Weekly Posting, July 31st, 2020

Bird and Max in Paris 1949 (I think)

On July 30th, 1953, Charlie Parker (Bird) recorded four sides for Norman Granz at Fulton Recording, NYC, accompanied by Al Haig, Percy Heath, and Max Roach.

Max Roach related an interesting anecdote to Phil Schaap concerning Bird’s composition, “Chi Chi”. 

Bird came by my place one morning and I was laboring over this [music]. This is when I was recording, when Mingus and I formed the Debut Company and I did date with Cou-Manchi-Cou and all that stuff in it. And Bird came by and I said, “Damn!“ It was like 3 o’clock in the morning. I lived on 30th St. between 3rd and 2nd avenues and I had a basement apartment. He’d come by anytime and, of course, I let him in, whatever. He saw me laboring over this goddam music. He said, “What’cha doin’?“ I said, “I got a session I am producing; my first, myself, tomorrow.“ So he says, “OK here’s a gift.“ And this is the truth, Phil, he sat down at a little kitchen table and a cheap piano–and I wish I had saved that goddamn ‘script; I never throw anything away–he wrote off the tune like a letter and I did it the next day (4/10/53) with Hank Mobley. We recorded it, then Bird recorded it. That’s “Chi Chi.”

Someone made the observation that Mozart wrote music as though taking dictation from God. It just flowed out of him onto the manuscript paper without any apparent effort. Bird was notorious for writing out his tunes in the studio while everyone waited around, and the process appeared equally effortless. However, just because he was writing something out on the spot doesn’t mean that he came up with it then and there. He could’ve been working out and refining his compositions in his head for days or weeks in advance.

One of the problems with typecasting Bird as an unhinged drug addict is that it implies that there was no intellectual process to Bird’s art. For example, prior to his 1947 Carnegie Hall performance, Bird was found passed out in his bathtub, or so the story goes. His helpers had to dress him and bundle him into a cab and put his horn together and push him onstage from the wings and then he gave one of the most brilliant performances of his career. Everyone assumes this happened in spite of the bathtub, but is it possible it happened because of the bathtub?

There’s no question that Bird possessed a formidable intellect. Just listen to his music. To assume otherwise comes close to racism of the “natural rhythm” variety, and flies in the face of evidence to the contrary. Bird was intimately acquainted with a wide cross section of recorded music, indicating that he spent much of his time listening to records. He pretty much aces his Down Beat blindfold test with Leonard Feather, and, in his telephone interview, he reels off the titles of Stravinsky compositions, one after another, until the “Little Band Master” stops him. Teddy Reig, the jovial A&R man at Savoy Records, says, “I’m still cursing him out for taking all my Marcel Mule records. I had three copies of the Concertina de Camera for Saxophone and Orchestra and Bird got every one.”

Bird seems equally well read. Although it’s unclear exactly when or where he did all this reading, that isn’t surprising. As Howard McGee said, “When he left the job, you didn’t see Bird no more until it was time for him to go to work.” The fact is, much of the time no one knew where Bird was or what he was doing. So the implication that he spent his free time scoring heroin and nodding out is another assumption. Furthermore, observers say he only slept a few hours at a time (amphetamines were another habit) so his mind was awake and aware more-or-less around the clock.

I would like to propose the notion that Bird spent large swaths of his interior life immersed in music, replaying what he’d listened to and continually advancing his own conception, all within his mind, in bathtubs and out. This would explain how he played so brilliantly at Carnegie Hall. The internal adjustment from tub to stage was instantaneous. The real difficulties were the clothes, the cab, and the horn.

This is why I bristle when Brian Priestley wraps up his generally commendable biography with the following:

The rootless confusion of Charlie Parker’s private life and the waste of his undoubted intellect can perhaps be written off by some as the fault of society, blah blah blah…

Personally, I don’t consider redefining and reinvigorating the foremost American art form a waste of intellect. This may not be what Priestley was trying to say, but the implication, nevertheless, is that Bird created some of the 20th Century’s most brilliant music without really thinking about it. This attitude, subconscious or otherwise, isn’t his alone. If you want to compile a list of all the African-American musicians who have been written off as intellectual primitives endowed with natural genius, write down every name you can think of.

“Chi Chi” is one of Bird’s most eloquent blues lines, in the unusual key of A-flat. As today’s musical offering, I am including the master take of his own recording, paired with the Max Roach/Hank Mobley version referenced above, which predates it by about four months.

Phil Schaap wrote an in-depth commentary on all of Bird’s Verve recording sessions, and I’m fascinated by this one in particular. As everyone knows, Bird ran late everywhere he went, often by hours, but I never dreamed that he actually phoned ahead with updates on his progress! How, exactly? Was he on foot and stopping at payphones? Driving and stopping at payphones?  In a cab and stopping at payphones? Was he calling from a rehearsal? From his house? From someone else’s house? From a bar? What was delaying him between calls? If Schaap has an explanation, he doesn’t include it, but he provides other valuable details about the session and Bird’s working methods, if you can call them that. l will give him the last word. 

This Charlie Parker quartet recording session was scheduled from 12 noon to 3 PM. It was a little bit before 1 PM when Bird’s first call came to the studio saying he’d be there in fifteen minutes. Normal Granz came into the studio and told the rhythm trio to take their places. But everybody was cooling it when the second call came from Bird as it neared 1:30 PM. Again the message was he’d be there in fifteen minutes. Another round of that game was played near 2 PM and Percy Heath was getting very nervous. Max Roach came over and told Percy Heath what the deal was: that Norman Granz was a right guy, and Bird, or no Bird, he’d get his money.

It was pushing 2:15 PM when Charlie Parker arrived. Heath was stunned how quickly things got going. The foursome was into the first take of “Chi Chi“ before 2:20 PM. Knowing the circumstances now, you may be wondering why so much of the remaining time was spent on “Chi Chi“. Max’s version was getting some play so Norman had decided “Chi Chi“ would be the plug side from this date. They made an effort to get a timed and flawless take for a single, then moved on at about 2:40 PM.

Another snag was hit when Charlie Parker called “I Remember You“ for the standard. Percy Heath wasn’t familiar with it. Al Haig wrote out the changes and fast. Somehow, the quartet nailed it in one take.With a quarter hour of studio time left, Bird went to the main stem: his most famous blues, “Now’s the Time“. Bam! Another tune in a single take. Sticking to staples, Parker called “Confirmation“. There were a couple of false steps, but the third time was the charm and “Confirmation“ was in the can when the clock struck three.

Chi Chi Bird
Chi Chi Roach Mobley

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