Monday, August 9, 2021

"Birdland" - From Ross Russell BIRD LIVES! -The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie 'Yardbird' Parker

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Bird Lives! - and certainly Charlie Parker's influence always will. This is his remarkable and moving story.

But Bird Lives! is more than the biography of a wayward musical genius. It is also the profound study of a towering talent poorly rewarded by a society that has too long brutalised its black membership.

Bird was ahead of his time in many significant ways. Poor, black, addicted to hard drugs, mentally and physically ill for long periods of time, his problems were similar to those of contemporary talents among minority groups. The result - the way he lived his life and fought his fight against an all too often indifferent society - is at once magnificent and harrowing.

Why should a white man tell this story? Firstly, because - as Ross Russell points out - no black man has done it yet. And secondly, because this particular white man was often in the centre of the turmoil: as President of Dial Records, he recorded some of Parker's work, and was for two years his personal manager.

- Quartet Books, Press Release

First published in 1973 by Quartet Books with a paperback edition to follow in 1976, Ross Russell’s BIRD LIVES! -The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie 'Yardbird' Parker is largely an anecdotal treatment of Charlie’s Parker’s life by Ross Russell, President of Dial Records and for two years the saxophonist's personal manager.

Given the immense amount of research on Parker’s life that followed its publication, it has been superseded somewhat by Stanley Crouch, Kansas City Lighting: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, Gary Giddins, Celebrating Bird; The Triumph of Charlie Parker, Chuck Haddix, The Life and Music of Charlie Parker, Robert G. Reisner, The Legend of Charlie Parker, and Carl Woideck Charlie Parker: His Music and His Life.

But because the later works have access to more sources, this should not be taken to mean Ross’ Bird biography lacks legitimacy. The Russell bio remains an enjoyable and interesting narrative written by someone who knew Charlie Parker for much of his professional life, interacted with him in a variety of settings and who was in a position to offer personal observations about Bird’s life and times from a first-hand perspective.

I’ve always been fond of the chapter in the book about the origins of the famous Jazz club named after Bird contained in Russell’s book and thought I would share it with you in the following blog feature.

“Early in 1949 Billy Shaw, having built up a strong position in the booking business and acquired a following of artists rapidly rising in popularity, resigned as vice president of the Moe Gale Agency and launched Billy Shaw Artists, Inc. With him Shaw took those who had been under his personal management. For each of his stars Shaw had a New Year's bonus, a booking in a desirable spot at better money, a new record contract. For Charlie he had a special plum—an invitation to the International Paris Jazz Festival. 

"Stay with me, Bird," he told Charlie, "and tend to the store. I'll put your name in lights all over the world."

Charlie set about the tedious business of securing passports, visas, and smallpox certificates with boyish enthusiasm. When he recorded next for Mercury he titled two of the sides Passport and Visa. They were not particularly good sides, but that wasn't his fault. Granz had restored the Quintet to grace but could not stop meddling with its personnel. To the pure sound of the five original instruments he added the rambunctious tailgate trombone of Tommy Turk, a recent crowd-pleaser on the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour. Ensemble lines were hopelessly blurred, and the quality of the music coarsened. It was like adding a tuba to a Beethoven quartet.

For the trans-Atlantic plane trip the Parkers joined Howard McGhee, Lips Page, Flip Phillips, Tadd Dameron, and others invited to the festival. Tall, thin, looking rather out of it, Doris was seen walking several paces behind the men, carrying the saxophone on its journey back to its homeland [Charlie played a Selmer alto sax and these were made in France]. The party arrived a day before the concerts, and Charlie at once made the round of Montmartre jazz clubs. French jazz musicians received him warmly. They were familiar with his style from records they had imported. Charlie was lionized; he sat in, jammed with French jazz musicians, lost sleep, and sampled the French heroin willingly supplied by new friends. He was bearded in his hotel room by a reporter for Melody Maker, the leading British music magazine. The writer had a lengthy list of questions on Charlie's analysis of bebop, his opinion as to whether it was actually jazz (British tastes were still mired in pre-war concepts), his evaluation of various traditional jazzmen, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and others. Charlie was charmed by the Englishman's accent and studied it closely during the interview. To each of the questions he answered by reading a stanza from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Finally the Melody Maker man gave up and wrote that Charlie Parker in person made no more sense than Charlie Parker the musician. English readers remained as ignorant as ever of the new style. When there-porter asked Charlie about his religious affiliation, Charlie replied, "I am a devout musician."

