Weekly Posting, December 11th, 2020

Sadik Hakim, known as Argonne Thornton in the mid-1940s

In the early 1940s, the jazz ecosystem in New York worked something like this: new ideas were incubated in Harlem by Black musicians, then hatched on 52nd Street for white audiences. At first, the advances being made at Minton’s and Monroe’s were too radical for the Street, but they inevitably seeped into the mainstream. Musicians and listeners of all stripes journeyed to Harlem to check out the scene, and by 1944 the new music had enough of a following to be commercially viable. Certain clubs on 52nd Street, most notably the Onyx and the Three Deuces, began booking it, at which point battle lines were drawn and the modernists and the old guard faced off.

Bird’s role in all this was intermittent yet central. He was there at the very beginning, in 1939, a nobody from nowhere with a style no one particularly understood or cared for. He had his oft-noted but ill-defined epiphany jamming on Cherokee, and then the death of his estranged father in 1940 called him back to Kansas City. The K.C.-based Jay McShann Orchestra became his home and family for the next two years. He codified his advances on the road, as they worked throughout the Southwest.

McShann’s orchestra ultimately made the big time in early 1942, with their triumphant engagement at the Savoy Ballroom. Bird was back in Harlem, much improved. His playing garnered more attention the second time around, and when McShann left, he stayed. He found new inspiration when he rejoined the work-in-progress at Minton’s and Monroe’s. At that point, the advances Dizzy, Monk, and others had made in his absence were nearing critical mass. They had assembled all the components of a new style, but no one quite knew how to fit them all together. Then they heard Bird.

Like so many breakthroughs born of genius, the solution became obvious after the fact, and a new generation adopted the modern style almost overnight. Bird catalyzed a revolution, the particulars of which went undocumented due to the recording ban that spanned 1942 and 43. As soon as it ended, however, modernists began appearing on record and the new style spread throughout the jazz world, to the chagrin of old school critics and musicians. 

In a 1954 radio interview with Paul Desmond, Bird was asked about this period of his life. He replied:

Those were the, what you might call, “good old days“. Gay youth, lack of funds. There was nothing to do but play, and we had a lot of fun trying to play, you know? I did. Plenty of jam sessions, which meant much late hours, pretty good food, nice clean living, you know, but basically speaking, much poverty.

Absent McShann, Bird was back to living hand-to-mouth in the final months of ’42, trying to get by again on tips at Minton’s and Monroe’s. 52nd Street was still hostile toward the emerging music, although Bird began appearing at the jam sessions at Kelly’s Stable. It’s not clear exactly where he lived or how he managed to eat during this period. In December, though, his proponents lobbied Earl Hines to hire him as a tenor player. Bird was willing to accept the confines of another big band in the interests of survival, more so because it was an opportunity to work with Dizzy and several other modernists, who had formed a radical faction within the ranks. He stayed with Hines until the band broke up in August 1943, at which point he returned home to Kansas City, working in the area for an extended period, much of which can’t be accurately documented. It was the last time Bird would work in his hometown for any significant length of time.

Bird’s absence from New York resulted in a missed opportunity. The enterprising Gillespie had crashed 52nd Street, opening with his small group at the Onyx Club on November 30th, 1943. A telegram to Kansas City inviting Bird to join never reached him. Bird apparently worked around Chicago in the early months of 1944, returning to New York at last when another, more successful, telegram arrived from Billy Eckstine, the vocalist from the Hines band. He was inviting Bird to join his own fledgling big band, which was packed with modernists, including Dizzy. The Eckstine band went undocumented due to the recording ban (as did the Hines Orchestra) but everyone who heard it agrees it was extraordinary. By the summer of ’44, though, Bird had had his fill of big band confinement, choosing unemployment in New York City yet again. He was done touring with big bands forever, and New York would be his adopted home for the rest of his life.

It was at this point that Bird finally waited out the three-month transfer period for Local 802, the New York branch of the AFM. During this wait, his appearances were limited to jam sessions. More work, though, was just over the horizon, because the new music had finally taken hold on 52nd Street. Bird used this period to network, so to speak, popping up and sitting in everywhere he could. This resulted in a significant September 15th recording date for Savoy Records with guitarist Tiny Grimes, a swing-era star unthreatened by the modernists.

Bird hadn’t seen the inside of a recording studio since July 1942, for the Jumpin’ Blues session with McShann. Fronting Grimes’s quartet allowed Bird to stretch out, relatively speaking, for the first time on record. His style was now fully mature and this date marks the beginning of his recording career in small band settings. It’s unclear exactly when these sides were issued (it could have taken as long as a year) so they didn’t advance Bird’s reputation in the short run. But it did bring him to the attention of Herman Lubinsky, Savoy’s preternaturally parsimonious progenitor, and eventually led to the November 26th, 1945 date.

