On Saturday night, September 4th, 1948, Charlie Parker (Bird) performed at the Royal Roost, on Broadway between 47th and 48th Street. The broadcast was recorded as an air check by Boris Rose, the legendary archivist who amassed thousands of such recordings, first using disc cutters and later transitioning to tape. Even while serving in the Army during World War II, he ran a mail order business, dubbing out-of-print jazz recordings for collectors. Despite chronicling the rise of modern jazz throughout the 50s, his own tastes leaned much more toward Louis Armstrong in the 20s. To his everlasting credit, though, he understood Bird’s importance, and we have an extensive series of air checks from the Roost. These drifted around as bootlegs for decades, condoned, and even encouraged, by Rose. If you own some no-name, slapdash Bird reissue containing live performances, the chances are good that they come, in part, from the Royal Roost air checks.
The name Royal Roost might have been a reference to Charlie Parker’s full nickname, Yardbird, or a reference to the previous occupant of the building at 1580 Broadway, a chicken restaurant, but the club’s founder, Ralph Watkins, didn’t preserve his thinking for posterity. The Royal Roost was a trendsetter, though, whose rise accompanied the fall of the 52nd Street scene during the late 40s. Unlike the 52nd Street “toilets”, as Teddy Reig referred to them, the Roost, and the clubs that soon followed it into the neighborhood, Birdland and Bop City, were relatively spacious and conceived as nightclubs rather than bars. The Roost initiated the trend of marking off “bullpen” or “bleacher” areas, where the less wealthy and the under-aged could pay a single cover charge and enjoy the music undisturbed by waiters and waitresses. This was a tacit acknowledgement that jazz had evolved beyond dance music to become an art form worthy of serous consideration. And, indeed, everyone from Hollywood stars to working stiffs flocked to the Royal Roost to hear the new music. It was the hottest club in town, in an era when jazz still ruled the world.
Bird seems to have been booked into the Roost last minute, possibly related to the fact that it was Labor Day weekend. You will hear the ubiquitous Symphony Sid refer to Bird’s appearance as a surprise, and the personnel on the bandstand also hints at this. Most unexpected is pianist Tadd Dameron. He and Bird met early in their careers and became fellow revolutionaries, but Dameron never appeared on any of Bird’s studio recordings. Quite influential as a composer, he was less so as a soloist, and probably wasn’t high on Bird’s list of piano subs. Bassist Curly Russell, on the other hand, worked with Bird all the time. That said, Tommy Potter was still the regular bassist, and his absence suggests that he was already booked somewhere else. Miles and Max Roach were, of course, cornerstones of Bird’s working quintet. But there’s more here than meets the eye. Both Miles and Tadd Dameron were working at the Roost over that long weekend, as well, Miles with his Nonet, which included Roach, and Tadd with his own group, which included–wait for it!–Curly Russell.
For reasons unknown, only two numbers were captured on September 4th: 52nd Street Theme and Koko. 52nd Street Theme is taken at a relative lope and contains a remarkable solo by Bird, rhythmically and spiritually. He is in a contemplative mood and seems to be offering a long and thoughtful discourse on subjects one can only guess at. Symphony Sid is still babbling when Bird starts his solo, but it really helps to follow it from the very beginning, otherwise you may find yourself disoriented. Bird’s style had been under intensive development since his return to New York in April, 1947, and this is often more obvious rhythmically than harmonically. His phrasing now rendered bar lines even more meaningless, and he instituted the practice of shifting his lines over by a single beat, so that 2 & 4 became 1 & 3. On top of that, his unpredictable accents create another layer of deception. So Bird seems to be saying one thing for certain: listen closely or you won’t know where I am.
52nd Street Theme is followed by Bird’s masterpiece of pure abstraction Koko, his signature overhaul of Charlie Barnet’s Cherokee. A large part of Bird’s legacy rests in his ability to conceive of and execute perfectly crafted lines at incredible tempos. Like breaking the four-minute mile, this set the bar for every jazz musician who followed. The aggressive side of Bird’s personality often comes to the fore at such tempos, which is why I’m generally less attracted to these barnburners. Here, though, he displays a kind of serenity as well, pausing for thought now and again, in spite of the mad rush.
These pauses in his flow of ideas aren’t entirely intentional, however. The Royal Roost air checks often track the rise of Bird’s blood alcohol level over the course of the evening. There is evidence of impaired coordination in both these performances, presumably performed back-to-back. In his introduction, Sid says, “As our surprise for this morning…” indicating that these tunes come from a later set. Bird doesn’t sound impaired in the least conceptually; brilliant ideas flow uninterrupted. These are masterful statements by Bird at the height of his powers. But, on at least one occasion in these broadcasts, Bird drinks himself to the point of collapse.
Whenever Bird’s name is mentioned, his heroin habit is included in the same breath, when he really ought to be the poster child for the ravages of alcoholism. There’s no question that it destroyed his marriage to Chan. By her accounts, alcohol transformed him into a different person entirely, and in that sense, the white medical establishment’s diagnosis of “undifferentiated schizophrenia”, made in his final months, may have had some bearing on reality.
My personal favorite among white-medical-establishment-diagnoses-of-African-American-jazz-musicians pertains to Lester Young, who spent his life on the road, traveling America and the world, spreading truth and beauty at every stop. For this, he was diagnosed with “chronic nomadism”.
The “rootless confusion of Charlie Parker’s private life” biographer Brian Priestley writes of is more-or-less the same specious diagnosis. It’s both true and false. False because Bird had deep roots in Kansas City, where he grew up, and in New York City, his adopted home. True because Bird spent his life on the road, often out of economic necessity, but also because he had an adventurous spirit. This was evident early on. As his mother, Addie, put it, “Charles would go away weeks and weeks. He liked to see things and do things.” Until he settled in New York City in 1944, large swaths of his time were unaccounted for.
By the standards of the white medical establishment, then, every working African-American jazz musician of that era suffered from “chronic nomadism”. Might that just be another way of saying, “You’re not one of us”?