The concert took place in Salle Pleyel. Traditional jazz was represented by Sidney Bechet, the middle period by Lips Page. and the new wave by the Charlie Parker Quintet. Bechet was the hit of the festival. Playing nothing more harmonically advanced than seventh chords, sticking to such riverboat classics as High Society, filling the Salle Pleyel with his great skirling tone, the New Orleans veteran had the crowds dancing in the aisles. Lips Page was warmly applauded. Charlie's set was pure, definitive, almost private, too intimate for the huge music hall. It was warmly received by the avant garde clique and elicited from reviewers such comments as "formidable" and "Succès d'estime." [critical respect but not broad, popular support]

Charlie jammed after the concert at the Club Germaine, where author-musician Boris Vian was master of ceremonies. Jean Paul Sartre, then first reaching the height of his fame, visited the club, and Vian asked the existentialist philosopher if he wanted to meet Charlie Parker. "Yes, of course," Sartre replied. "He interests me." Introductions were arranged. Charlie told Sartre, "I'm very glad to have met you, Mr. Sartre. I like your playing very much," According to Vian, Sartre stared at Charlie with expressionless dark eyes. But he remained for two sets of the music. Such was the oblique encounter between two men who, despite wide differences in race and culture, were leading exponents of the existentialist way of life, one on a theoretical level, the other on a practical level.

When an admirer presented Charlie with a rose, he calmly ate the petals and stuck the stalk in his buttonhole. The next day Charlie met Charles Delaunay, son of the French painter, publisher of the world's first jazz discography (1938), and director of the French jazz magazine Jazz Hot. Charlie also met Andre Hodeir, then writing Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence. These cultured, intellectual men treated Charlie with the respect they felt was due an important artist. The reception given to jazzmen in Europe was far different from that prevailing in America. The music was taken seriously, not as mere entertainment. The critics who covered the festival for the Paris papers were the same critics who reviewed important recitals, symphony concerts, and operas. New jazz records were reviewed with the same seriousness as new books. In Europe dark skins were a mark of distinction rather than a cause for suspicion and contempt.

Charlie had a long talk with Kenny Clarke, who had established a permanent residence in Paris and was planning to become a French citizen. They had not exchanged anything more than a "What’s happening, man?" since the old days at Minton's. Clarke had matured, both as a man and a musician. He was doing well as a radio and recording artist. He conducted a school for young drummers, lived in a suburb of Paris with a beautiful woman, attended concerts and art shows. He had come to definite conclusions about the status of the black artist in America. America had no respect for the artist. There was no solution to the race problem in the foreseeable future. "Bird, you're slowly and surely committing suicide over there," Clarke told Charlie. "So are Billie Holiday and many others. Come over here and live. You can stay with me until you get straight. You may never make a hundred thousand a year, but you'll be around a long time and people will appreciate your music. Over here you will be treated as an artist. The French understand these things." Clarke asked Charlie to think it over carefully.

Charlie returned to New York with a new opinion of himself and his music, and a determination to return to Europe. His marriage to Doris was breaking up, and he was dating Chan Richardson again. Billy Shaw was delighted with the results of the trip and had the reviews translated and included in Charlie's press book. According to the agent, big plans were in the making. Shaw called them "colossal" but gave no hint as to their nature. For the present he wanted Charlie to reorganize the Quintet and mark time at the Onyx Club, where he could be pulled out on short notice. McKinley Dorham had left and the drummer's chair was open. Charlie hired a fast, young percussionist, Roy Haynes, and Red Rodney, a young trumpeter, excellent men who very nearly made good the loss of Miles and Max.

The Mercury contract was renewed under favorable terms. Granz had a new idea.* [* Norman Granz, Billy Shaw, and Charlie Parker himself are given various roles in hatching the Bird with Strings idea. Parker had toyed with the idea of a quasi-symphonic background for his improvisations ever since Dizzy Gillespie had divulged similar plans a year or two earlier. There was no doubt that Granz and Shaw welcomed the commercial possibilities of the format.]

For the next session he would back Charlie with a studio orchestra of strings and woodwinds. It would be the most impressive presentation of a jazz artist in the entire history of recording: Charlie Parker with Strings. On November 3 Charlie recorded in the Mercury studios with a chamber orchestra hand-picked from the best studio musicians in New York, among them Bronislaw Gimpel and Mitch Miller. The chamber orchestra consisted of three violins, viola, cello, harp, oboe, English horn, and a three-piece jazz rhythm section. Charlie was proud and pleased to find himself in such distinguished company. At once he began talking about his new group with "the cats from Koussevitsky's band" (the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, then under the direction of Serge Koussevitsky). Charlie recorded Just Friends, Everything Happens to Me, April in Paris, Summertime, I Didn't Know What Time It Was, and If I Should Lose You.

