On October 23rd, 1950, Charlie Parker (Bird) played an engagement at the Pershing Hotel Ballroom in Chicago, backed by a local rhythm section consisting of Chris Anderson, piano, George Freeman, guitar, Leroy Jackson, bass, and Bruz Freeman, drums.
George and Bruz Freeman were brothers, and a third brother, Von, was initially thought to be the tenor player on the bootleg recording that survived. The Freeman brothers were mainstays on the Chicago jazz scene and often performed together. But another tenor player by the name of Claude McLin was also active on the scene, and the musical and historical evidence proves it was McLin on the bandstand that night, not Von Freeman. McLin is clearly a Lester Young disciple (40s Lester) but within those parameters he plays with a lot of imagination. On earlier versions of the bootleg, he was misidentified as Wardell Gray, high praise for the caliber of his playing, even if the resemblance is less than striking. He perhaps takes more choruses than strictly necessary, but he was just 24 years old and playing to a hometown crowd, and he was no doubt energized by Bird’s presence.
These recordings are noteworthy for Bird’s serene mood and extended solos, as well as the relatively unusual song selections. One of the enduring mysteries of Bird’s artistry is why he chose to play the same handful of tunes in live performances throughout his entire career. One plausible theory is laziness, but Lennie Tristano considered it something deeper than that, and turned it into a guiding principle: the better you know a song, the better your solos will be. In my opinion, Bird wasn’t motivated to add new material because it didn’t really matter to him what song he was playing. He could have played I Got Rhythm forty times in a row and spun a different tale in every solo. When he was on, harmonic structure became almost irrelevant. And I think it’s fair to say that Bird could sound constrained on tunes he was less familiar with. He needed complete freedom.
Keen And Preachy, There’s A Small Hotel, and These Foolish Things weren’t tunes Bird would have been likely to call on his own. This suggests he was in an easygoing mood and amenable to the wishes of his local bandmates. The Pershing Hotel, located on Chicago’s South Side, had been Black-owned since 1943, and thus we are provided with another example of Bird performing for his own community (cf. Rockland Palace). Needless to say, how Bird played was directly related to how he was feeling in the moment, and how he felt depended a lot on who he was playing for. Bird sounds very at peace with himself here, a feeling the nightclub environment seldom evoked.
Bird’s playing reached a peak in 1950. To say so doesn’t detract from his countless masterpieces from the 40s, and if you’re seeking premonitions of his decline, this is the year to start looking. But 1950 saw the culmination of everything that had come before it.
On more than one occasion in the late 40s, Bird confided that he’d done all he could with standard song forms and felt he was in danger of repeating himself. This was a point of pride for him. When jamming in his younger years, he would ask the other players to stop him if he repeated any ideas, and there are instances on live recordings where he begins a phrase he’s already used and very consciously bails out. But he was concerned about much more than repeating specific ideas. Red Rodney, the trumpet player in Bird’s last working quintet, speaks to this in surprising depth:
He did feel stagnant with the thirty-two bar forms. He wanted more, more than the bebop forms, more than the thirty-two bar form, more than the twelve-bar blues form. He wanted things that Miles came along with. Now, he thought about other things, and he did describe this to me, this feeling that he had, but he just thought about it, he could never come up with any of those things. Well, in certain conversations, he says, “Jazz has to go on from here, we just can’t stop with this,“ you know. And I agreed, I said, “Who’s gonna show us the way?“ He says, “I’d like to be the one to do that.“ He says,“I’ve done this up to now,“ you know, which was very unusual for him to say; he was very modest.
This goes a long way in explaining why Bird threw in with Norman Granz in 1949. But 1950 was actually the year Bird proved he wasn’t repeating himself, and it had nothing to do with Granz’s cumbersome studio experiments and everything to do with live quintet performances.
Two outstanding examples exist: Bird at St. Nick’s and One Night at Birdland. These document Bird at the outer limits of his conception, pointing the way to new worlds. Flashes of insight bring him close to Coltrane’s sheets of sound, Ornette’s freedom from harmonic structure, Eric Dolphy’s polytonality, and even Albert Ayler’s embrace of pure sound. These examples find Bird improvising new material at an astonishing rate, and using his endless supply of building blocks in fresh and unexpected ways. He draws from the deepest realms of creativity at every moment.
But he couldn’t sustain this. Moments of insight like these were fleeting and couldn’t be summoned on command. On many occasions, then, he truly was in danger of repeating himself, and he seems to have gradually resigned himself to it. As the 50s progressed, Bird declined (physically as much as musically), and his building blocks calcified into predetermined licks. Thankfully, he was still able to tap into deeper levels at times, especially in challenging company, but he increasingly lowered his standards and played on autopilot.
In his intelligent and valuable Bird biography, Carl Woideck devotes an entire chapter to this issue. He methodically catalogs all the ideas implicit in Bird’s later work and outlines how Bird might have developed them through further study, thereby renewing his playing. This, of course, never happened, and he lays the blame, in part, on the fact that Bird stopped practicing around 1950, an interesting point that no other biographer has made. But he cites Bird’s addictions as the primary cause of stagnation, writing, “The likely effect of Parker’s addictions to heroin and alcohol on his ability to set and meet long-range goals such as formal study should also be considered.”
The real issue here is how much we should expect of Bird. It’s easy to take for granted that he could play a perfectly structured and emotionally meaningful solo every time he picked up his horn, but in fact that’s almost impossible. How long should we expect him to have kept it up? How on earth did he do it in the first place, faced with obstacles of every sort? He brought about a transformation in jazz so profound and far reaching that he ranks among the greatest artists in history. Has any artist ever revolutionized their art form twice in one lifetime? The tragedy here isn’t that Bird couldn’t transform jazz a second time; it’s that he expected himself to do so.
As an artist, Bird held himself to an almost impossible standard, and his addictions can’t be separated from this or assigned blame so simplistically. Martin Williams put it well in a 1970 essay:
In his utter dependency, night after night, on the inspiration he drew from the act of playing itself, in his frequent refusals to coast and determination to always invent, he may have given himself the kind of challenge that no man of sensitivity could respond to without inviting disaster.
Given everything Bird accomplished, addictions and all, it would be nice to stop blaming him for things he didn’t do.
Bird is in fine form at the Pershing, not pushing himself too hard, but content in his surroundings and inspired by his bandmates. If you’ve never heard the guitarist, George Freeman, before, he is sure to defy all your expectations. There’s a detailed Wikipedia article about his life and career that is worth reading. I knew very little about him, but now I plan to check out some of his studio dates. Based on the Pershing recordings alone, however, you can make the case that he was forty years ahead of his time.