Monday, December 9, 2019

Robert Gordon - Jazz West Coast: The Los Angeles Jazz Scene of the 1950's - Preface & Chapter 1

Originally published in London in 1986 by Quartet Books LTD, Bob Gordon’s seminal work on the Jazz styles and groups that developed primarily in Los Angeles in the 1950s has long been out-of-print and copies of it are difficult to obtain.

In order to rectify this lack of availability, Bob Gordon has allowed the editorial staff permission to intermittently reprint the work’s chapters on JazzProfiles.

Since the original publication had limited photographs and no color replications of album and CD covers, JazzProfiles will judiciously add these so as to not detract from the significance of Bob’s text.

By way of background, Bob Gordon grew up in Southern California and first began listening to Jazz and the musicians discussed in this book while at high school in the 1950s. He served as a musician in the United States Navy from 1961-66, subsequently returning to school to receive a BA in English from California State College at San Bernardino and an MA from the University of California at Riverside. He has taught Jazz history courses at San Bernardino Valley College and Riverside Community College.

Bob and his wife Lynn moved to Cedar City, Utah in 2004, where he plays trombone in the Orchestra of Southern Utah (a community symphony orchestra) and local jazz and wind ensembles. He hosts a jazz show on the university radio station, KSUU, which is streamed live over the internet Sunday afternoons. Bob enjoys arranging for jazz and other ensembles, as well as hiking and exploring the back country of Utah and northern Arizona.

It is a great privilege to be able to feature Bob’s superb treatment on the subject of Jazz on the West Coast in the 1950s on JazzProfiles.

© -Robert Gordon, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


In the early 1950s the attention of the jazz world was focused on Los Angeles. Baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan had gained fame (and a spread in Time magazine) by forming a piano-less quartet; his new group was drawing standing-room-only crowds nightly to an intimate club called The Haig. Several miles away in the town of Hermosa Beach, bassist Howard Rumsey and a crew of ex-Kentonites drew equally enthusiastic crowds to an old crew of ex waterfront bar, the Lighthouse Cafe. Independent record companies - Pacific jazz and Contemporary in the vanguard sprang up like fast-food franchises and issued a seemingly endless torrent of albums by these and other Los Angeles-based musicians. In this hothouse atmosphere experimentation was rife, and attempts to adapt the instruments and techniques of the concert hall to jazz were tried, sometimes with a fair amount of success. The jazz press was - at first - also highly enthusiastic about the new sounds from the Coast. Somebody coined the term 'West Coast jazz' to describe the music being produced in California, and the tag stuck.

Naturally enough, the surfeit of attention and critical praise lavished on this music drew an eventual reaction. Jazz writers began to point out (quite correctly) that many of the experiments had little to do with jazz, and that much of the music from the Coast lacked the fire and intensity associated with the best jazz performances. As the decade wore on, the term West Coast jazz came increasingly to be used as a pejorative, and musicians and record companies alike hastened to disassociate themselves from the label. By the early sixties, the general consensus seemed to hold that any jazz recorded in Los Angeles in the fifties was suspect. Unfortunately, this latter attitude has prevailed for so long it has somehow taken on the weight of dogma. Grover Sales, in a concise (and admirable) introduction to jazz published in 1984, is merely repeating the popular wisdom when he writes: 'For all their technical expertise, most of the West Coast group recordings for Contemporary and Pacific jazz today strike us as bloodless museum pieces, a neatly packaged soundtrack for the cold war. "

It is just here that I disagree with the accepted critical stance, and this book is an attempt to restore some balance to the commonly-held picture of the Los Angeles jazz scene. My disagreement, by the way, is not total. If I could change the word 'most' to 'many', I would gladly concur with Mr. Sales. There were indeed many failures among the recordings of the West Coast school, many pretentious attempts at grafting the techniques of nineteenth- and twentieth-century concert music to jazz scores. There were also many bland and innocuous recordings that lack even a hint of the fire that constitutes the lifeblood of jazz. But there were also successes, and a great many recordings of the period deserve better than to be vilified or forgotten simply because they were once branded with the label West Coast jazz.

Moreover, the Los Angeles jazz scene of the fifties was by no means monolithic. Leonard Feather has quite correctly spoken of a jazz underground of musicians whose aims were at odds with those of their more popular contemporaries. Bands such as the Curtis Counce Group and musicians like Sonny Criss, Harold Land, Teddy Edwards, Carl Perkins and Hampton Hawes kept the flame lit throughout those years, playing a brand of jazz as fiery as any on the East Coast. It is true that these musicians were seldom grouped with the West Coast school, but they were often tarred with the same brush and were overlooked or undervalued simply because they chose to remain in LA. At the same time an even more exclusive group, centered on
Ornette Coleman, managed to record a few albums that pointed out new directions for jazz. It seems obvious that the LA jazz scene of the fifties was more variegated than current jazz criticism would lead one to believe.

