On September 26th, 1952, Charlie Parker (Bird) played a dance at Rockland Palace in Harlem, backed by Walter Bishop, piano, Teddy Kotick, bass, and Max Roach, drums. Guitarist Mundell Lowe filled the role of second horn, and, for better or worse, a small string section and a single oboist shared the stage, as well.
The event was a benefit for city councilman Benjamin Davis, who, as secretary of the American Communist Party and an African-American, had been imprisoned for exercising his right to free speech. The ultimate goal was to get Davis released, but the event itself was simply a dance. Bird enjoyed playing for dancers, and this was an opportunity to do so in one of New York City’s largest and most celebrated halls. Rockland Palace had played a central role in the Harlem Renaissance and was still going strong. Chan pointed out that “the communists paid better that the capitalists, and this was one of [Bird’s] highest paying gigs.” The dancers got their money’s worth: he played five sets that night. This may be a measure of Bird’s generosity toward members of his own community, a feeling that seldom extended to white nightclub owners.
If the “Charlie Parker with Strings” concept had any fringe benefits, it made Bird’s music more danceable by keeping tempos under control. This may have been the motive for booking a string section on this occasion, and may help explain why it paid so well. The recordings were a commercial success, and gigs with the string section commanded a much higher price. On just about every other level, though, the strings were a total drag.
Among other things, they did much to destabilize Bird’s working quintet: whenever he went out on tour with the strings, the remaining members of his quintet had to find other work. This wasn’t the only headwind the quintet was facing. Bird’s cabaret card had been suspended after a narcotics arrest, preventing him from working in New York City nightclubs, and he was often sent on the road as a single, backed by local rhythm sections. Furthermore, due to Norman Granz’s strange aversion to recording the working quintet, there was little income or recognition to be derived from studio dates. So, by late ’52, the quintet was on its last legs. Red Rodney had been arrested on narcotics charges and sent to Lexington, Kentucky, and no successor had taken his place. By the time Bird finally got his cabaret card reinstated, in February 1953, the working quintet no longer existed in any meaningful way. This loss was a contributing factor in Bird’s artistic decline.
All that aside, Rockland Palace was one of Bird’s great nights, and it’s no coincidence that Max Roach was at the drums. The monotonous string arrangements were interspersed with quintet numbers, and on these Bird’s playing is unsurpassed. Freed from his shackles, he burns through a thrilling rendition of Lester Leaps In, a nonstop, five-minute alto solo backed by Max Roach. It’s not a stretch to say this foreshadowed Coltrane’s extended solos with Elvin Jones. This solo wouldn’t have been possible without the rhythm section of Bishop, Kotick, and Roach, who merged together in perfect accord at a murderous tempo to provide Bird exactly what he needed.
How many gigs did Bird play in his lifetime? How many solos did he take on how many tunes on how many nights for how many years? Unless he was drunk, every solo captured in the studio or on the bandstand was of the highest order, even as his health deteriorated to the point of no return. If he could focus his mind so completely on the details of each moment, creating a flawless statement every single time, under wildly differing and often unfavorable circumstances, is it any wonder that hours and days held little meaning for him?
The Lester Leaps In solo gained notoriety when it was mutilated by Clint Eastwood for the purposes of his deplorable film, Bird. What he did to it was controversial enough, but on top of that it made no sense. I will run out the clock bitching about this.
Lester Leaps In begins during the film’s opening credits and continues into the second scene, where Forest Whitaker is shown mimicking Bird in inaccurate and offensive ways (this sums up the entire film) on the bandstand of a generic Hollywood nightclub set. By all accounts, Bird stood virtually motionless when he played, which is confirmed by his only television appearance, and this is an important point in itself. Yet Eastwood, it would seem, directed Whitaker to thrust out his chin and scrunch his forehead and twist his shoulders and gyrate his pelvis, in the full knowledge that Bird did nothing of the sort. This is enough to alienate any Bird enthusiast who isn’t already deeply depressed over the first scene, a set piece meant to depict Bird’s early life. We are shown a ramshackle farmhouse with chickens scooting about (yardbirds) where a young child with a wooden flute sits on a pony, playing a plaintive melody as he’s carried along. This dissolves to a teenaged Bird in overalls playing alto saxophone on the same porch of the same farmhouse, offering a smooth-jazz rendition of O Christmas Tree. You think I’m kidding.
As a young child, Bird was raised in Kansas City, Kansas, which is, as the name implies, a city. There exists a photograph of young Bird seated on a pony, obviously the inspiration for this scene, but nothing about it suggests this was the family pony. In any case, by the time Bird was in his teens, he had left the pony farm behind and was living across the river in Kansas City, Missouri, a metropolis in no uncertain terms.
The Rockland version of Lester Leaps In may have been chosen as much for the length of Bird’s solo as for its excitement. Eastwood needed to cover about two minutes onscreen as he established time and place, or rather, failed to. But either he or Lennie Niehaus decided that the sound quality was unacceptable. Instead of turning to suitable studio recordings, they opted for trickery. Using computers to extract Bird’s solo from its Bishop-Kotick-Roach setting, they transplanted it atop the exertions of a modern rhythm section, all in the name of state-of-the-art audio quality. Where does one begin? One doesn’t. But it’s all for naught, because Bird’s alto still retains the distorted sound quality of the original, like an orphan crying behind the wheel of a Porsche Carrera. Or something.
Today’s musical offering consists of the Eastwood abomination, complete with phony audience noise, as well as a true curiosity: the only stereo recording of Bird in existence! There were two amateur recordings made at Rockland Palace that night, differing in vantage point and sound quality. The ingenious folks at Jazz Classics combined them to create an effect something like stereo. The two sonorities never blend into one, exactly, but it’s a big improvement over the common bootleg versions, and it has an impact that the Eastwood travesty only dreams of.
O Christmas Tree?!?