On April 3rd, 1946, Charlie Parker (Bird) drew up a handwritten agreement assigning to Emry Byrd, a Los Angeles drug dealer, fifty percent of all future royalties from contracts with Dial Records. Biographers generally take this at face value, presenting it as a measure of Bird’s desperation for heroin and also his poor business acumen. There is no doubt that Bird was utterly addicted to heroin. He couldn’t function without it, and Los Angeles was prone to supply problems. Even when you could get it, the quality ranged from so-so to rock bottom, including a product called “mud”, which lived up to its name. Emry Byrd was well connected and Bird shouted his relief from the rooftops. His masterpiece, Moose The Mooche, was titled in honor of Byrd, by reference to his street name. But who was Moose, exactly?
Most biographers are circumspect. As a drug dealer, Moose wasn’t actively seeking celebrity. I don’t believe he was ever interviewed, although he would have been easy to find: about a month after he signed the agreement, he was arrested and sentenced to a term at San Quentin. With no firsthand information to go on, biographers generally sum up his life in a sentence or two. All agree that he operated out of some sort of front, either a newsstand or, in some accounts, a shoeshine stand. Everyone reports that he was disabled. Some have him in a wheelchair, others on crutches. That, and his subsequent arrest and sentencing, is all anyone can say with certainty about Moose The Mooche.
Anyone, that is, except Ross Russell! The author of Bird Lives goes on for an entire page. As all-knowing narrator, he provides the reader a wealth of interesting details: Moose was a former high school athlete and honor student, and “a personable, sanguine man”; his legs had been paralyzed as a result of contracting polio; his shoeshine stand, on Central Avenue in the middle thirties, doubled as a record shop; he provided narcotics to the LA show business community; he was a jazz aficionado who immediately embraced the new music; he was proud to have Bird as a customer and extended him lines of credit.
How did Russell know all this? Chances are he didn’t. It’s not impossible, given that he was a Los Angeles native. Bird was also the sole musician under contract with Dial at the time, so Russell may have had some idea where he was getting his heroin. But Russell makes it sound like he and Moose had lunch together. I doubt very much he journeyed to Central Avenue, or San Quentin, to engage Moose in a discussion about his schooling, medical history and musical tastes, or to ask who his clients were and what sort of financial arrangements he’d made with Bird. Furthermore, nowhere in his book’s acknowledgements does Russell give any source for this information. Odds are he was embellishing his own memories, decades after the fact.
I would be more willing to dismiss this as artistic license were it not for one thing. Russell introduces the whole subject with the following sentence: “It took Dean Benedetti to solve the problem of a reliable drug source.” This is a bald-faced lie, and it exposes the most unforgivable decision Russell made as biographer: he fictionalized and utterly maligned a real person, one who was long dead at the time of publication. The fictionalized Benedetti is a saxophonist who hears Bird for the first time and, realizing the futility of his own efforts, throws his saxophone in the Pacific and devotes the remainder of his life to recording Bird’s every solo.
In fact, Dean was an accomplished Los Angeles-area musician who, unlike a great many established jazz players, immediately understood what Bird was doing and realized its importance. He did record Bird extensively in LA and New York throughout the first half of 1947. Ultimately, he left the world a treasure trove of recorded solos, uncovered in Italy after his early death from a rare muscle disease.
There’s no need to mount a defense on Dean’s behalf. Fortunately, that was beautifully done when Mosaic Records issued its box set of the Benedetti recordings in 1990. But Dean had no relationship of any sort with Bird in 1946, at the time Russell has him finding “a reliable drug source”. The two men didn’t meet in any significant way until after Bird’s release from Camarillo in February, 1947, and Russell knew this full well. If his own code of ethics allowed him to promulgate lies about a tragic real-life figure, what would prevent him from making up details about a long-forgotten drug dealer?
Russell paints himself as gallantly preparing the publishing rights for Bird’s recorded compositions and there’s no reason to doubt this. It’s also true that Bird, whatever his reasons, never followed through by submitting lead sheets and other paperwork. Shortly before his death, Bird initiated a lawsuit against Dial Records, which suggests that he never received any payments beyond the cash transactions that took place at the recording dates themselves. But Bird’s finances are a black hole from which no light escapes.
Bird was an accomplished hustler, especially when it came to money. Along with creating profoundly beautiful music, his other passion was hitting up everyone for cash. His favorite phrase was “How much would you give me on my face?” He was not above playing games with his sidemen’s wages, either, insisting, quite convincingly, that they had withdrawn a portion of their pay in advance when they hadn’t. As his pianist, Walter Bishop Jr., said, “If you weren’t strong, Charlie Parker would mow you down like grass.” It’s certainly true that Bird was scuffling in LA, especially after the LAPD abruptly shut down the Finale Club. He was, however, streetwise and in no way the hapless victim Clint Eastwood would have us believe. Short on cash but long on guile, he may have found an ingenious solution to his difficulties.
Not even the omnipotent Ross Russell can say how much heroin Bird received in exchange for his agreement with Moose. It’s reasonable to assume he was getting what he needed daily at no cost. Bird had only done one recording session for Dial at that point and he had failed to file the paperwork, so the royalties in question were in legal limbo. The recordings hadn’t even been issued as of April 3rd. When they did come out shortly thereafter, they didn’t sell well because they weren’t available outside of LA. Dial had no distribution deals elsewhere, so Russell had to hit the road himself, presumably with a trunkful of 78s.
Had Bird actually filed the paperwork, he would have gotten two cents per record in royalties. Over the course of a decade, as his fame spread, that would have added up. In the short run, though, the agreement gave Moose The Mooche fifty percent of zero. Perhaps he was the hapless victim. As it turned out, Moose was arrested in mid-May, and by early June, through the special benefits accorded African-American drug dealers, he was incarcerated at San Quentin. That’s when Bird’s troubles in LA really began.
For all his hand wringing over the agreement, Ross Russell never reveals whether or not he distributed any money at all to Emry Byrd. He simply reproduces the letter his partner, Marvin Freeman, received from San Quentin, saying the following by way of introduction. “Concise and formal, it reflected the honors supposedly won in English at Jefferson High School by Moose The Mooche.” As this letter is all of Emry Byrd that remains, I will reproduce it as well.
Dear Mr. Freeman:
May I introduce myself as Emry Byrd. Sometime ago I was assigned by Charley Parker, to one half of all royalties from contracts with Dial Record Company. This understanding was put into writing and notarized on the third day of May, 1946.
I wish to announce, due to misfortune, my change of address, from 1135 East 45th Street, Los Angeles, to Box A-3892, San Quentin, California. If there is anything I might do to make this contract a benefit to me, will you kindly let me know.
Thanking you for any consideration you have to offer concerning this matter.
On December 29th, 1945, Dizzy Gillespie and his Rebop Six performed three numbers before a live audience as part of the Armed Forces Radio Service show, “Jubilee”, which was broadcast to servicemen overseas. The sound quality of AFRS productions equaled that of any recording studio, but the musicians weren’t confined to the usual three-minute limit. Thus you get a chance to hear Bird and Diz stretch out in a live setting without the usual compromises in sound quality. The regrettable emcee is Ernie “Bubbles’ Whitman, whose quasi minstrel-show persona may shock you.