The ballads were well played, and the work of the men in the string and woodwind sections of a very high standard. Other aspects of the session were less favorable. The scores by Jimmy Carroll were glib and without distinction. Charlie was overawed by a display of musicianship that was nothing more than routine for good legitimate professionals. But he felt that he had achieved a peak, recorded his best session, and made jazz respectable.

Just Friends was the best of the several sides. The alto saxophone soars majestically over the lush background. Its tone is brilliant and its virtuosity compelling. Enough of the original melody remains to sustain the interest of the man in the street. But the strength that Charlie had drawn from Miles and Max, and the freedom that he had enjoyed within the intimate, flexible setting of the Quintet, so essential to inspiration and real improvisation, had been lost.

Soon after the Just Friends session Charlie was called into the Shaw office and given the news about a new Broadway jazz palace to eclipse all others. Licensing and financing problems had delayed its opening, originally scheduled for September, but now the obstacles had been overcome and all was ready for a gala opening the week before the Christmas holidays. The

new club was located at 1678 Broadway, near Fifty-third Street, and Shaw suggested that they walk over and look at it. The new club, on which finishing touches were being applied by workmen, was impressive. Carpeted stairs led from Broadway to a landing with a checkroom and ticket booth. 

The club would operate on an admission policy, like the Roost. Another short flight led to the main room. The new club would accommodate four hundred persons. It would be the biggest and finest jazz club in the world. There were tables, booths, a big bar, and a bullpen. The booths were covered in imitation leather. The stage was large enough for a full-sized orchestra. There was a new piano. At the back of the room a sound studio had been installed behind thick plate glass. The well-known disk jockey Symphony Sid Torin had been engaged to broadcast his popular show nightly from the premises. Each night thirty minutes would be broadcast live from the bandstand. The walls were decorated with huge oil paintings in oval frames. 

They were larger-than-life portraits of the celebrities of the music world — Dizzy, Sarah, Eckstine, Torin, Max Roach, Bud Powell, and, occupying a place in the center, Charlie Parker himself. It had been drawn from an old publicity photograph showing him smiling boyishly over the curved end of a saxophone. "Well," said Billy Shaw. "What do you think?" "It's out'a sight," Charlie said. "Do I get to play in here?" "We're going to open with six bands. I'm booking the entire package. Naturally you'll be here. And we'll do better than that! Did you see the bird cages?"

Charlie could see a number of empty cages hanging from the ceiling. There were twenty or thirty of them.

"There will be tame finches in every one of those cages," Shaw told him. "And a talking mynah bird in the one over the bar. Birds," Shaw said. Shaw took Charlie affectionately by the arm and led the way back upstairs. They crossed to the opposite side of Broadway. Now Charlie was able to see the large sign slung from a crane and about to be jockeyed into place over the entrance. The neon letters said: "BIRDLAND. THE JAZZ CORNER OF


It was a signal honor for a jazz musician. When the owner of Birdland contemplated the idea of naming the club after a practicing jazz musician, there had been no one else to consider. Big names of the past no longer held any box office allure. Of the contemporaries none, not even Dizzy Gillespie, possessed Parker's charisma, or could lend the weight necessary to launch a club that would in fact be the Jazz Corner of the World for two decades. 

Parker had dominated jazz since 1940, when he first appeared with the Jay McShann Orchestra, prompting veteran jazzman Cootie Williams to remark that Parker's influence as an innovator had exceeded that of Louis Armstrong. In Cootie's words, "Louis changed all the brass players around, but after Bird all of the instruments had to change — drums, piano, bass, trombones, trumpets, saxophones, everything." Before Charlie's time jazz had been heard in ballrooms as a music for dancers. With his advent jazz had moved from the larger arena of the ballroom to the intimate setting of the lounge. There it was no longer danced to, but listened to, and for the first time taken seriously as a musical genre.

