Weekly Posting, June 5th, 2020

Thelonious Monk and Sahib Shihab at the Village Vanguard, September, 1948

Charlie Parker (Bird) and Dizzy Gillespie entered the recording studio together for the last time on June 5th, 1950 (along with Thelonious Monk, piano, Curly Russell, bass, and Buddy Rich, drums). This sounds more ominous than it is. Aside from a very busy period in 1945, they weren’t in the habit of recording together. The revolutionary recordings they made that year stand astride jazz history like a colossus, but there were just two studio dates, February 28th and May 11th. Circumstances brought them together as sidemen on other recordings and they were also in residence at the Three Deuces on 52nd St. from March to July. Bird wasn’t entirely pleased to be working under Dizzy’s leadership, but they put the new music on display in all its glory, provoking astonishment and/or scorn. In July, they went their separate ways. Dizzy put together a big band for a southern tour and Bird formed his own quintet, using Don Byas as the second horn. They worked opposite Erroll Garner at the Three Deuces, but the engagement didn’t last long. Then Bird led a short-lived gig at the Downbeat Club, which ended when he showed up one night only to discover that another band had taken his place. In October, he led another gig at the Spotlight Club with Miles and Dexter Gordon, also fleeting. Then he went back to working for Dizzy as a sideman, traveling with him to California and to personal disaster.

Five years went by before they met again in the studio, this time courtesy of Norman Granz, founder of Verve Records. Bird was under contract with Verve, and Dizzy happened to be between record deals, so the path was clear for this reunion. Both of them were at the top of their game, and it doesn’t sound like Bird brought along any axes to grind. By 1950, he had toured Europe to great acclaim and a new nightclub had been named in his honor, so he had nothing to prove in terms of stature. What most characterized this session was the level of preparation on Bird’s part. Given the quantity of new tunes, it’s conceivable that he went beyond his traditional method of writing out songs in the cab on the way to the studio. And what great tunes they were! Following the pattern he established on his Dial and Savoy recordings, he brought in two contrasting blues heads (Mohawk and Bloomdido), two original eight-bar themes over standard changes (An Oscar for Treadwell and Relaxin’ With Lee), a murderously fast theme-less outing, also over standard changes (Leap Frog) and, in this instance, a rendition of the old warhorse, “Melancholy Baby”. If Bird had any agenda that day, it was to make clear that he was the leader and Dizzy was the sideman. All these new tunes could have been a preemptive strike, leaving Dizzy no opportunity to take charge. In any case, studio dialogue reveals in no uncertain terms who was leading the date.

This return to the format of the Dial and Savoy sessions was a welcome anomaly among Bird’s other recordings for Granz at the time, which tended toward the overblown. The quintet format, which we have come to take for granted, was Bird’s natural habitat, and he worked long and hard to reach the point where he could successfully lead such a group. Although Bird doesn’t forget to outplay Dizzy, he isn’t aggressive about it. He just makes sure that endlessly inventive ideas stream from his horn. Dizzy, in full command of his abilities, forces him to stretch to his limits. This was the dynamic that sparked much great music, and it carries the day here, despite the freakish surroundings.

Granz arranged a reunion of four revolutionaries who had given birth to a new musical language. Why in God’s name, then, did he see fit to include Buddy Rich on drums? Bird aficionados will be scratching their heads and gnashing their teeth until the end of time. No one can argue that Rich played badly on a technical level, but on a spiritual level he threw everything off kilter. This would have been less damaging were it not for the presence of Thelonious Monk, the man least likely to give an inch in any musical negotiation, especially to temper the overeager bombast flowing from Rich. It’s doubly vexing because these are (with one slight exception) the only recordings Bird ever made with Monk. Furthermore, this was Monk’s only appearance on record of any kind between July 1948 and July 1951, an inexcusable gap symptomatic of neglected genius and very hard times.

You could paper your room with the list of more suitable drummers. Monk was one of the most percussive jazz pianists ever to pull up a bench, yet Rich doesn’t engage with him on that or any other level, sending him into exile. This makes his very unconventional (to say the least) contributions sound surreal. Granz made a point of restricting his solo opportunities, but when Monk does get a chance to play he is extraordinary, and he displays great imagination in his intros and his comping. Coltrane said of playing with Monk, “I always had to be alert, because if you didn’t keep aware all the time, you’d suddenly feel you’d stepped into an open elevator shaft.” Monk’s use of space has little connection to the style known as bebop, and, despite being a founding father, his music is at odds with it in many other ways, too. If ever a musician existed in a universe of his own making, it was Monk. In fact, his tenuous presence in the day-to-day world is on display in the bit of studio dialogue included with today’s musical offerings, which are from this recording date, titled “Bird and Diz” and issued on Verve.

Bird’s little ditty called “Relaxin’ With Lee” (based on “Stompin’ At The Savoy”) was only used for the last eight bars, closing out the song. Otherwise, the track was purely a vehicle for improvisation. Bird makes his statement in the original key of D Flat Major, and then the whole rhythm section is supposed to modulate up a half step to D Major for Dizzy’s solo. Before the take begins, Bird can be heard speaking clearly and directly to Monk, outlining this plan. At the end of Bird’s solo (I have included only the last eight bars) Dizzy and Curly Russell jump up to D Major. Monk doesn’t, and the take breaks down with Dizzy and Curley pounding on the note D. Bird reiterates to Monk, “You go to D right after the coda!” Monk says, “Oh, I didn’t hear you.”

Things go right on the next take (which I’ve included after the studio dialog) and yet this harmonic conceit is dropped from the following take, which was the one issued. Presumably, this was Bird’s decision, but why he would go to some lengths to rehearse it that way, only to toss it aside, is puzzling and ultimately unknowable. The same might be said of Bird himself.

Relaxin’ With Lee Plus Studio Dialog
Melancholy Baby

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