On Saturday, July 10th,1948, Charlie Parker ( Bird) performed in New York City, at the Onyx club on 52nd St., with his classic quintet, on the penultimate night of a one-week engagement. The music that evening was recorded by Dean Benedetti, a Los Angeles-area saxophonist whose name has come up before in connection with Ross Russell‘s book, Bird Lives. (Brace yourself for the return of Russell in a couple of weeks, since the anniversary of Bird’s California breakdown and incarceration is fast approaching.)
Dean was a tragic and somewhat hapless figure who was so smitten with Bird’s playing that he made it his highest priority to record Bird’s live performances, at the expense of his own well-being. Like countless other young jazz musicians, Dean became obsessed with the various recordings produced by Bird and Diz in New York in 1944 and 45, and the news that they were traveling to LA was the hipster equivalent of the Second Coming. Billy Berg‘s jazz club became a house of worship, and Dean was there almost every night during their six-week run. This, presumably, was when Dean realized that everything that came out of Bird’s horn was worthy of preservation.
After Bird’s release from Camarillo State Hospital, in late January, 1946, Dean began recording him extensively at the Hi-Di-Ho Club in LA, using a disc cutting machine that left everything to be desired in terms of sound quality. Because discs were expensive and Dean was impoverished, he only recorded when Bird was actually soloing, so the results are disjointed fragments of sound. To the average listener, these recordings are nothing but distorted gibberish, and only true Bird fanatics have the gumption to slog through them.
Bird returned to New York City in April, 1947, but it wasn’t until early ‘48 that Dean decided to make the cross-country trek himself, by automobile, in order to continue recording and transcribing Bird’s solos. Dean didn’t fare well in New York City. He brought his alto, but it’s no insult to say he didn’t play well enough to become part of the 52nd St. scene. Even non-musical employment was difficult to find. Dean was now recording with a primitive tape recorder, which had its advantages, including longer recording time and the fact that tapes were reusable, but it was still an expensive process and it’s safe to say that Dean had to choose between food or tape on more than one occasion. Occasionally, he recorded entire songs, but he generally stuck to the Hi-Di-Ho plan of recording only Bird. Although Dean’s devotion to Bird’s music bordered on obsession, that doesn’t mean he was mentally unbalanced. He was a true visionary, and jazz history has judged him a hero. Like so many people ahead of their time, though, he only received validation long after his death. He succumbed to a rare muscle disease on January 20th, 1957, at 34 years old, the same age Bird was at the time of his death (March 12th, 1955).
Sadly, Dean was unappreciated in life as well as death. It’s not entirely clear that Bird was happy being recorded. There’s no real evidence to support this, although he reportedly took a dim view of the bootleg recordings that flourished toward the end of his life. But the theory would go some way in explaining why the Onyx recordings are so strange. Charles Mingus released them, heavily edited, in the early 50s, on an LP titled “Bird on 52nd St.“
These were among the first Bird recordings I discovered in my youth, and I have been puzzling over them ever since. I will bypass that rabbit hole and cut to my conclusions. The many oddities—long pauses, dissonant note choices, abstract double-time passages, absurd quotations—reflect, as his playing always did, his state of mind. Thus I’m pretty sure he was genuinely (and justifiably) unhappy with his surroundings at the Onyx club.
To begin with, 52nd St. was in decline by 1948, some of its hallowed shrines already transitioning into strip clubs. This would have had a noticeable impact on the clientele at the Onyx. At times, you can tell the audience is talking instead of listening; at other times the room sounds empty. And, of course, you have the inevitable worst of both worlds: a handful of talkers and nobody else.
In its heyday, the entire New York jazz world, musicians and listeners alike, roamed freely up and down “the Street“, moving from club to club, where the true giants of the music combined and recombined in endless formations. Bird (to the extent he ever did) grew into adulthood on 52nd St., and he must’ve found it quite dispiriting to watch it rot away. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but the scene would soon regenerate, first at the Royal Roost in 1949, then at Birdland in 1950, both just a few blocks away geographically, yet worlds away otherwise. But it was still a profound loss to jazz when 52nd St. sank into the mire.
There’s another factor to consider concerning Bird’s playing. There aren’t many recordings of him playing workaday nightclub gigs, at least not the punch-the-clock-and-grind-through-your-shift variety. Many of the recordings we have from nightclubs are radio broadcasts, for which Bird rose to the occasion and beyond. Other live recordings tend to be concerts with enthusiastic crowds to inspire him. So it seems possible to me that Bird, during his week at the Onyx, decided not to expend any real effort if the crowd was Inattentive, meager, or both.
And then there’s the possibility that he resented being recorded by Dean and didn’t want to play anything worthwhile on that account. This would have been in spite of the fact that Dean spent the week in a literal living hell. The management had no intention of letting him record in the club itself, thus costing them a table, so he ended up in a sweltering basement storage room beneath the stage. He had to drill a hole through the ceiling up to the stage and stretch his microphone cable to its limit to reach this opening, which turned out to be closer to the bass and drums than the horns. As if that weren’t bad enough, the microphone also picked up vibrations from the stage itself. If all this doesn’t discourage you from listening to this week’s musical offering, I don’t know what will. But let me give you a pep talk!
Bird at his worst, of course, is still worth hearing. Even when falling-down drunk, his reserve of ideas was limitless, and he could always tell a story, even a tragic one, if it came to that. But Bird is seemingly unimpaired by alcohol at the Onyx, and in 1948 was rapidly ascending to the heights. Even though he might not have been trying very hard, his playing is still beautiful in an eerie way, and interesting. Discarding the.densely-packed rush of ideas typical of his normal style, he uses an anti-style, if you will, characterized by widely-spaced phrases, long held notes, intentional dissonance, pure sound, and complete silence. And, most importantly, the aggression that often drives his normal playing is absent. Sarcasm? Yes. Boredom? Yes. Melancholy? Yes. Disappointment? Yes. Humor? A thousand times yes! Humor is always an important element in his style, and here it’s magnified to the point where entire solos seem to be a joke! Other solos, however, have an untroubled beauty unlike anything else in his work.
I will provide two examples. Bird played “Out Of Nowhere” thousands of times, recording it for Dial in three astonishing takes, at an audaciously slow tempo. The tempo is faster here, and this rendition has an unmatched nonchalance, possibly born of terminal ennui. Interestingly, this version is one of the few occasions when Dean recorded an entire song, so we get complete solos from Miles and pianist Duke Jordan, as well, distorted though they may be.
“Cheryl”, Bird’s magnificent blues line (although you never get to hear the head) is evocative for other reasons. Given the mood that suffuses it, I have to believe this was the last tune of the night. I really think Dean preserved for all time the sound of Bird running out the clock on a shitty gig. Listen for the moment when someone starts bitching about something in a harsh voice. Already unmotivated, Bird throws in the towel after that, playing a quote from a Klose exercise book, as though noting that he might as well be practicing, and then ending his solo with “Show Me The Way To Go Home”. Miles takes over, equally unmotivated, then there’s a splice and a smattering of applause and a pointed “Thank you very much” from Bird.
How many other revealing moments did Dean Benedetti preserve? A trunkload, in fact. His recordings were the stuff of legend for decades, whereabouts an intriguing mystery that no one, not even Phil Schaap, could solve. Then somebody called Dean’s brother, who said, “Yeah, Dean left me a trunk with a bunch of stuff in it.”
Mosaic Records issued a beautiful box set that I can’t really recommend. First of all, it’s over $100, and, again, the sound quality is unlistenable for non-fanatics. Here’s an idea! Someone should transcribe every note from every instrument on every song and then re-record everything with present day technology.