In fact the 1950s, contrary to the popular stereotype, were exciting years for jazz in Los Angeles. I have tried to give the reader some sense of that excitement. More importantly, I have tried to give readers whose only knowledge of 'West Coast jazz' comes from curt dismissals in the jazz histories some idea of the multi-faceted and deep nature of the Los Angeles jazz scene in those years. There is evidence of reawakening interest in jazz of the period, and many albums recorded in LA during the fifties are being reissued today. This seems a good time to look at such recordings with an un-jaundiced eye.

A word here on dope. Musicians have long been annoyed by writers who dwell on the use of narcotics among jazz musicians, pointing out - quite correctly - that several occupational groups the medical profession included) have a higher incidence of users. This was true even in the 1950s, when the use of narcotics was considered a scandalous aberration by the public at large; it is undoubtedly true today, when the use of controlled substances is epidemic among a wide spectrum of the population. Nevertheless, the number of jazz musicians using heroin or other hard drugs during the forties and fifties was quite large (it has since declined dramatically), and it is impossible to discuss the checquered careers of musicians like Charlie Parker and Art Pepper without acknowledging their addiction. In these cases, and in the few others I mention in passing, the facts are well known and have already been published elsewhere. Some of the other musicians discussed in this book were also ensnared by narcotics in earlier years but have since managed to break free. If it was not germane to the music they produced, I have not discussed their personal problems.

I'd like to take this opportunity to acknowledge some of the debts I've incurred while researching and writing this book. Red Callender, Buddy Collette, Bob Cooper, Harold Land, Shorty Rogers and the late Shelly Manne all found time in busy schedules to talk with me. Their interviews allowed me to give the reader a glimpse of the LA jazz scene from a musician's point of view. Woody Woodward, Richard Bock's right-hand man at Pacific jazz during the fifties, shed valuable light on that label's recording sessions. I'm especially indebted to Herbie Harper and to Larue Watson, Clifford Brown's gracious widow, both of whom opened doors that might otherwise have remained closed to me.

1. Diz and Bird in Lotus Land

Modern jazz burst upon the Los Angeles scene in the December of 1945, when trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie brought his all-star sextet west from New York for an eight-week engagement at Billy Berg's Hollywood nightclub. For once, the term all-star was not a publicist's exaggeration: the group featured some of the outstanding talent available in the burgeoning movement known as bebop. Sharing the front line with Gillespie was Charlie Parker, the fiery young genius of the alto sax. These two founding fathers of modern jazz (ages twenty-eight and twenty-five) were in turn backed by the, powerful rhythm section of pianist Al Haig, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Stan Levey, augmented by vibraphonist Milt Jackson. Despite this powerful line-up, however, the Hollywood audiences proved to be apathetic; their response was not commensurate with the musicians' talents.

Opening night at Berg's was the exception; the house was packed and the crowd wildly enthusiastic. The fans and younger musicians who had been introduced to Parker and Gillespie through phonograph records were impatient for a 'live' performance, and they were amply rewarded for their wait. Charlie Parker, who had missed the first couple of sets, made a belated but dramatic entrance, wending his way through the crowd while improvising furiously on the intricate chord progressions of 'Cherokee'. Memories of that evening still bring smiles to those fortunate enough to have been there. The remainder of the engagement, however, was all downhill. The musicians and hard-core cognoscenti who had formed the bulk of the opening-night crowd returned as and when they could, but there weren't enough of either successfully to support the band or the club. The mood of Billy Berg's regular patrons ranged from indifference to outright hostility. Most of them obviously preferred the nightclub's other act, Slim Gaillard, who was alternating sets with the Gillespie band. 'What they were used to in California was Slim and Slam, Eddie Heywood entertainment as opposed to pure music,' Stan Levey recalls. 'Everybody was asking, "Well, where is the vocalist?" That was the thing. "Who's going to do the singing here? Who's gonna tell the jokes?" ... The pure jazz enthusiasts were all there, but the numbers were small." [Quoted in Dizzy Gillespie, To Be or Not … to Bop, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979, p. 248]. Overwhelmed by the complexities of the new music being played by Gillespie and company, the club's regulars stayed away in ever-increasing numbers.

In addition, the musicians had brought some problems with them from New York. Charlie Parker, the man known to musicians and fans alike as 'Yardbird' or simply 'Bird', was undeniably a genius, but he was an erratic and sometimes irresponsible genius. Dizzy had foreseen some difficulties in this area and in fact had added Milt Jackson to the band for just that reason. 'I actually took six guys to California instead of the five I had contracted for,' Gillespie remembers, 'because I knew - them matinees, sometimes [Parker] wouldn't be there and I didn't want management on my back ... I'd say, "Look, you don't have Charlie Parker's name on the contract, and you want five guys. You've got five guys on the stage." [Ibid, p. 243]  As an added hedge, Gillespie also hired tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson, who was working in Los Angeles at the time. All of these precautions proved well taken. Parker was often late and sometimes missed entire evenings.

Most of the altoist's erratic behavior could be traced to his heavy drug dependency. It was no secret to the musicians or to the inner circle of jazz fans that Charlie Parker used heroin. This had not been a major problem in New York, since heroin was at that time - both plentiful and relatively inexpensive. In Los Angeles it was neither. Much of Charlie's time and energy was spent in searching for his daily supply. When he finally found a dependable source, the pressure was relieved somewhat. None of this helped the band's already strained relations with the nightclub, however. When the engagement finally limped to a close in February, it was a toss-up as to who felt more relieved: the musicians, the patrons or Billy Berg himself.

