Weekly Posting, December 4th, 2020

On November 26th, 1945, Charlie Parker (Bird) entered WOR Studios in New York City, accompanied by Miles Davis (trumpet), Dizzy Gillespie (piano. trumpet), Curly Russell (bass) and Max Roach (drums), for his first recording date as a leader. Four of Bird’s original compositions were recorded that day: Billie’s Bounce, Now’s the Time, Thriving from a Riff, and KoKo, in that orderTwo incomplete tracks were also recorded at different points: Warming Up a Riff (Cherokee) and Meandering (Embraceable You). The influence of these recordings can’t be overestimated, and KoKo is one of the most celebrated masterpieces in jazz history.

If everything had gone according to plan, Dizzy would have been somewhere else that day. This session was Bird’s opportunity to demonstrate what he was capable of without Dizzy. In many ways, that was the whole point. He and Diz had been joined at the hip throughout 1945, both live and in the studio. They were in residence at the Three Deuces from March through early July, during which they also performed at two high-profile Town Hall concerts. They made recording dates together with Clyde Hart, Sarah Vaughn, and Red Norvo, plus two under Dizzy’s leadership. They were inseparable musically, two horns merged into one voice. They were the vanguard of a revolution. They loved and respected each other. But they weren’t really friends.

It makes a weird kind of sense that they could be identical twins musically yet complete opposites personally. And there had always been a competitive edge to their relationship, dating back to the early days with Earl Hines. Bird was driven to outplay Dizzy under any and all circumstances. This made for exciting music, but it was impossible to sustain. There is plenty of evidence that Bird was planning to move forward without Diz.

For all the talk of his “erratic behavior”, Bird was remarkably consistent about what he wanted musically, and he could recognize it in young players with uncanny accuracy. Exhibit A, of course, is Miles Davis. And for all the haphazard planning, this session became the blueprint for the future sessions that produced Bird’s greatest masterpieces. Bird may have spent his leisure time passed out in bathtubs, but he knew exactly what he was doing. As Teddy Reig, Savoy’s rogue A&R man, put it:

Bird was in charge. Always. There was never any question about Bird. Everybody knew what he could do. He played with so much authority! He’d play things and all the guys like John Lewis, Miles, Dizzy, would run to the piano to check out the harmonic progressions to determinewhether he was crazy or right. And he was always right! He’d turn away and laugh.

It would be hard to find another musician whose apprenticeship period has been documented more thoroughly and unforgivingly as that of Miles Davis. This date, the so-called “greatest jazz session ever”, was Miles’s first, not counting one where he took no solos. He was nineteen years old. We like to think we can hear the diamond in the rough, but Bird didn’t have the benefit of hindsight. How could he have possibly known?

Bird’s relationship with Miles is rife with contradictions, mysteries, and unknowns. It’s more complex by far than his relationship with Dizzy. Whatever his reasons, Bird wanted Miles that day, and he kept on wanting Miles for the next four years, through thick and thin, and they were together all the way to the top. Miles talks about Bird with equal parts devotion and disdain, depending on his mood. In one interview, he claims that in all the years he knew Bird, the total amount of time they spent in conversation was “about fifteen minutes”. Ahem. When Miles came to New York to study at Julliard, Bird moved in with him!

Anyway, Bird wanted Miles for his first session, not Dizzy, and that was that. Then Bud Powell left town unexpectedly and Bird was stuck for a piano player. Even on short notice, he probably had a number of options. He had worked a lot on 52nd Street with Sir Charles Thompson and Erroll Garner, just to name two. And yet, all of the above notwithstanding, he chose Dizzy. Why? My guess is that he was determined to have nothing but modernists in the rhythm section.

It can be said with certainty that Bird had worked out his basic conception by 1940. Over the next five years, he refined and expanded it, to the point of virtuosity, absorbing new influences all the while. But he had to wait a very long time for a fully modern rhythm section to arrive, and it was an all or nothing proposition. Even the best “transitional” rhythm sections were a ball and chain.

So I think Bird’s overriding concern that day was finding a pianist who could comp behind him in the modern style. Dizzy, whose contributions to the new music were primarily harmonic, had at his fingertips advanced voicings and substitutions, and he knew how to deploy them. (Needless to say, he had learned a lot from Monk.) Soloing was out of the question, but that was an acceptable compromise, not least because it allowed Bird to stretch out, which, again, was the whole point.

The playing time of 78 rpm records limited songs to a tyrannical three minutes, and early Bird enthusiasts had to subsist on a meager supply of recorded solos, some as brief as eight bars. On Billie’s Bounce, Bird takes four choruses, so that’s forty-eight bars at a medium bounce tempo, a very substantial helping. Now’s The Time is markedly slower, but Bird still takes three choruses, thirty-six bars, time enough to tell a complicated story. And he had enough elbow room on Thriving from a Riff to take two full choruses, sixty-four bars. It was a relative embarrassment of riches, raw material that aspiring modernists assimilated in short order.

Asked about record sales, Reig said:

It started slowly but it built. In maybe six months it was like the bible.

