Weekly Posting, November 27th, 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. 

Given how momentous the occasion was, it’s surprising how much confusion still surrounds this date. In the liner notes for the Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings, James Patrick writes, “The presentation and unraveling of all the evidence could easily occupy a long essay.” Challenge accepted!

Before you hit “delete”, let me hasten to add that this essay will be spread out over the next two or three weeks. As Bird’s centennial year winds down, it seems fitting somehow to focus on “the greatest jazz session ever”, as Savoy came to call it. Hyperbole aside, the music that day was born of a fascinating marriage between destiny and happenstance. And if you were forced to pick Bird’s single most important recording session, this would be it.    

Bird and Diz had recorded together prolifically in 1944 and 45, and were already having a huge impact as soloists. But those sessions were all, to varying degrees, “transitional”, meaning composed of a mixture of swing players and modernists. The November 26th date marks the first appearance on record of a fully modern rhythm section. On previous dates under his leadership, Dizzy had used two extraordinary swing drummers, Sid Catlett and Cozy Cole. Bird, however, chose the thoroughly modern Max Roach, and this was the crucial difference. Curly Russell and Miles were equally forward-looking players, and Bird’s choice for piano, Bud Powell, only twenty-one years old at the time, was already the movement’s preeminent pianist. Max was also twenty-one and Miles was nineteen! Together, they represented the first generation of post-swing jazz players.

For all its historical significance, the session was in many ways a comedy of errors. It began when Bud left town unexpectedly. This set off a domino effect that caused confusion for the next fourteen years. Exactly when or how Bird learned of Bud’s disappearance is unknown, but he came up with a novel solution: he recruited Dizzy (not exactly a pianist) to take Bud’s place. Hedging his bets, he also recruited Argonne Thornton, a bona fide if underdeveloped  pianist who later adopted the Muslim name Sadik Hakim.

Every Bird biographer has dissected this session, along with every major jazz critic, but Hakim and Teddy Reig, Savoy’s larger-than-life, reefer-mad A&R man, were actually there, and their words carry the most weight. They both described the events leading up to the session that day. Reig could be an unreliable narrator, sometimes to avoid self incrimination, sometimes just to spice up an anecdote, but knew personally every modernist on 52nd Street and he’s always accurate in a larger sense. Here, he outlines his responsibilities as producer:

See, in those days you didn’t just tell a guy, “We’re gonna have a date at 4 o’clock“, and he’d show up. You had to go round him up, from about 1 o’clock on. I went to pick up Bird at the Mariette Hotel on 7th Avenue. He was walking down the street with Dizzy and I saw them and I said, “Where are you two nuts going?“ Dizzy says, “I’m your piano player.“ I said, “Where’s Bud?“ Dizzy says, “He went to Philadelphia to buy a house with his mother.” 

Bird and Hakim were sharing an apartment at 411 Manhattan Avenue at the time of the recording session, making Hakim a valuable source of inside information. Here, he describes Bird’s practicing routine:

He used to practice in the bathroom. He would lock himself in there. He never played entire tunes, perhaps the first four bars. He just played scales and intervals or he would hold one note for a long time.

Doris Sydnor, Bird’s future wife, lived there as well, but that’s another story entirely. Here is Hakim’s version of events on the morning of November 26th:

I was living in the same apartment with Charlie Parker at that time. He got a telegram from Savoy in the morning telling him to get a group together and make a recording date. By 10:30 AM, he had written the two new blues, Now’s the Time and Billie’s Bounce and, for the other two numbers, he planned to use a “head“ of his those fellows were playing then, which was called Thriving From a Riff on the record and later called Anthropology, and finally KoKo–which is based on the chords of Cherokee, of course. He asked me if I wanted to play on the date. Naturally I was quite thrilled and honored to be working with him.

Hakim is mistaken on at least one point. The recording session had been officially booked the week before, with contracts drawn up listing full personnel (including Bud Powell, not Dizzy, as the pianist). Bird, therefore, didn’t learn about the date by telegram (???) that morning. He may well have written the two new blues heads then and there, as described, but Hakim’s inconsistencies cast a certain amount of doubt on this. It should also be noted that Reig says he went to pick up Bird at the Mariette Hotel, implying Bird was living there and not with Hakim. 

The comedy of errors continued with Bird’s horn, which was malfunctioning that day. This became a continuing subplot throughout the session, and remains a source of contention in itself. One unanswered question hovers over it all: why would Bird jeopardize his first date as a leader with a faulty instrument? Descriptions of the problem vary, with most attributing it to reeds and/or mouthpiece. Everyone agrees that Bird left the studio at some point to rectify the problem, but there’s no consensus on exactly when that happened. We do, however, know with certainty the order in which the tunes were recorded. This helps disprove a number of accounts, because it’s clear from the recordings themselves that Bird was having problems right up until the last two tunes of the day, Meandering and KoKo. Reig’s account of Bird’s struggles suggests that it had nothing to do with reeds:

Bird was having trouble with his horn. We tried everything to get it straight. Bird even poured a pitcher of water into the horn to try to get the pads wet. We had a big pool of water in the middle of the floor at WOR.