Measured solely by the response at 'Berg's, the trip would have to be judged a failure, and indeed the New York musicians were (deservedly) soured on Los Angeles for some time thereafter. Fortunately, however, the matter didn't end there. If the bulk of the audiences were unreceptive, there were always a few listeners who grasped the message, and those few were the ones who counted. Pianist Hampton Hawes was only one of many Los Angeles musicians who dated his vocation as a jazz musician from the time he first saw the Gillespie band at Billy Berg's. Hawes, a teenager at the time, was particularly struck by the playing of Charlie Parker. 'When I first heard him in Billy Berg's in 1945 I couldn't believe what he was doing,' Hawes would later recall, 'how anyone could so totally block out everything extraneous, light a fire that hot inside him and constantly feed on that fire.’ [Hampton Hawes and Don Asher, Raise Up Off Me: A Portrait of Hampton Hawes, New York: DaCapo, 1979, p. 13].   

In fact, Hawes could remember the specific moment during that opening night when he was hooked. 'Bird played an eight-bar channel on "Salt Peanuts" that was so strong, so revealing that I was molded on the spot, like a piece of clay, stamped out."  [Quoted in Ross Russell, Bird Lives! The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker, New York: Charterhouse, 1973, p. 324].

Nor were such experiences limited to those physically present at the club. Another aspiring pianist, John Lewis, remembers listening intently to radio broadcasts from Berg's that reached his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Shortly afterwards, Lewis moved to New York, where he eventually landed a job playing with Gillespie.

The influence of both Gillespie and Parker was spread even further by records of the two cut while in California. This was no small accomplishment, for the discography of modern jazz was alarmingly scanty at the time. Although both Gillespie and Parker had played and recorded with big bands at the tail end of the swing era - Dizzy with Teddy Hill, Cab Calloway and Lucky Millander from 1937 on, and Bird with Jay McShann in 1941 and 1942 - there were few truly representative small-group recordings featuring either of the two extant at the close of 1945. Most of the recordings that were available involved musical compromises of one sort or another. Usually these took the form of mixing established swing-era musicians with the young lions on a recording date. The results were interesting but often unsatisfying to fans of either persuasion. Only a handful of sides cut for the Guild and Savoy labels offered full-scale evidence of what the youthful revolutionaries were capable of. The Guilds (reissued later on the Musicraft label), which included such classics as  - Groovin' High', 'Salt Peanuts', and 'Hot House', had been cut early in 1945. A Savoy recording session in December - just previous to Gillespie's and Parker's departure for California - had produced two classic blues performances, 'Now's the Time' and 'Billie's Bounce', as well as Parker's incredible work-out on the familiar 'Cherokee' chord progressions, 'Koko'. The time seemed ripe for further recording.

Unfortunately, the first California recordings featuring Gillespie and Parker did little to further the cause. As 1945 drew to a close, the two were invited to record with Slim Gaillard, their co-headliner at Billy Berg's. Gaillard played guitar and other assorted instruments, but his speciality was humorous vocals - he was best known for his hit 'Cement Mixer'. One of his typical numbers, 'Flat Foot Floogie', had been a best-seller for Decca before the war. At that time he had been teamed with bassist Slam Stewart (Slim and Slam); now Gaillard proposed to record the piece on his own for an obscure Los Angeles label called Bel Tone. The other musicians brought in for the date were Jack McVea on tenor sax, pianist Dodo Marmarosa, bassist Tiny Brown and drummer Zutty Singleton. In addition to the remake of 'Flat Foot Floogie', the group recorded a similar novelty entitled 'Popity Pop (Goes the Motor-Sickle)', and two relaxed instrumentals, 'Dizzy Boogie' and 'Slim's jam'. Although none of the tunes could be considered a masterpiece, each contains short solos by both Parker and Gillespie and so is of some historical interest. 'Slim's Jam', the best performance of the four, is indeed a miniature jam session which features droll spoken introductions for each soloist by Gaillard.

Gillespie and Parker were also recorded in concert with a jazz at the Philharmonic troupe while in California. The promoter of these events, Norman Granz, had been a film editor for MGM in 1944 when he first got the idea of transferring the excitement of a jam session from the confines of a nightclub to the concert stage. These concerts were originally held in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium, a staid hall that usually offered the more sedate strains of symphonic music. Later the concerts were held at various locations, but the original name stuck - usually shortened to JATP in print. A typical line-up at a jazz at the Philharmonic concert would consist of eight or nine musicians jamming spontaneously on warhorses of the jazz repertoire. The fans got to see and hear many 'names' for their money, since Granz hired (for the most part) only well established swing and modern jazz musicians. The three JATP concerts presented in the winter and spring of 1946 were truly all-star affairs, featuring variously such players as tenor saxophonists Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Ventura, altoist Willie Smith, and trumpeters Buck Clayton, Howard McGhee and Al Killian. Both Parker and Gillespie appeared at the first of these concerts, held in January, and Charlie was aboard for two in March and April as well.

