Ross Russell, the founder of Dial Records, was a witness to jazz history. The ballads that Charlie Parker (Bird) recorded for his label in the late 40s (Embraceable You, Out Of Nowhere, My Old Flame, Don’t Blame Me) are among the most sublime creations in 20th Century music. In fact, all of Bird’s Dial recordings are of immeasurable value. Russell deserves a great deal of credit for making this happen, and it was, in many ways, a thankless task. Did this qualify him to write Bird’s biography? Yes and no.
The biography in question, Bird Lives, published in 1973, is more accessible, entertaining, and widely read than attempts by subsequent authors (Chuck Haddix, Carl Woideck, Stanley Crouch, Gary Giddons, Brian Priestly, Lawrence O. Koch) to get a grip on Bird’s life and music. There’s only one problem: a lot of it is fabricated, making Russell an unreliable narrator.
The blame for this can be laid at the feet of Albert Goldman, noted celebrity biographer and character assassin, whose biographies of Elvis, Lenny Bruce, and John Lennon were notorious for their sensationalism and their contempt for their subjects. By 1970, after years of intermittent work, Russell’s own attempts at a Charlie Parker biography had stalled out completely. Enter Goldman, who urged him to write it in a fictionalized style similar to his own.
There is inherent dishonesty in this concept, and Russell ran with it. Just the quantity of fictitious dialog is enough to sideline his biography for unreliability, but he also distorts real characters, invents others out of whole cloth, moves dates and locations, and freely ascribes internal thoughts. He even brings us inside Bird’s head at the moment of his death, telling us what he was looking at. And Russell’s embrace of Goldman’s methods raises another question: was he also encouraged to sensationalize the events of Bird’s life to the verge of scandal, as was the Goldman formula?
All this still isn’t enough to dismiss Bird Lives entirely. Russell did much legitimate research and he adds valuable knowledge concerning his firsthand interactions with Bird and the many details surrounding the Dial recording sessions. Yet even these have to be carefully parsed, because Russell had a self-exonerating agenda. His actions surrounding Bird’s disastrous recording session of July 29th, 1946, and it’s extended aftermath, remain controversial. That story, however, is better saved for summertime.
Bird’s first recording date for Dial took place in Los Angeles on Thursday, March 28th, 1946. Four songs were recorded: Moose the Mooche, Yarbird Suite, Ornithology, and A Night In Tunisia. Russell gave a remembrance to Robert Reisner shortly after Bird’s death, eighteen years before Bird Lives was published. The following excerpt pertains to this recording date.
“As a matter of policy, the leader on the date had full authority to make decisions on the personnel he was going to use. We felt that this was a matter of the utmost importance. We had Lucky Thompson again (we were very fortunate) and Bird felt very happy in having Miles Davis, who must have been in his very early twenties at the time. Miles had come to Los Angeles with one of the traveling bands [Benny Carter] and, as I recall, he had left it there. I remember Bird telling me with some delight and anticipation that Miles was coming, and, later, that Miles was here, and that he was the man he particularly wanted to use when we recorded. On this date, there were no other people in the studio at all. It was a very workmanlike date. Bird was in full possession of his faculties; he was extremely interested in the date and trying to have every detail perfect. And I think the date did produce some very well-knit, well-organized music. Parker was a musician who solved problems so quickly that logic often seemed dispensed with and sheer intuition called forth. His insight, concept, and execution were far above the already high professional level of jazz recording stars. He played his finest solo on the initial take, well before the other musicians had worked out their own concepts, let alone digested the ensemble parts.”
There isn’t a trace of sensationalism to be found here or anywhere else in the remembrance, just a levelheaded recounting of events, imbued with respect for Bird’s musicianship. Compare this to the description of Bird’s death at the end of Bird Lives.
“He could see a pillow lying on the Oriental rug. Inside him there was a sensation of something vital giving way. Collapsing. Then the pain became overpowering. Like a supershot of high-grade heroin. Seven thousand gut-busting dinners, water-drinking contests, goof balls dissolved in Dixie cups, popped pills, whiskey shots with no chasers, nights on the road, nights in the band bus, shouting matches against Billy Shaw, two chicks balled in a single bed, pleasured in the back of a speeding cab, guffaws, belly laughs, put-ons, musical fire fights, jam sessions, chase choruses, concerts, record sessions, and foaming saxophone solos crashed to a climax as shattering as the cymbal thrown at his feet across the stage of the Reno Club twenty years before.”
Heavens to Betsy! Given that Bird Lives was the first and most widely read Charlie Parker biography, it’s reasonable to ask how much Russell’s sensationalism contributed to the common perception of Bird as a mentally unstable, heedlessly self-destructive drug addict. Regrettably, Russell’s portrait may have poisoned the well. For all the restraint shown by subsequent biographers, it often seems as though his fictionalized Bird is lurking just below the surface.