On May 8th, 1947, Charlie Parker (Bird) entered Harry Smith Studios for his “homecoming” recording date for Savoy Records, the first since his return to New York City on April 7th. Bird was in robust health, free of his heroin addiction, and filled with ambition. At long last he had assembled the quintet of his dreams, and he was bringing in two extraordinary new compositions. Three out of the four songs recorded that day were destined to become classics. And yet the performances are vexed in ways that are difficult to account for. All we can do is guess.
It’s easy to forget how much Bird longed to have his own band. The overview we have of his life makes this development look inevitable. In the Charlie Parker version of the Hero’s Journey, he emerges from the abyss of Camarillo, returns to New York to form his classic quintet, and continues on to triumph and tragedy. But Bird couldn’t have known his own future. At the time of his return, he only knew that he’d been hoping to lead his own group for years and nothing had ever worked out.
From the age of seventeen onward, with a couple of fleeting exceptions, Bird was a perpetual sideman, generally in big band settings with little room for individual expression. In 1944, one of his band mates in the Billy Eckstine Orchestra was trying to cajole him into staying, reminding him of how many great musicians were in the band and how hip the arrangements were. Bird replied, “It’s a jail.” By 1947, he had known for years that his freedom lay in the quintet format of saxophone, trumpet, piano, bass, and drums. It’s worth noting that this instrumentation wasn’t preordained at the time. Bird and Diz adopted it in their quest to boil a big band down to five instruments.
What went wrong on May 8th? We can start by narrowing down the suspects. Miles Davis and Max Roach played on Bird’s November 1945 Savoy session, his first as a leader. They were his first choice then, as they were again this time, and they were as close to Bird as anyone could be. Bassist Tommy Potter, also a veteran of the Eckstine band, would become a mainstay in Bird’s quintet going forward, so it’s safe to assume they had a good rapport. That leaves Bud Powell.
To implicate Bud is not to denigrate him. It’s hard to top Bud’s story for sheer human suffering. It all began with a 1945 police beating in Philadelphia, when Bud was 21 years old. In the process of arresting him for drunk and disorderly (the all-purpose charge), the police repeatedly clubbed his head, causing neurological damage. The symptoms he exhibited thereafter, including severe, unremitting headaches, were considered a form of mental illness by the white medical establishment. Accordingly, he was confined for months at a time and administered electroshock treatments and other sadistic “therapies”. All this was happening as his musical conception continued to mature. In one mental institution, he etched the facsimile of a piano keyboard into his cell wall so he could continue to practice. He reached an artistic peak in the early 50s, even as his fine motor skills were deteriorating to the point of no return. He died in 1966 at age 41.
All that to one side, Bird and Bud just didn’t get along. It was a case of irreconcilable similarities, and Bird knew he couldn’t have Bud in his working quintet. Bird had enough self-awareness to know that Bud was just as unreliable and problematic as he was, and that no band containing two such individuals would ever last long. But, more to the point, they didn’t get along because Bud was equally brilliant. His style may have been rooted entirely in Bird’s conception (as he put it, “Bird gave me a means of expression.”) but he was the only musician of that era capable of outplaying Bird. On a good night, the flow and depth of his ideas were unmatched. Bud’s style was pure paradox, patterned exactly on Bird, yet entirely original and just as profound.
Bird certainly knew this. Beyond not wanting competition in his quintet, Bud was out of the running because Bird made a point of surrounding himself with players who didn’t echo his ideas back at him (hence his fondness for Miles). So this recording date was a one-off, and it demonstrated in subtle ways that the two men created more friction than chemistry. Furthermore, Bird was not above toying with Bud whenever they played, which wasn’t often. This date, their only studio recording together, furnishes an excellent example. In his capacity as arranger, Bird goes out of his way to limit Bud’s solo space, cutting him short by adding gratuitous walking bass solos on both “Cheryl” and “Buzzy”.
There’s a consensus that these extraordinary musicians were strangely bedeviled that day, and some say that the tension in the music is palpable. I’m not sure I really feel that, but all you have to do is look at the number of takes each song required (even the simple riff-tune, “Buzzy”) to know that something was amiss. I have my own personal theory, which you can take or leave: Bird was drunk.
Due to his fondness for alcohol, Bird can be heard in every stage of intoxication on live recordings. He defaulted to alcohol when heroin wasn’t available, but he also used both together. Heroin didn’t interfere with his execution. Alcohol did. His 1949 broadcasts from the Royal Roost offer some of his most inspired live performances, but listeners can follow along over the course of the evening as his rising blood alcohol level impairs his coordination.
Absent alcohol, Bird was supernaturally flawless, so whenever he wasn’t playing up to par it was always for the same reason. He doesn’t sound flagrantly drunk on May 8th, but you needn’t look any further to explain his sloppy execution. To be fair, everyone else was jinxed that day, as well, as if fate had stepped in to dash Bird’s hopes. After struggling through five takes of “Donna Lee”, he could see the handwriting on the wall. (Take 1 gives an indication of how vexed things were from the get go). He recorded “Cheryl” (one of his greatest blues lines) in one take, accepting his own unremarkable solo as good enough. On take 3 of “Chasin’ The Bird” (a groundbreaking composition) he sounds resigned to whatever comes out of his horn, giving his solo an atypical mood of relaxed melancholy. By the fifth take of “Buzzy”, he’s wearing his frustration on his sleeve.
As far as I can tell, Bird was never drunk in the recording studio again, with one exception. Hired by Miles as a sideman for a 1953 session, Bird arrived first, found refreshments waiting for the band, drank an entire fifth of scotch in a matter of minutes, and fell asleep in his chair. He proved impossible to awaken. They kept shaking him by the shoulders and he kept repeating, “One moment, please”.