People who knew Bird as a teen saxophonist in Kansas City talk about how raggedy his first horn was. He allegedly carried it around in a burlap sack and was always fixing it with cellophane and rubberbands. In one farfetched account, he replaces a broken key with a bent spoon. It stands to reason, then, that his problem in the studio that day was something he couldn’t repair himself, or perhaps even fully diagnose. But why didn’t he go get his horn fixed immediately?

Whatever the problem with his horn, it didn’t seem to cause as much trouble at slower tempos. There are numerous minor squeaks in the first three takes of Billie’s Bounce, but Bird solos with so much authority that mechanical problems are beside the point. (This is true of the session in its entirety.) After Take 3, however, he breaks into an impromptu version of Cherokee, in order–according to Reig–to check out the problem further. This wasn’t supposed to be recorded at all, but Reig’s boss, Herman Lubinsky, was next to him in the control room and started yelling “Take it! Take it!” Thus the recording fades in during the last A and Bird plays two more choruses before letting the tune trail off. We are fortunate indeed to have this fragment because it’s full of wonders, but his horn is clearly a mess. Something is leaking somewhere, and the overall result is a tone that’s squawky throughout all registers. One need only compare his tone on this track, issued as Warming Up A Riff, with his tone on KoKo, after his horn was repaired, to get a full sense of how debilitating the problem was. (These two tracks are included as today’s musical offering.)

For a side-trip through this particular hall of mirrors, I turn to polymath Phil Schaap, the WKCR disc jockey who knows more about Bird than Bird himself:

On a break early in the recording session, Parker went downstairs to pick up his instrument from the repair shop. When he returned, before recording again, he tested the repair by playing the most ambitious piece in his repertoire in terms of technique—Cherokee [Warming Up a Riff].

I’m hesitant to contradict Schaap on anything, especially an issue central to this famous session, but I have no choice. Even if you want to argue that Bird’s horn sounds fine on this number, there is ample evidence immediately afterwards, on Takes 4 and 5 of Billie’s Bounce, that problems persist, and this is true throughout Now’s the Time and, more glaringly, Thriving From a Riff (faster than the two blues)It’s possible these problems affect Meandering, as well. So I’m convinced that Bird struggled with a faulty horn right up until the very end of the session. It was, it seems, only the prospect of pulling off the supersonic KoKo that forced Bird to finally deal with the problem. 

What’s puzzling about Schaap’s account is that it contradicts Teddy Reig’s, as related to Bob Porter in an interview that Schaap undoubtedly knows well.

Porter: Back to the horn. Do you think that because the instrument was giving him trouble it affected what he played?
Reig: Yeah, listen to the squeaks. It was obvious. Now Bird still isn’t ready to play Cherokee[KoKo] so he plays this thing on Embraceable You [Meandering] and the horn is still giving him trouble.Porter: Is this where you went out to get the horn fixed?Reig: Yeah, we went to 48th street off 6tth, there was this little guy in the back next to Manny’s. He was Bird’s man – he took care of Bird’s horn.Porter: You went with him?
Reig: Of course! Do you think I’d leave Charlie Parker alone in Midtown? What am I, crazy?
Porter: So 
KoKo was done after the horn was fixed?Reig: Right.

But Schaap’s account is intriguing in other ways, because of his claim that Bird “went downstairs to pick up his instrument from the repair shop”. This implies that Bird started the session playing a different saxophone, not his own. Because Bird constantly pawned his own horn for cash, he is known to have borrowed other people’s horns on a great many occasions (sometimes pawning those). Is it possible there were two different saxophones involved here: a borrowed horn, including, perhaps, the reeds and mouthpiece that went with it, and Bird’s own horn, retrieved from the repair shop??? The differences between Warming Up a Riff and KoKo are so striking that they would support the argument that he switched out everything, assuming additional evidence ever came to light.

That’s enough of that. Over the next decade, the tracks recorded on November 26th were issued in various forms, first as individual 78s, then together as an album, then on LP. And all the while the pianist was listed as “Hen Gates”, an obvious pseudonym. Speculation was rampant as to who this mystery pianist might be. Was it Monk? Was it Bud? The evidence pointed toward both and toward neither. Dizzy’s name was never listed, because he was under contract with Guild when he made the date. Despite this, he was rumored to be the trumpet player on KoKo, given that the nineteen year old Miles simply didn’t have the chops. Confusion reigned until 1959.

Who was the mysterious Hen Gates??? How many pianists were really there??? Was it Dizzy on KoKo or was it Miles???

Tune in next week, same Bird-time, same Bird-channel!

Warming Up A Riff, November 26th, 1945
KoKo, November 26th, 1945

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