythmic complexity, defiantly difficult speeds, a tone of vehemence and fierce concentration, and an uncompromising attitude. It was danceable—people indeed danced to it, but far more often listened to it in the manner of concert music. Bebop shifted the center of jazz gravity away from big bands to small groups that were led by soloists who improvised at length. Soloists pursued their highly individualized artistry wherever they could: in jam sessions, with pickup groups assembled for the purpose of a recording or a gig, or with those already on hand as the house band at a club where they were hired.
If the pianist Thelonious Monk was bebop’s prime theoretician and Gillespie its most popular performer, Parker was its central tragic hero: its most advanced and original artist and a singularly self-destructive one. It suffices to hear the very start of Parker’s first solo in the first track of “Bird in L.A.,” on the song “How High the Moon,” in which he bursts wildly out past the bouncy beat as if in a race for artistic life, to catch the essential spirit of his art—five musical seconds of explosive invention that exemplify an era. The next pair of tracks offer a reminder of the night-club context in which this and other stellar improvisations are created—a comedy dialogue in which the m.c., Slim Gaillard, praises the pianist Harry (the Hipster) Gibson as “groovy-rooney” and Gibson then sings a song of himself: “We call him Handsome Harry the Hipster, he’s the boy with all the chicks.” (This number and the comedic one that follows it, “Cement Mixer (Putty Putty),” remind me of the concert where Beethoven’s Violin Concerto premièred, followed by party-trick improvisations by the violinist who performed on a single string with the violin upside-down. )
According to the great bop trumpeter Howard McGhee, who is quoted in the liner notes, Gillespie “was a comical cat, and he got people laughing. Bird didn’t dig that when he was trying to play serious.” The rest of the first disk (including an appearance by the trumpeter Miles Davis, who was then just nineteen) presents the groups in more concentrated and focussed settings, though Gibson returns in an incongruous dialogue with the decidedly un-hip entertainer Rudy Vallee, who makes a racist joke. (Gibson was a strange character—a white New Yorker who, having made his name among Black musicians in Harlem as a precocious pianist, adopted Black jive talk as his shtick, and even claimed to have coined the very term “hipster.”)
The musical impact of this fiery batch of nineteen-forties recordings is distinctive and memorable. It’s one that’s not unique in Parker’s mighty discography, but it provides a sharp-edged impression of the dominance of melody in his music. Much as his improvisations dazzle with their high-wire intricacies crafted on the fly, the ones on the first disk are distinguished by a near-constant lilt of singability. Of course, one would have to be as virtuosic a vocalist as Parker is an instrumentalist to put the notion to the practical test, but while listening, one is thrillingly tempted to try. Parker, like most jazz musicians of the time, worked wonders with tunes from the Great American Songbook, many of which offered harmonic sophistication that served as a strong springboard for bebop invention. But the beboppers also crafted their own compositions. Many of the songs on “Bird in L.A.” were written by Parker, Gillespie, and others in their circle. These tunes, such as “Ornithology,” “Dizzy Atmosphere,” “Shaw ’Nuff,” and “Billie’s Bounce,” are as original as the solos that they inspire—indeed, are essentially continuous with them. Listening to the disk of the earlier performances is a compendious and energizing object lesson in a new mode—a virtual redefinition—of lyricism with a modernistically propulsive force.
The second disk, recorded mostly on July 14, 1952, features Parker in an odder and more distracting situation, one for which he himself was largely responsible. He led a band (which included the eighteen-year-old altoist Frank Morgan) that played that day at an outdoor party at the home of the artist Jirayr Zorthian. (A bootleg of this gig emerged on CD in 2006, but the sound quality is atrocious; exacting audio work by Doug Benson went into extracting the music from the noise for the “Bird in L.A.” release.) In the liner notes, John Burton tells the story: Parker had gone skinny-dipping in Zorthian’s pool, which set a particular tone for the festivities. The album reveals that, before a performance of “Embraceable You,” Zorthian called out, “Take your pants off.” The bassist on the date, David Bailey, says that Parker got naked and then insisted that everyone else—including the band—strip, too.
Musically, the Zorthian recording, for all its many ear-catching moments, doesn’t quite reach the dramatic intensity or musical heights of the earlier ones. However, there is one track that’s unlike any other I’ve heard in the Parker canon, one that takes its inspiration from the party mood but derives from that hectic revelry something audacious and forward-looking. Even the track’s title, “March Noodling/Dixie,” suggests its daring strangeness. It’s so peculiar a creation that Burton, who was also the set’s producer, writes, “This item, which has little aesthetic merit, is included here for completeness.” The drummer, Larance Marable, sets a manically fast march beat and Parker plays snippets of “Dixie” and “Yankee Doodle,” along with other melodic fragments that are interspersed with brief and brilliant bursts of improvisation, before setting a swinging, ditty-like melody that the other horns join before giving way to scat sing-alongs. This extraordinary four-minute performance looks ahead to the political-theatrical works of the late fifties and sixties by Parker’s frequent associate Charles Mingus and even to the ecstatic quasi-Surrealism of the visionary saxophonist Albert Ayler in the mid sixties and beyond. It’s raucously sardonic, exuberantly ironic Black music, mocking the insults and the assumptions of white America with the irrepressible power of intellectual authority, personal style, and artistic freedom. ♦