Again, the records made at these concerts are more of historical than musical interest. It's certainly fascinating to hear Bird and Diz trading solos with the giants of the previous generation, and Charlie must have been especially thrilled at sharing the stage with his boyhood idol from Kansas City, Lester Young. Still, the JATP format tended to work against the modernists. The drummer at the first two concerts was Lee Young (Lester's brother), whose rhythmic concept was somewhat out of date. Certainly Lee's plodding swing-era style, with its four-to-the-bar thumping on the bass drum, must have been an extreme annoyance to both Gillespie and Parker, particularly on the up-tempo numbers. Gillespie comes off the better of the two, since the extrovert JATP atmosphere favors his bravura trumpet style, but Parker did not fare at all well in this milieu. The subtle complexities of his style were often
overshadowed by the raucous honking and squealing of the other hornmen, and of the two styles, the audience obviously preferred the latter. Charlie would never be the crowd pleaser that, say,. Illinois Jacquet would later become. Bird's one great solo from these JATP bashes - a blues-tinged romp on 'Lady be Good' - rates very polite applause from the restive audience.

If the Slim Gaillard and Jazz at the Philharmonic sides had been the only records cut by Gillespie and Parker during their stay in California, and if they had both returned to New York immediately following their gig at Billy Berg's as planned, the trip would rate only a footnote in the history of modem jazz. The events of the frenetic week in February, however, conspired to change all that. These events were sparked by an unexpected source: an enthusiastic jazz fan who proposed to start a record company specifically to record the giants of modern jazz.

Ross Russell was the owner of a small record store in Hollywood, Tempo Music Shop, which catered solely to jazz collectors. Tempo had been patterned after New York's famed Commodore Music Shop, the world's first jazz record store. Russell had started the shop with a small sum saved during his tour with the Merchant Marine during the war, using his own record collection as the nucleus of the store's inventory. He was somewhat nonplussed to find his store a battleground in the wars then raging between the followers of classic jazz and the younger crowd that favored bebop. Russell admits that he was originally in the Moldy Figs' camp, but he was gradually weaned over to the modernists' side. Several nights at Billy Berg's, listening to Bird and Diz in person, completed his conversion. The thought now occurred to him to record the new music. Again, he had in mind the Commodore Music Shop, which recorded traditional and swing-era musicians on its own label.

Russell found a partner (Marvin Freeman, a Los Angeles attorney) who was willing to help raise the necessary money, and Dial records was born. Russell wanted to record Dizzy's band before it left California, so a recording session was hurriedly arranged. George Handy, Pianist and arranger for the Boyd Raeburn orchestra, was contracted to supervise the session and gather the musicians. Handy even suggested adding Lester Young to the line-up, which would have produced a spectacular all-star date. The Gillespie band closed at Berg's on Monday 4 February, and a rehearsal was called for the next evening. Unfortunately, Lester Young was not to be found. The rehearsal itself was something of a madhouse; word of the session had leaked out and scores of assorted hipsters, fans and hangers-on milled about the studio in a chaotic herd. Empty bottles clanked to the floor and the pungent smell of cannabis wafted through the air. Somehow, amid all the confusion, a test-pressing of 'Diggin' for Diz'- a Handy original based on the familiar 'Lover' changes - was recorded by a septet consisting of Gillespie, Parker, Lucky Thompson, Handy himself on piano, guitarist Arvin Garrison, Ray Brown and Stan Levey. Unfortunately, this was the only time that Gillespie and Parker were to appear together on Dial records.

The actual recording session was set for Thursday. A few hours before recording was scheduled to begin, however, George Handy phoned Russ Russell to admit that he could find neither Lester Young nor Charlie Parker and asked that the session be scrubbed. Russell relates what happened next:

Luckily I reached Dizzy Gillespie at his hotel, which was in another part of Los Angeles altogether, and Dizzy said, 'Well, man, why didn't we do business between ourselves all along?' 1k asked if I still wanted to make the date, and I said, 'If we can.' He said all right, he'd have everybody out there. And less than an hour later they were out there, in Glendale, over fifteen miles, and this included Ray Brown's bass, Stan Levey's drums - and I guess the biggest hassle of all was Milt Jackson's vibes, which was roped on the top of somebody's automobile. Bird wasn't on this date at all. [Ross Russell, Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker, ed. Robert Reisner, New York: DaCapo, 1977, p. 197].

The band recorded five numbers, using material they had been jamming nightly on the Billy Berg's gig.

