On February 24th, 1952, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie appeared on Channel 5 in New York, on a Down Beat awards show. It’s the only live performance by Bird in existence. (Norman Granz financed a short film that included Bird, but, for technical reasons, the music was overdubbed.)
Television was just getting off the ground in the early 50s, and only certain programs were videotaped, so we must be grateful for this one remarkable scrap, in which we witness Bird and Diz playing Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House”, one of their seminal recordings from 1945. (This clip is readily available on Youtube.) As important as this performance is, the introduction that precedes it is equally valuable. Bird and Diz are presented their awards by clueless white guy du jour, Earl Wilson, the gossip columnist for the New York Post. Also there is Leonard Feather, a true friend to jazz musicians, who seems to be in charge of looking uncomfortable. It’s a 50-second microcosm of American society in 1952, and includes a hilarious example of Bird’s subtle but unmistakable push-back against racism.
Much has been made of the supposed rivalry between Bird and Diz. Diz always denied it and Bird was circumspect about it. If there were such a rivalry, it would have been based on Dizzy’s greater fame and his image in the popular press as the inventor of bebop, a title that was rightfully Bird’s. So it’s fascinating to watch Earl Wilson rub salt in Bird’s wounds twice in rapid succession. When they walk on camera he says, “Here they are, this is Charlie Parker and the famous Dizzy Gillespie.” He hands Bird his plaque “for best alto sax man of 1951”, then gives Dizzy another “for being one of the top trumpet men of all time.” If those 20 seconds in Bird’s life are anything to go by, he must have suffered this injustice with some regularity.
The videotape quality is murky, especially during this introduction. There, the contrast is so extreme that at times Bird and Diz melt into their own shadows. It’s almost enough to conceal the withering look that Bird gives Wilson, but Bird, it seems, had a canny sense of how to play to the television camera. As Wilson babbles away at Dizzy, Bird calibrates his expression perfectly and freezes it into a mask of derision. The look is both contemptuous and extremely goofy. While at first this might seem uncalled for, Wilson validates it retroactively by asking, “You boys got anything more to say?” The term “boys” is racist on its face, and the question is absurd because neither man has been allowed to say anything other than “thank you.” Bird gives him the stink-eye for one more beat, then his expression snaps back to normal. “Well, Earl,” he says, in his best mid-Atlantic accent, “they say music speaks louder that words, so we’d rather voice our opinion that way, if you don’t mind.” Wilson replies, “I think that’d be all right with everybody, if you really wanna do it.” As he turns to walk off camera, Bird gives Wilson a last glance and says, “Good” in a tone that clearly means, “I don’t need permission to play from a jackass like you.” Then he and Diz broadcast, into living rooms across New York, a blistering version of “Hot House” that says, among other things, “If we’re really an inferior race then how is it possible that we’ve created music like this?” The competent white studio musicians backing them do their best to keep up. Bird was gone before the civil rights movement took hold, and he died, some say, believing that there was no future for his people in America. What would he say today?