Weekly Post, February 1st, 2020

Bird in Los Angeles, shortly after his release from Camarillo.

Charlie Parker (Bird) was released from Camarillo State Hospital, northwest of Los Angeles, in late January, 1947. (How he got there is another story entirely.)

Despite much research, the exact date remains uncertain. Bird apparently sat in with Erroll Garner on the night of his release, but that doesn’t date it precisely. What is certain, however, is that trumpeter Chuck Kopely threw a party in Bird’s honor on February 1st, 1947. Not only that, amateur recordings were made, so we know some of the tunes that were played.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the songs captured that night mirror Bird’s first recording date as a leader (Savoy Records, November 26th, 1945). That session established the blueprint he would follow in the studio for the next three years: two differing 12-bar blues, one or two original compositions based on standard chord changes, and an up-tempo number designed to strike terror. The tunes captured on February 1st fit this description exactly: two untitled blues, I Got Rhythm, Yardbird Suite, and Cherokee.

Another pattern was established at Kopely’s party. Portable recorders were just coming onto the market, and someone used theirs, probably a disc cutting machine, to record Charlie Parker. Blank discs were expensive, and this is likely why only Bird’s improvisations were documented. Recording would begin when he started his solo and end when he finished it. Nothing else before or after was captured. This became the blueprint for saxophonist Dean Benedetti, a Los Angeles resident and early Bird disciple, who began documenting Bird’s solos this way at the Hi-Di-Ho club, where Bird worked shortly after his release from Camarillo. (Dean would soon follow Bird back to New York City and keep recording him there.)

Without opening or closing themes, the tunes  Kopely (and Benedetti) recorded can only be identified by the chord changes underlying Bird’s improvisations. To some extent, these particular chord changes didn’t need opening and closing themes. The blues form is older than jazz itself, and I Got Rhythm is so commonly played that the changes are almost as familiar. Bird hints at the melody to Cherokee, his personal stomping ground, before taking off, but Yardbird Suite, one of his first compositions, is the only track that receives a full melody statement. Two atypical tunes were also captured:  Lullaby In Rhythm, and a set of chord changes that are an amalgam of S’Wonderful and Honeysuckle Rose.

Bird sounds a little rusty, but relaxed and happy, which seems appropriate for the occasion. What’s lacking is the characteristic feeling of urgency, the sense that there are countless stories to be told and not enough time to tell them. It can be argued that all his playing in California lacked urgency. Although born in Kansas City, Bird adopted New York City as his home very early on, and he thrived on the energy that surrounded him there. This is quite apparent in his music.

In early December, 1945, Bird traveled to Los Angeles by train with Dizzy’s band, for a nine week engagement at Billy Berg’s. It’s unclear why he didn’t return to New York with them on February 9th, 1946. (As it happens, that’s the subject for next week.) Given the outcome, it’s reasonable to say he never should have gone to California in the first place.

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