'Confirmation', the first tune recorded, is a Charlie Parker original, one of the few thirty-two measure tunes of his not to have been based on the chord changes of a standard show tune. The introduction Diz uses was soon to be recorded in his own right as ‘Oop-Bop-Sha-Bam.’ After a remake of ‘Diggin for Diz,’ the group cut two equally impressive takes of the trumpeter’s ‘Dizzy Atmosphere,’ taken at a typically break-neck tempo. These alternate takes were issued on two sides of a Dial 78, re-titled ‘Dynamo A’ and ‘Dynamo B.’ Perhaps to relax, the group next recorded a humorous bop-flavored version of  ‘When I Grow Too Old to Dream,’ complete with tongue-in-cheek vocal chorus. (When the side was released, the last word of the title was intentionally omitted on the record label.) Finally, the sextet cut a languid version of Thelonious Monk's haunting 'Round about Midnight'. Because Gillespie was already under contract to another company, these sides were attributed to the Tempo Jazzmen, and the trumpet player was listed as one 'Gabriel'.

The very next day, Dizzy and the rest of the band returned to New York, but once again without Bird. Charlie had been missing for several days and couldn't be located even through the musicians' extensive grapevine. Seats had been booked on an airliner for Friday, but Bird failed to show. Gillespie made one last-ditch effort to find the altoist, sending Stan Levey out in a cab. Levey remembers running up a hefty fare during the fruitless search. When it became evident that Parker wasn't going to make it, Gillespie left Charlie's ticket and some money at the hotel desk, and the rest of the musicians left for the Apple.

Charlie Parker remained out of sight for several more days. Some time during that period he cashed in his airline ticket and committed himself to an extended California residency. The usual explanation is that he needed the money for drugs. It may, however, have been nothing more than another manifestation of his live-for-the-moment philosophy. Whatever the reason, it was a mistake, for Charlie was temperamentally unsuited to the small-townish, often racist ambience of post-war Los Angeles.

None the less, he was now stuck and had to make the best of it. Charlie landed a job at the Club Finale, an after-hours, bring-your-own-bottle club located in the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles. The section had become something of an annex of the black community during the war, when several black businesses had moved into stores vacated by Japanese-Americans (who had been interned for the duration). Charlie was joined at the Finale by the young Miles Davis, something of a protégé of the altoist back in New York. Miles had come west with the Benny Carter orchestra specifically to be with Bird. The pair were backed by a tight rhythm section of locals: pianist Joe Albany, bassist Addison Farmer and drummer Chuck Thompson. As word of the gig spread, the Finale became a frequent stop for visiting jazzmen who dropped by to listen and to sit in with the band. Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan, Serge Chaloff, Sonny Berman, Shorty Rogers or Charlie Ventura were likely to stop in on any given night, as the Woody Herman or Gene Krupa or Boyd Raeburn orchestras would swing through town. LA's own Sonny Criss, Gerald Wilson, Dexter Gordon, Teddy Edwards, Red Callender or Roy Porter were always ready to jam if the occasion arose.

Ross Russell was a frequent patron of the Finale. He had missed the chance to record the Gillespie-Parker group, but he saw his opportunity to make up for that. Russell talked with Parker, and the altoist was signed to a contract with Dial. Arrangements were then made for a recording session to take place late in March. Charlie picked his sidemen from the pool of musicians who were frequent visitors to the Finale club. Besides Wes Davis, he called Lucky Thompson, guitarist Arvin Garrison, bassist Victor McMillan and drummer Roy Porter. Pianist Dodo Marmarosa was a last-minute sub for Joe Albany, who had walked out in the middle of a set the night before following a heated argument with Bird.

The first tune recorded was an original of Charlie's, 'Moose the Mooche.’ A typical bebop tune with sinuous melody and jagged rhythms, 'Mooche' was named after a local character, one Emery Byrd. A victim of polio in his youth, Byrd ran a combination shoeshine stand and record shop on Central Avenue, the mainstem of LA's black community. He could often been seen wheeling himself in and out of the nightclubs along the Avenue in a wheelchair. The shoeshine stand and wheelchair were also ideal covers for Byrd's real vocation: dealing drugs. He was in fact Parker's LA connection. The next tune to be recorded was a relaxed performance of one of Charlie's more lyrical compositions, 'Yardbird Suite.’ Then came Little Benny Harris's tune 'Ornithology', a number based on the chord changes of the bebopper's national anthem, 'How High the Moon'. Harris was a trumpet player from Detroit who had toured with Diz and Bird in the Earl Hines orchestra, and the title is an obvious tribute to Parker. The germ of 'Ornithology' is a phrase lifted from a solo of Parker's on Jay McShann's 'Jumpin' Blues.’ One of the alternate takes of 'Ornithology' was issued by Dial under the title 'Bird Lore'.

There had been three different takes of 'Moose the Mooche' and four takes each of 'Yardbird Suite' and 'Ornithology.’ The large number of repeats was due to Parker's insistence on perfection in the ensemble portions of the performance. Bird's solos were apt to be as brilliant on his first attempt as on his fourth or fifth try, but the same couldn't always be said of his sidemen. The final tune to be recorded that evening was Dizzy Gillespie's 'Night in Tunisia.' Like many of Dizzy's compositions, 'Night' features a complex pattern of rhythms and counter-rhythms. Ross Russell later described the difficulties that ensued during its recording:

'Night in Tunisia' took two, possibly three, hours to get pulled together and to record. It proved to be very difficult for everyone in the studio except Bird. We made five takes and a number of false starts. After we made the first take and Bird took that wonderful alto break, we listened to the playback, and we knew that the rest of it was so ragged we couldn't possibly release it. Bird said, 'I'll never make that break again.' Actually, he didn't make it quite as well, or at least not with the blinding brilliance and wonderful sense of suspense and climax he had in the first take. Later on, we released that fragment, that first break, on an LP intended only for collectors.' [Ibid, p. 198]

It might be added that Bird's alto break on the version that was ultimately released was only a little less impressive than that first take.

