On Wednesday, August 8th, 1951, Charlie Parker (Bird) entered RCA Victor studios in New York City, accompanied by Red Rodney, trumpet, John Lewis, piano, Ray Brown, bass, and Kenny Clarke, drums. This assemblage bore some resemblance to Bird’s working quintet because it included Red Rodney, who had replaced Kenny Dorham at the end of 1949.
Producer Norman Granz made a conscious effort, it would seem, not to record Bird’s working quintet, despite the artistic success of the Dial and Savoy recordings, so this date is the only studio recording with Bird and Red Rodney together. At the beginning of the year, Granz had produced another quintet date with Bird’s regular pianist, Walter Bishop, Jr., and regular bassist, Teddy Kotick, but with Miles Davis instead of Red Rodney, and Max Roach instead of Roy Haynes. (Miles, who’d been embroiled in legal trouble in California, had just returned to New York, and Bird was apparently helping him get back on his feet.)
Granz seemed intent on not recording Haynes in particular. Haynes spoke to this himself, saying, “Bird was under record contract to Norman. Before a session, he’d show Norman a list of the musicians he’d like to use. Everything would be all right until he got to my name. ‘You mean you’d like to use Roy instead of Buddy Rich?’ Norman would ask. The answer was on the paper, but Buddy always wound up on the date.”
This aversion is hard to fathom, since Haynes had worked a lot with Lester Young, whom Granz represented and admired greatly. It probably comes down to the weird bromance Granz had with Buddy Rich, and as such all we can do is shake our heads. In any case, when Haynes joined Bird’s quintet, he had to fill Max Roach’s shoes, no mean feat. According to Rodney, though, Bird was more than satisfied. “Bird would lean over to me and say, ‘Whoa! Got all the right moves. Listen to that guy. Oh, we got a winner here.’” In a final near miss, Haynes eventually recorded for Granz with Bird, Bishop, and Kotick on March 31st, 1954, but by then Red Rodney was long gone.
Despite Bird’s best efforts, Rodney became a heroin addict during his years with the quintet. There’s a bogus scene in Clint Eastwood’s Bird, where Bird slams Rodney against a wall to make his feelings known, a melodramatic subversion of reality that typifies this irresponsible film. There was a more telling and historically accurate scene he might have included instead, especially given that Rodney was a consultant on the film. Picture this: while going cold turkey for the first time, Rodney arrives at Bird’s door suffering from severe abdominal pain. Having kicked many times himself, Bird knows this is atypical and gives Rodney an injection from his own supply. When withdrawal symptoms abate but not the abdominal pain, Bird rushes Rodney to the hospital, where he receives a lifesaving appendectomy. This actually happened, and had he included it Eastwood and audience would have had to sort through the moral ambiguities of such a scene, perhaps learning something in the process. Instead, due to his own artistic shortcomings, Eastwood relied on simplistic, and I think it’s quite fair to say racist, cinematic tropes and clichés.
Although he made a comeback of sorts in the 1970s, and lived into the 90s, Rodney’s career in the 50s was hobbled by intervals of prison time. It’s a shame, because he showed real promise. It’s easy to see what Bird found appealing. Rodney had a rich, nuanced sound, solid time, and an innate lyricism. He was in his early twenties when Bird approached him, and considered himself unworthy of the job. When he argued that others were more deserving, Bird replied, “Hey, let me be the judge of that. I want you. I think that you’re the player that I want in my band.” (This parallels his relationship with Miles.) Nevertheless, Rodney confides, “I was really frightened. I didn’t think I belonged.”
Very small and very white, with red hair, Rodney’s appearance has a what’s-wrong-with-this-picture effect in photographs. Coming up as a teenager in the world of white swing orchestras wouldn’t have prepared him for Bird’s quintet and all that went with it. Dizzy first introduced him to Bird in 1945, but it’s safe to assume that Rodney wasn’t part of Bird’s inner circle, and in some odd way that may account for Bird’s decision to tap him. Bird proved himself color-blind throughout his career. He wanted Stan Levey and Al Haig in the 40s and Rodney and Kotick in the 50s, and he spoke highly of Lennie Tristano, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, and Chet Baker. Despite the impact of racism on every aspect of his life, Bird refused to let that carry over into the sacred sphere of music and taint his feelings toward his fellow musicians. He judged them entirely by the content of their characters, if you will.