Believe it or not, that recording session is the purported focus here, and if you’ve survived the avalanche of backstory above, we will finally turn to the jazz love quadrangle, as promised.

Shortly after the Grimes date, Miles arrived in New York and Bird moved with him on 149th St. When Miles’s wife, Irene, arrived a couple of months later, they moved to 147th St. At some point, Bird ended up there, as well, sharing an apartment with Stan Levey. But it’s possible he continued on at the 149th St. apartment after Miles moved out. As with the November 26th date itself, a lot of conflicting information surrounds Bird’s private life during this period.

The first half of 1945 was a whirlwind for Bird and Diz, packed with gigs and recording sessions. In September, he moved into an apartment on 117th and Manhattan Avenue with Doris Sydnor, his future third wife. The chromatically-inclined Argonne Thornton, who was already living there, described the situation as follows:

I was a boarder in Doris’s pad up at 411 Manhattan Avenue. I introduced Bird to Doris, and a week later he was living there. Later, for a while, they were married. Billie Holiday and her man, trumpeter Joe Guy, also lived in this six-room pad. Bird drew people like Thelonious Monk, Miles, and Dexter Gordon to the scene.

I would give anything to spend just 24 hours in that apartment. It’s not clear whether or not Bird moved in as an additional boarder. Romance may have already been involved, but he also had his eye on Chan Richardson, his future fourth wife. The exact timeline is unclear, and details conflict, but biographer Chuck Haddix has this to say:

Smitten with Chan, Charlie wooed her with afternoon movies and malts at Belle’s. Their friendship blossomed into romance, and one night they made love in Charlie‘s apartment on 149th Street. While enthralling Charlie, Chan fell into a side romance with pianist Argonne Thornton. The two rendezvoused in a room Thornton rented from Doris Sydnor, a hat check girl on 52nd Street. One evening Chan overslept in Thornton’s room and showed up late for a date with Charlie. Doris, who was enamored of Charlie, told him about Chan and Thornton. Stunned by Chan’s fickleness, Charlie ended their relationship and took up with Doris.

So there you have it, the premier jazz love quadrangle of 1945: Bird, Doris, Argonne, Chan. Just a standard-issue romantic mess we can all relate to, on one level or another.

Biographers grope for the right words to describe the chaos they perceive in Bird’s life. Russell speaks of “monumental disorder”, Priestley of “rootless confusion”. No one seems to question these characterizations. Now isn’t the time, but it’s still worth pausing to evaluate where Bird’s life stood as 1945 came to a close.

He has chosen New York City as his home and is, in his own fashion, putting down roots. He has met and romanced the two women with whom he will spend the remainder of his life, choosing, for the foreseeable future, the devoted Doris over the alluring Chan. He has cultivated an extensive network of colleagues, many of whom he will work with throughout his entire career. He has established himself as a bandleader in his own right, fronting two groundbreaking groups on 52nd Street, with promise of more work to come. He has secured a recording contract with Savoy Records, and on his first date set a pattern, in terms of personnel and repertoire, that he will consistently build upon, producing a steady stream of masterpieces. Through the strength of his intellect and the depth of his soul, he has, at the age of twenty-five, in a racist society that hurled every obstacle in his path, transformed the landscape of American music. 

Where is the disorder? Where is the confusion? And whose life are we judging his against, anyway?

Not mine, I hope.

In a last nod to the November 26th session, the musical offering today consists of two live versions of Billie’s Bounce, both with Miles. Bird seldom played this live, preferring Now’s The Time, so I hope the novelty will help compensate for the poor sound quality.

The first is a broadcast from the Finale Club in Los Angeles, sometime in late winter of 1946 . Bird had invested considerable effort in forming his own group in California. As always, Miles was at his side, along with Joe Albany, piano, Addison Farmer, bass, and Chuck Thompson, drums. Bird was quite crestfallen when the LAPD unceremoniously padlocked the club, putting his band out of work for good. 

We then jump ahead five years to the Diplomat Hotel, January 19th, 1951. I suggest you put on a helmet for this one. Roy Haynes overpowers the microphone, which is much too close to the drums, although Haynes is a wonder. This is Bird’s working quintet, with Al Haig on piano and Tommy Potter on bass. Only Bird’s solos were captured, so Miles’s solo fades out shortly after it begins. Haig is literally inaudible. Whoever was recording managed to miss the head in, so the track begins at some point during Bird’s solo. It’s still worth toughing it out, though, because Bird sails over the changes most serenely. Unlike some later performances, he’s fully engaged. This track was a half step sharp, thus requiring pitch and speed correction (best guess).

Billie’s Bounce, Finale Club, Winter 1946
Billie’s Bounce, Diplomat Hotel, January 9th, 1951

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