The session had been a great success, and a second recording date was tentatively agreed on. Unfortunately, extra-musical complications were to turn that second date into a disaster. Shortly after the first session the LA Police Department vice squad launched a crack-down on drugs. Heroin, always hard to obtain and expensive in Los Angeles, became prohibitively so. One of the casualties of the crack-down was Emery Byrd. With his connection gone, Charlie tried to kick his habit cold turkey. He switched to a cheap California port wine to help ease the transition. It was not an improvement. In truth, Charlie had adapted to his addiction; he was able to function normally when a steady supply was assured, and was in trouble only when that supply was endangered.

Then, as if these difficulties weren't enough, the engagement at the Finale club came to an abrupt halt. Owner Foster Johnson, a dancer and ex-vaudevillian, ran the club as a sideline. He enjoyed listening to the music and occasionally dancing to the musicians' improvisations. When the vice squad started dropping by to check out his clientele, Johnson decided he didn't need the extra hassle and pulled out. The musicians showed up for their job one night and found the place locked and shuttered. Once again, Charlie dropped out of sight. He was found a few days later rooming in a converted garage in one of the shabbier neighborhoods of the city's ghetto. His furnishings consisted of a decrepit spring bed, a small throw rug and a battered dresser, all set in the middle of a concrete floor.

That Charlie made it through the next few months at all can be attributed almost entirely to Howard McGhee. Howard, one of the pioneer trumpet players of modern jazz and at this time second in popularity only to Dizzy Gillespie among the modernists, took Charlie under his wing. It was not a responsibility to be taken lightly. Like any other black musician, Howard had difficulties of his own. He and his wife Dorothy, a blonde ex-model, were constantly hassled by the Los Angeles police. A mixed couple was quite enough to bring most officers of the time to an apoplectic rage. The McGhees were once arrested for sitting together at a James Cagney movie in the 'white' section of downtown LA.

Howard and Dorothy brought Charlie into their modest bungalow, then made arrangements to reopen the Finale club. This time there would be no bottles; it would be strictly a paid-admission jazz club. The band consisted of Howard, Charlie, Dodo Marmarosa, Red Callender and Roy Porter. Dorothy McGhee collected the one-dollar fee at the door, and the night's take was divided among the musicians. Through the early summer months of 1946 the job provided sustenance for Charlie, yet it was a far cry from the standards a man of his artistic stature deserved. In the meantime, although he shied clear of heroin, whisky had replaced port wine as a self-prescribed medicine and was wreaking havoc on his body. Physically and emotionally, Parker was a very sick man. He had developed nervous tics and muscular spasms; while playing a solo his horn was apt to jerk into the air, or he might suddenly spin off to one side.

All of Charlie's problems came to a head the night of 29 July, at the infamous 'Lover Man' session. He had been badgering Ross Russell for another recording date for some time but Russell, knowing Charlie's physical condition, had been putting him off. Howard McGhee finally told Russell that Charlie was going downhill fast, and that if there were to be any recording done it would have to be soon. Arrangements were hastily made, and on the appointed night the musicians and a few interested onlookers gathered at the studio. Pianist Jimmy Bunn and bassist Bob Kesterton replaced Finale regulars Dodo Marmarosa and Red Callender for the recording. Howard, Charlie and Roy Porter completed the quintet. Bird was obviously in bad shape. He sat slumped in a chair to one side, seemingly oblivious of the proceedings. Finally Howard took charge and suggested a tune -lied 'Max Making Wax'. The tempo was set at a blistering pace. Normally, extremely rapid tempi were Charlie's forte, and the only problem he had was finding musicians who could  keep up with him. But on this night his deteriorating body betrayed him. Moreover, the rest of the musicians were distressed and unnerved by Charlie's obvious difficulties. The supposedly unison statement of the theme on 'Max' is terribly ragged, and the volume drops sharply as Bird's alto jerks off-mike from time so time. The take was obviously not worth issuing, but there seemed little chance of an improved performance on a second try. Ross Russell instructed the engineer simply to record every bit of music played and to adjust his levels as best he could.

After a short break the musicians decided to try the ballad 'Lover Man'.- Charlie, in the meantime, had taken some barbiturates in an attempt to settle his protesting muscles. Pianist Jimmy Bunn began a quiet introduction, but Bird missed his cue and came in a few bars late. Charlie's tone on the performance is haunting, the equivalent of a vocalist about to burst into tears. He stays close to the melody at first, then gains a measure of confidence and launches into flight. The notes come in flurries, in seemingly random phrases that manage somehow to fit into a satisfying whole. It's a technique that Charlie often on ballads, but here he seems dangerously close to losing altogether. He's the high-wire artist, working without a who slips and stumbles, yet never falls. The performance, all its obvious faults, is strangely and deeply moving.