Dizzy’s comping is commendable, with lots of punch and crunchy voicings. Reig refers to them as “those chang-chang chords.”  His intros were particularly Monk-like, leading to speculation that “Hen Gates” was Monk himself. Others guessed Bud Powell, more by process of elimination than any aural evidence. (Here’s a question: where was Al Haig that day?) 

The waters were further muddied by the presence of Argonne Thornton, and there are conflicting stories about how he came to be there. He and Bird were sharing an apartment at the time, so the simplest explanation is that Bird invited him in person. But there’s a more elaborate story that revolves around KoKo, and Miles’s inability to play the devilish intro. In this tale, Bird and Diz pick up Miles (Reig is presumably at the wheel). They start discussing which tunes to record and when KoKo comes up, Miles says he can’t possibly play the intro.

He spoke about this himself:

I remember Bird wanting me to play Ko-Ko, a tune that was based on the changes of Cherokee. Now Bird knew I was having trouble playing Cherokee back then. So when he said that that was the tune he wanted me to play, I just said no, I wasn’t going to do it. That’s why Dizzy’s playing trumpet on Ko-Ko, because I wasn’t going to get out there and embarrass myself. I didn’t really think I was ready to play tunes at the tempo of Cherokee and I didn’t make no bones about it.

When it became clear that Dizzy would have to play trumpet on KoKo, Bird realized he needed a second pianist. Supposedly, someone went in search of Thornton and found him at a place called Hector’s Cafeteria. I don’t know if this detail makes the story more believable or less.

When and how Thornton got there is really of no consequence. It’s just another thread in the tangle of conflicting storylines. But it’s hard to see why he wasn’t immediately identified as one of the pianists, as he plays a uniquely awful intro and solo on Thriving from a Riff. Although he comps surprisingly well in the modern style, especially for 1945, and worked and recorded with Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, and Lester Young, his improvised melodic lines rely on the chromatic scale to an alarming degree. Early critics accused Bird of playing nothing but chromatic scales, and he would occasionally joke about it, advising his sidemen to “watch out for those chromatics”. Thornton didn’t heed this warning, and his intro and solo offer conclusive proof that the chromatic scale doesn’t hold the key to modern jazz.

In 1959, Thornton, known by then as Sadik Hakim, contributed an article to the Jazz Review that finally helped sort out the events of November 26th. The musical evidence verifies his account, but some of the details clash with Teddy Reig’s version. On top of that, biographers have passed around misinformation from one book to another. It’s a hall of mirrors, and we will finish with Hakim/Thortnton’s account. Readers can try to reconcile the differences or simply throw up their hands.

The only piano on the “mystery “recording date was played by myself and Dizzy Gillespie. Bud Powell was not in the studio–or even in the city, but in Philadelphia–and Miles Davis did not play any piano.When we got to the studio, the men were Bird, Miles Davis, Curly Russell, Max Roach, and myself. I wasn’t in the local union and neither was Bird then, and a record date needed at least for union men. Savoy said they couldn’t use my name. I didn’t argue about that or about being paid either–I was thrilled to be working with Bird.Dizzy came in after we had been there for a bit, and he wanted to play piano on the two blues so we had it set. When the whole date was recently collected on an LP, there were a lot of takes and some warm-up tunes that we didn’t even know were being recorded. But I will say that it’s all there in the order we played in it [sic].
After three tries on Billie’s Bounce, with Dizzy on piano, Bird left to get a better horn and reed. When he came back, Warming Up a Riff was just that, a warm-up we didn’t know was being taken down. Dizzy was on piano. I played Thriving from a Riff. Meandering, which came out on the LP, is another warm-up we didn’t know was even recorded, and Dizzy was on piano. I don’t know why it got cut off that way, except that it wasn’t supposed to be part of the date in the first place.
KoKo presented a couple of snags. Miles didn’t know the intro or ending so Dizzy took it. (It was the only trumpet he played on the date.) He and I, therefore, shared the piano. I was there when he was on trumpet, then he quickly sat down beside me and took over.

Thus concludes this week’s expedition into the deepest, darkest weeds. If I can find my way back by next week, I will conclude by zooming out, in an effort to put this session into the larger context of Bird’s life. If you’ve grown weary of this subject, let me hastily add that there will be some juicy gossip about a jazz love-quadrangle for the ages, very much the stuff of soap opera! 

As today’s musical offering, we have the two complete takes of Thriving from a Riff, plus the unplanned Meandering, which actually contains a piano solo by Dizzy! There may be a simple reason why the track cuts off: at that point, it had exceeded the three-minute time limit by fifteen secondsThornton is clearly the pianist on Take 3 of Thriving, as is obvious from the aforementioned chromatics. There’s more to be said about who plays piano on Take 1, but to prove that I’m serious about exiting the weeds, I won’t say another word.

I think it’s Dizzy.

Thriving from a Riff, Take 3, November 26th, 1945
Thriving from a Riff, Take 1, November 26th, 1945
Meandering, November 26th, 1945

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