Charlie's accomplishments were many. He had revealed new dimensions in saxophone playing, enabling the horn to complete its evolution from a fattener of orchestral textures to the most expressive of instruments. Charlie updated the timeless blues song, and contributed some of its finest performances. He had metamorphosed the Tin Pan Alley ballad into a tightly knit, often recondite composition based on the idea of the Kansas City riff, a repeated melodic figure underlined by a strong rhythmic pattern. With perfect taste and intuition he had abstracted the body of music before his time, purging it of anachronisms and irrelevancies, and endowed it with a compelling vocabulary. Almost every post-Parker innovation has been based on something of his own, for example the free-form passages heard on Bird at St. Nicks that lead to John Coltrane, and other musical signposts that point to the modal, jet-stream style of Ornette Coleman and the expanded tonal idiom of Eric Dolphy. A saxophonist, he was the inspiration of Clifford Brown, the most promising trumpeter after Roy Eldridge, killed in his twenty-sixth year in an auto accident. Parker's music was the alpha and omega of Miles Davis's trumpet style and musical system. Even recent, controversial, iconoclastic improvisers — Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, and Sonny Simmons — have their roots in Charlie Parker. Russell Procope, forty-year veteran of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and a fine alto saxophonist in his own right, said, "A Bird comes along once every century." 

As the Forties ended with the opening of Birdland, the queen of jazz lounges, Afro-American music was about to extend its horizons and make its influence felt in the rest of the world. As a counterpoise to European art music, and the popular forms based on that tradition, jazz brought the world a new set of musical values: fresh melodies, an intoxicating sound, and the irresistible kinetic qualities that flowed from its polyrhythms.

Birdland opened December 15, 1949. The club was packed to capacity. The press, the public, and the entertainment world had turned out to hear the greatest convention of talent ever booked into a nightclub: bands led by the guest of honor, Charlie Parker, by Lester Young, Stan Getz, Lips Page, Max Kaminsky, and a new singing star, Harry Belafonte. There were tame finches in the bird cages, except for the cage over the bar. The mynah bird had not yet been booked. [Ed. note: The birds had to be removed as they couldn’t tolerate the amount of cigarette smoke in such close quarters.]

Pee Wee Marquette, a midget, dressed in a custom-made white dinner suit, acted as master of ceremonies, cranking down the microphone stand to suit his tiny frame, haranguing the crowd with florid announcements delivered in a flat, nasal falsetto. Miss Diana Dale, the artist responsible for the garish likenesses of show business celebrities adorning the walls, was in charge of the hat-check concession. 

Behind the thick plate glass at the back of the club, in the brightly lighted radio booth, like a goldfish in an aquarium, basked radio's Mister Hip, Symphony Sid. WJZ had given him a midnight-to-four schedule, direct from the Jazz Corner of the World, in which hourly shows of jazz records alternated with live broadcasts directly from the bandstand, both interlarded with jivey commercials for Broadway clothiers, retailers of hi-fi equipment, the Colony Record Shop directly across the street, hip florists, barbers, even morticians. The one for Sunshine Funeral Parlors went:

"When Fate deals you one from the bottom of the deck, fall by the Sunshine Funeral Parlors. Your loved ones will be handled with dignity and care, and the cats at Sunshine will not lay too heavy a tab on you. Now I'd like to play a request, Cootie Williams's great record, Somebody's Got to Go."

For live broadcasts Sid's microphone cut directly into the Birdland public address system so that he could carry on a dialogue with the jazz greats of the world. On opening night he called out, "Bird, Bird—A gentleman just called in from the Bronx. . . . The gentleman wants to know if you'd play for him  - White Christmas?" It was like asking Heifetz to oblige with Play Fiddle Play. But it was Bird's night. With the saxophone in the low register, sounding richly like a tenor, Charlie played the theme of I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas, then stretched out in a long, loving improvisation. The yuletide favorite played as no one had ever heard before. Big, buttery and luscious, the melody notes that everyone could hum, bubbled from the saxophone like good home cooking. 

On those rare occasions when Charlie played straight, coloring the original notes with only the slightest changes of pitch and the faintest inflections of blue modality, he was a sumptuous player indeed, and one capable of powerfully affecting the square and the man in the street. Everyone listening who was past thirty knew the Bing Crosby vehicle that spun in record store doorways each Yule season and perennially sold hundreds of thousands of records. That night the case-hardened habitués — who else would be in a nightclub on Christmas eve? — experienced an involuntary moistening of the eye and thought back about Christmas eves at home, long ago, in better days, and reordered drinks. Thus ended the most turbulent decade in the history of popular music in America.”

1 comment:

  1. Ross' book lacks legitimacy not because it preceded the definitive biographies by Giddins and by Woideck. It lacks legitimacy because it's filled with inaccurate information...


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