'The Gypsy', a ballad that Charlie had been playing nightly at Finale, came next. Here Charlie lost the control he had tenuously gained on 'Lover Man'. His performance is deliberate and plodding, a walk-through that takes no chances whatsoever, dull as Sunday-morning TV. Charlie's final tune was the minor key 'Bebop', taken at a disastrously fast tempo. The ensemble passages are exceedingly sloppy and Charlie's solo simply peters out; even two great choruses by Howard McGhee aren't enough to save the piece. Charlie brought the tune to a close with an unnerving whimper on his alto, then collapsed in armchair - obviously finished for the night. Off in another comer, one of the few visitors sat taking notes. This was Elliott Grennard, Hollywood correspondent for Billboard, and he would later pen a prize-winning short story for Harper's entitled 'Sparrow's Last jump', based on the evening's events.

Charlie was driven back to the hotel he was staying at by a man named Slim, the custodian and equipment man at the Finale. Slim was charged with putting Bird to bed and staying with him for the night. In the meantime, Russell and the musicians hoped to salvage the session with some quartet recordings. After a short break for sandwiches, Howard and the rhythm section quickly ran down two new tunes. The musicians, freed from the earlier tensions, were finally able to relax, and the recording went apace. The first tune, released under the title 'Trumpet at Tempo', was Howard's fiery improvisation on 'Back Home in Indiana'. The second piece, 'Thermodynamics', was a relaxed reworking of an obscure minor-key Ellington tune. Ross Russell thought these performances of little commercial value, due to their thin instrumentation, but they are minor bebop classics, and their reissue on a Spotlite LP has been enthusiastically greeted by collectors.

The session finished, Russell drove by Charlie's hotel to see how the altoist was doing, but Bird had disappeared. The story, pieced together afterwards, was this. Slim had indeed put Charlie to bed but, contrary to directions, had then left. A short time later Charlie had appeared in the hotel lobby seeking change for a pay telephone, there being no phones in the rooms. Unfortunately, he was stark-naked. Charlie seemed unaware of his state of undress and couldn't understand the commotion he was causing. The manager, after a short shouting match, persuaded Charlie to return to his room. A short time later the scene was repeated, and this time the manager led Charlie back to his room and locked him in. About half an hour later, smoke was seen billowing from beneath the door of the room. The manager called the fire department then rushed up to the room and unlocked the door. Charlie had fallen asleep while smoking and his mattress had caught fire. A fire engine soon arrived, followed closely by the police. Charlie, roused from a drugged sleep and still naked, wandered about shouting at the people who were invading his privacy. He was promptly sapped by the police for his trouble and driven off to be booked. Russell tried desperately to find Charlie to bail him out, but the police weren't co-operating.

Charlie was finally located, ten days later, in the Psychopathic Ward of the Los Angeles county jail. He was charged with committing arson.

The upshot of the affair was that Charlie was ordered to be confined for six months at Camarillo State Hospital. As traumatic as the experience must have been, it probably was a fortunate thing to have happened to Charlie at the time. He had been going downhill fast, and it's conceivable that the stay at Camarillo may have saved his life. Camarillo is a small town halfway up the coast between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. It boasts the sort of weather that city fathers and Chambers of Commerce dream about. The state hospital lies several miles out of town, nestled between the foothills and truck farms. At the time, it was considered the country club of the state hospital system, housing neither dangerous psychotics nor the criminally insane. Physically, Charlie prospered during his stay. The regular hours, balanced diet, healthful climate and above all the absence of drugs and alcohol all helped to restore his well-being. As his health improved, however, Charlie was increasingly agitated by the confinement. Hospital officials dragged their feet over Bird's release, unconvinced that he could face the rigors of the outside world. Finally, Ross Russell, by agreeing to have Charlie released into his custody, managed to get Charlie sprung. He was released towards the end of January 1947.

Once again, Howard McGhee came through. Howard had just contracted to bring a band into the Hi-De-Ho club on Western Avenue. He promptly offered Charlie a spot in the group as co-leader, at a salary of two hundred dollars a week. Charlie was never more ready, and soon proved that he hadn't lost his touch while at Camarillo. Despite the importuning of the pushers and local hipsters, he stayed clear of drugs, although he did continue to drink heavily. He just wanted to make the gig and save a little money so he could make it back to New York. He was physically fit and blowing better than ever. It seemed like an auspicious time to record.

Ross Russell and Charlie discussed a 'farewell' recording session. They planned on using the cream of the musicians then available on the Coast. Howard would be on trumpet, of course, and as a third horn they planned to use the rising young tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray. The rhythm section would consist of Dodo Marmarosa, guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Red Callender and Don Lamond, Woody Herman's fine drummer.

Arrangements for this session had just about been set when Charlie suggested adding a vocalist, a young baritone he had heard in a Central Avenue club named Earl Coleman. This panicked Ross Russell. He didn't want or need a vocalist, and felt sure one would wreck the session. Thinking quickly, he came up with a counter-offer. Why not record Earl Coleman at a separate session devoted strictly to his vocals? To Russell's relief, Charlie agreed.

