Weekly Posting December 25th, 2020

On December 25th, 1948, Charlie Parker (Bird) performed at the Royal Roost, along with Kenny Dorham, trumpet, Al Haig, piano, Tommy Potter, bass, and Max Roach, drums. This Christmas Day radio broadcast was snatched from the airwaves by the indefatigable Boris Rose, a national treasure who recorded countless live jazz broadcasts from the comfort of his home. The recordings he captured from the Roost are among the finest live performances we have of Bird’s working quintet. Today’s offering consists of a single track: Bird’s one and only performance of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, which I feel conveys the Christmas spirit and hope you will, too.

This gig was a notable occasion, because Kenny Dorham had just replaced Miles Davis as the quintet’s trumpet player. Miles had been Bird’s first choice for trumpet in every band he put together from 1945 onward, and they must have been closer than Miles ever let on, especially having lived together for a few months. But Miles had stormed off the bandstand at the Roost just a few days earlier, personally affronted by Bird’s behavior, never to return to the working quintet again.

Given how long Bird and Miles had worked together, similar incidents must have taken place between them in the past. Presumably, then, whatever transpired that night was a last straw for Miles. I don’t know if it qualifies as irony, but his departure didn’t really affect facts on the ground, because he quickly formed his “Birth of the Cool” nonet and was alternating sets with Bird at the Roost soon after. He also reunited with Bird at various times and places in the early 50s, including the studio.

There are only a few days left in Bird’s centennial year (I have more to say about that below) but today’s musical offering allows me to stick it to Ross Russell one last time. This is a perfect example of Russell’s willingness to alter the facts to suit his narrative purposes. In the space of a few paragraphs, he discredits his own work, much of which was based on valuable scholarship. This choice is as harmful and self-destructive as anything Bird ever did. Here is an excerpt from Bird Lives, edited for relevance:

Birdland opened December 15. For live broadcasts Symphony Sid’s microphone cut directly into the Birdland public address system so that he could carry on a dialogue with the jazz greats of the world. On opening night [This has little to do with Sid’s actual announcement, which begins today’s track.] he called out,“Bird, Bird–a gennulman just called in from the Bronx…  The gennulman wants to know if you’d play for him A White Christmas?” It was like asking Heifitz to oblige with Play Fiddle Play. But it was Bird’s night… Big, buttery, and luscious, the melody notes that everyone could hum bubbled from the saxophone like good home cooking. [Bird was actually playing a harmony part under Dorham.] Everyone listening who was past thirty knew the Bing Crosby vehicle that spun in record store doorways each Yule season. That night the case-hardened habitués–who else would be in a nightclub on Christmas Eve?–experienced an involuntary moistening of the eye and thought back about Christmas eves at home, long ago, in better days, and reordered drinks. Thus ended the most turbulent decade in the history of popular music in America.

We are not here to pass judgement on the quality of Russell’s prose. If you like it, you can have 404 pages of it. Nor do we need to dispute his characterization of Birdland’s patrons as one-eyed alcoholics on a downward spiral. But Russell changes both the date and location of these events in the cause of a rousing, chapter-closing sentence. He gave this priority over historical fact in what should have been, and is still assumed to be, a reputable biographical work.

As the air check date confirms, this broadcast actually occurred one year earlier, in 1948. And it unquestionably occurred at the Royal Roost, not Birdland, which had yet to open. Speaking of which, Russell can’t even keep his own lies straight. He begins by stating that these events occurred on Birdland’s opening night, December 15th, but a few florid paragraphs later, it’s suddenly happening on Christmas Eve!

Thus ends the most turbulent hectoring in the history of this website. I won’t have Ross Russell to kick around anymore.

As implied above, I have now completed fifty-two weekly postings during Bird’s centennial year. I am grateful indeed to Jay Brandford for creating this marvelous website, thereby refusing to let the jazz industry monopolize Bird’s hundredth birthday, and for providing me a soapbox for my dubious yet deeply felt opinions about a great genius I never met and only know through his music. What else, though, do you really need to know?

I will add a final Postscript on New Year’s Day.

White Christmas, December 25th, 1948

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