Weekly Posting, November 6th, 2020

On Tuesday, November 4th, 1947, Charlie Parker (Bird) returned to WOR Studios in New York City, along with Miles Davis (trumpet), Duke Jordan (piano), Tommy Potter (bass), and Max Roach (drums), to record again for Dial Records, the label owned and operated by Ross Russell. History seemed to be repeating itself on a weekly basis: they had recorded there exactly seven days before, on Tuesday, October 28th. It’s unusual to find two recording sessions so close in proximity, and this raises interesting questions.

To a large extent, Bird only composed when recording sessions demanded it. He often wrote out new tunes in the studio, or, if he was planning ahead, in the taxicab on his way there. But it’s impossible to know how long he might have been assembling any given composition in his mind.

The October 28th session produced three great originals, Dexterity, Bongo Bop, and Dewey Square. One week later, Bird was back with a certified classic, Scrapple From The Apple, an enigmatic blues, Bird Feathers, and an intricate number with a baffling title, Klactoveesedstene. Did he compose these three tunes in the space of seven days? Had they been in his head prior to that? Or did he come up with them the day of, as seems to be the case with Billie’s Bounce and Now’s The Time? If the quintet had recorded again the following week, would he have produced three more compositions? And the week after that?

They did return to WOR on December 17th, for a date that included trombonist J. J. Johnson, and Bird had four more originals ready, including the ambitious Charlie’s Wig and the masterpiece Quasimado. In 1953, Max Roach watched Bird write out Chi Chi at his kitchen table, apparently on the spur of the moment, and said it was as though Bird were writing a letter. Had that melody been floating around Bird’s head for a while, or did it flow from mind to paper like an improvisation? I take exception when critics lament Bird’s life as a tragic waste, but the evidence suggests that he could have easily written a new tune every day. It’s perfectly fair to wish he had left more compositions behind.

Scrapple From The Apple is based on Honeysuckle Rose, with an I Got Rhythm bridge. Bird’s use of preexisting chord changes was expedient, saving him the trouble of writing out parts for the rhythm section. But Honeysuckle Rose was one of the first tunes he learned as a beginner, thus giving it special meaning. Recounting his first jam session humiliation in the Stearns-Maher interview, Bird said,

But prior to that, this is when they were laughing at me, I’d learned the scale and I’d learned to play two tunes in the key of D. I’d learned how to play the first eight bars of Lazy River and I knew the complete tune to Honeysuckle Rose. I didn’t never stop to think about there was other keys or nothin’ like that!

Bird attempted a solo on Body And Soul, which is in the key of Db, using his limited knowledge in the key of D, and was laughed off the bandstand. Fellow Bird enthusiast, Jay Brandford, astutely pointed out to me long ago that Lazy River and Honeysuckle Rose, taken together, contain Bird’s harmonic conception in embryonic form. But that’s another story.

Bird seldom bothered to name his tunes. Scrapple From The Apple was likely titled by Ross Russell, who excelled at making up names, to the point of giving the same song two or three titles in order to boost sales. Teddy Reig, Savoy Record’s A&R, man, claims he named a lot of Bird’s tunes, and the evidence bears this out.

For a number of reasons, few of the tunes Bird recorded in the studio entered his performing repertoire, but Scrapple is an exception, a testament, perhaps, to the importance of Honeysuckle Rose in his development. Everyone (Bird included) tends to play Scrapple much faster than the original tempo, which is remarkably sedate. For today’s musical offering, I have provided the alternate take, which is less commonly heard.

Bird Feathers, the only blues from the session, is curious on a number of levels. To begin with, Bird almost always came up with two blues lines per session. Is this departure a result of the one-week time pressure? Maybe, but the second of Bird’s customary pairs were generally riff-based (Buzzy, Blue Bird, Another Hair-Do) and he could have easily whipped something up had he wanted to.