Russell phoned around and soon came up with a rhythm section for the vocal date. The Erroll Garner trio, with Erroll on piano, Red Callender on bass and Harold 'Doc' West on drums, was available. Russell talked with Garner, who agreed to play the session if he could cut a couple of additional trio sides. Everything was set. The musicians met at the C.P. Macgregor studios in Hollywood on 17 February. Three hours of studio time had been reserved, and it took two hours to record acceptable takes of the two Earl Coleman vocals, 'This is Always' and 'Dark Shadows'. The first is a ballad in the Billy Eckstine mode and the second a blues. Despite Russell's misgivings, the two sides have held up well over the years - especially 'Dark Shadows', which features a moving chorus by Bird. However, by the time the two tunes were completed, Earl Coleman's voice was failing. Russell recalls what happened next:

At that point, Earl had had about enough; his pipes were beginning to give out on him. So Charlie Parker kinda cranked up, and they tossed off a blues. They did three takes - bang, bang, bang. The first two were too fast. Garner didn't like the tempo, and we slowed the takes down a little. One of the fast takes was released as 'Hot Blues', and the slow, 'Cool Blues'. As soon as that was finished, they made an ad lib improvisation on 'I Got Rhythm'. Three takes on this - bang, bang, bang. The interesting thing is that Bird played a little differently with Erroll Garner. Some of the very hip people didn't like what happened; but I think a very interesting performance resulted on this date.

Russell's memory is a bit hazy here; the 'I Got Rhythm' number was in fact taken first. Back in top form, Charlie reeled off superior solos on each take, and all three versions eventually found their way on to 78s under the title 'Bird's Nest'. There were actually four takes of the blues. As Russell mentions,Garner felt uncomfortable with the tempo on the first two. (These were later released as 'Hot Blues' and 'Blowtop Blues'.) On the slower third and fourth takes, however, the band cooks as if the musicians had been working together for years. The third take, chosen for release, is one of Parker's great recorded performances. Bird's solo on 'Cool Blues' swings hard yet is utterly relaxed, while Erroll forgets his usual mannerisms and really digs into the guts of the blues.

In fact, despite Russell's initial misgivings, the entire date turned out to be an unqualified success. The two impromptu performances by the quartet were critical as well as popular successes; 'Cool Blues' won the Grand Prix du Disque when it was released in France the following year. The two Erroll Garner Trio selections, 'Pastel' and 'Trio', were equally well received. And to top everything off, Earl Coleman's version of 'This is Always' became a surprise hit, outselling everything in the Dial catalogue.

Charlie's farewell session took place a week later, on 26 February. The day before there had been a short rehearsal at the studio. Charlie had brought in a new tune which he had scribbled down while riding over in the cab. Most of the session was spent in running down the new tune, a blues with a complex, sinuous melody line. The rehearsal ended with the musicians mumbling over the difficulty of the new piece. Next day, Charlie was late for the actual recording session. Howard McGhee found him a couple of hours later asleep in his bathtub, fully clothed, where he had crashed the night before. Back at the studio, Charlie revived himself with black coffee while Howard rehearsed the rest of the band on three originals he had brought in for the date. Finally Charlie was ready and they started working on his new tune. It took five attempts to get an acceptable take. Charlie's solos on all five were top-notch, but the ensembles were ragged on the first four, as the other musicians struggled with the complex rhythms of the melody line. All of the solos on the final take are extremely relaxed, as if the musicians could breathe easier once the tortuous head had been negotiated. The tune was released under the title 'Relaxin' at Camarillo', and it is a classic statement of the blues in the modern jazz idiom.

The other three tunes recorded during the session are all fine, workmanlike performances, but they suffer in comparison with 'Relaxin". The next tune, 'Cheers', is a slightly-above-medium piece with an undistinguished, boppish melody. 'Carvin' the Bird' is another blues, slightly faster but less intense than 'Relaxin' at Camarillo'. As jazz writer Ira Gitler has noted elsewhere, it's Bird who does the carving. Wardell Gray, whose tenor sax exhibits a Lester Youngish tinge throughout the date, comes on very much like Prez: in his solo on 'Carvin". The final tune, 'Stupendous', is based on the old standby ‘S Wonderful'. All in all it was a very successful date and a fitting farewell to the Coast for Parker.

A few days later Charlie finally caught a plane back to New York. His stay in California hadn't been a happy one, and he was more than eager to return to a milieu where his talents were more appreciated. Physically, he was in much better shape when he left than when he had arrived, but that would prove to be a short-lived respite; he later returned to drugs. Musically, he was at the top of his form, and it is generally agreed that the years 1947 and 1948 saw the peak of Bird's creativity. The records he cut in New York in those years for Dial and Savoy are considered among his greatest legacies. The Dials that Charlie cut in California are worthy additions to his canon, and the best of them ('Ornithology', 'Night in Tunisia', 'Cool Blues' and 'Relaxin' at Camarillo') rank with any records he ever made.

Continued in Chapter 2 … The Central Avenue Scene

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