How good was the music recorded that day? It’s an objective fact that Bird declined artistically leading up to his death on March 12th, 1955, and the beginning is impossible to pinpoint. The decline in his physical health can account for much of this, as can the influence of Norman Granz, but no topic is more complicated or amorphous than this, or more worthy of full consideration. It’s possible to sidestep this at the moment by turning to a tepid Down Beat review of Si Si and Swedish Schnapps, published on October 20th, 1954. Why the release date is more than three years after the recording date is unexplained.
Recorded in August, 1951, these Bird sides have Red Rodney, John Lewis, Ray Brown, and Kenny Clarke. On Si Si, Bird is not at his best, but blows acceptably enough. Rodney is rather erratic. Rhythm section is fine and there’s a good John Lewis solo plus alert breaks by Clarke and Brown. On the other side, Bird’s alto is equally casual, and Red Rodney’s trumpet is somewhat better. There’s also another worthwhile Lewis solo.
When it comes to any solo by any player, reasonable listeners can disagree, but this session proved quite influential due to Bird’s composition Blues For Alice (named for Norman Granz’s secretary!). This remains the foremost example of what came to be referred to as a “Swedish Blues”, due to its substitutions in the first four bars. Thanks to this recording date (containing three such blues) these changes became an instant harmonic addition to the jazz vocabulary. Si Si shares this trait, as does Back Home Blues. Si Si, however, is more noteworthy for Bird’s striking use of polytonality in the second bar, which provides a clue as to where he might have been headed as a composer.
Under exclusive contract to Granz, Bird’s remaining studio dates (for the next three years!) produced, for the most part, overwrought white elephants that trampled Bird’s creativity. The only other sessions that required original compositions were the December 30th, 1952 date (Laird Baird, Kim, Cosmic Rays) and the July 30th, 1953 date (Chi Chi). December 30th doesn’t really count, as those “compositions” were themeless, and the other originals from July 30th were older compositions (Now’s The Time, Confirmation). Granz certainly deserves some blame for bringing about an effective end to Bird’s composing career, but there’s really no defending Bird on this point. He only composed when recording sessions demanded it, and the additional payment for original compositions was always a major incentive. Absent that, it seems he produced no compositions at all.
But Bird wasn’t the hapless victim portrayed by Eastwood. He could have mowed down Norman Granz whenever he wanted. The fact is, Bird believed in what they were trying to do. “When I recorded with strings,” he told Nat Hentoff, “some of my friends said, ‘Oh, Bird is getting commercial.” That wasn’t it at all. I was looking at new ways of saying things musically. New sound combinations.” To his own way of thinking, presumably, he had moved on from the Dial/Savoy days, and his compositions were now an anachronism in relation to his ambitions with Granz. At the time, this probably made sense, but he couldn’t have known how things were going to turn out. The tragedy of their collaboration wasn’t in what they attempted to do together. It’s in how far short they fell at almost every turn.
After his tour of France in 1949, Bird spoke repeatedly of moving to Paris to study composition, but this was nothing more than a fantasy. Bird’s music, and his entire life, existed completely in the moment. Without the opportunity to record them immediately, the act of writing tunes was an effort whose rewards lay far in the future, and for Bird the future didn’t exist at all. He was here and then he was gone. There was no in between.
Today’s musical offering includes all four original compositions recorded on August 8th, 1951: Blues For Alice, Si Si, Back Home Blues, and Swedish Schnapps (the title of which may be the origin of the term “Swedish Blues”, although the tune is based on I Got Rhythm). Aside from Chi Chi, there were no more Bird compositions after this.