In any case, Bird Feathers is quite unique melodically, being one of the least “bluesy” of all his blues lines. As one writer aptly put it, the melody seems to hover around a central note that’s never stated. Only one take exists, and there should have been at least one more. The theme’s execution is a mess, and Bird makes a mistake in the opening phrase of his solo. Why there’s no second take is a mystery. I suspect Bird wasn’t happy with the line in general, and decided it was just a throwaway. If the past is any guide, Russell might well have issued it against Bird’s wishes. Did Bird write it in a rush, due to the one-week time pressure? Might it be an example of a song that hadn’t been pieced together in his mind beforehand, that was composed entirely on the spot? Is it a throwaway or an overlooked gem?  (Incidentally, Russell used the title Bird Feathers on multiple songs, which sowed confusion for decades.)

It’s an established fact that Klactoveesedstene was Bird’s own title. He wrote it out on the back of a minimum charge card from the Three Deuces, which Russell photographed. Bird’s handwritten title includes dashes (Klact-oveeseds-tene) that only make matters worse. In Bird Lives, Russell fabricates a story about asking various people what the title might mean, without luck, until he brought it to Dean Benedetti, who told him, “It’s a sound, man.” (I am compelled to repeat myself here. Russell’s most unforgivable sin is transforming the real-life Benedetti, who had died from a rare muscle disease and wasn’t around to defend himself, into a wildly unrealistic fictional character. While this was no doubt convenient for advancing his book’s narrative, it defiled Dean’s memory to a shocking degree.) The only theory of any merit about the title has been advanced by Red Rodney, who thought Bird was dabbling in German: klatschen (clap, applause) merged with auf wiedersehn (good bye). Given Bird’s love of language, coupled with another of his titles, Au Privave, which sounds French but isn’t, Rodney’s theory holds more water than most, not that there’s much competition.

The march-like intro to Klactoveesedstene was being kicked around 52nd Street at the time and may not have been Bird’s creation. Some have even suggested that the main theme belongs to Tadd Dameron, which is plausible enough. Did Bird appropriate both sections due to the one-week time pressure? Was the hyphenated title a diagram of sorts, depicting the different sections that had been merged together? I’m not so sure. The intro is similar in spirit to Shaw ‘Nuff, and the main theme sprawls across bar lines in typical Parker fashion. The first take has a flaw on the head out that was cause for a second take. Ultimately, though, the first attempt became the master take, due to Bird’s superior solo, over which oceans of ink have been spilled.

Bird again recorded six sides that day, instead of the customary four, partly in a rush to fulfill his contract with Russell, partly in a rush to beat the impending recording ban. The November 4th session feels like a continuation of October 28th, so much so that it’s hard to distinguish one from the other. This is especially true because Bird again rounded out the session with ballads. This time there were three in a row: My Old  Flame (one take), Out Of Nowhere (three takes to get the timing right), and Don’t Blame Me (one take).

Today’s offering leaves out Out Of Nowhere, which has been included previously, and My Old Flame, which, while masterful, is more of a melody statement. Don’t Blame Me is almost entirely Bird’s own invention, with occasional glances at the melody, and is fully worthy of being singled outUnlike the other two, Don’t Blame Me wasn’t part of the quintet’s usual repertoire, although Bird and Duke Jordan agree on the changes to an uncanny degree. We’ll never know why Bird chose a ballad that seems to have held no special meaning for him, but he transforms it into beauty of the highest order, making any other choice unimaginable.

Bird Lives paints a sensationalized portrait of an ugly man who created great beauty, and much of what Russell relates is undeniably true. It’s tempting to accept this evidence and come to the same conclusion. Russell’s Bird was a mentally unstable, drug addicted, pleasure seeking con man whose heedlessness and egomania caused him to exploit and abuse everyone around him. Every so often, I wonder why I’m so certain this can’t be true. Then I listen to Don’t Blame Me.

Bird Feathers, November 4th, 1947
Klactoveesedstene, November 4th, 1947
Scrapple From The Apple, November 4th, 1947
Don’t Blame Me, November 4th, 1947

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