On October 28th, 1947, Charlie Parker (Bird) entered WOR Studios in New York City, along with Miles Davis, trumpet, Duke Jordan, piano, Tommy Potter, bass, and Max Roach, drums, to record for Dial Records, the label owned and operated by Ross Russell. This was Bird’s “classic quintet”, the band he had long dreamed of forming.
Two weeks before, James C. Petrillo, president of the American Federation of Musicians, had announced a ban on recording by union members, beginning December 31st, 1947. The effect was like a starting gun, and smaller, more flexible independent labels like Dial and Savoy raced to cram in as many recording sessions as possible before the deadline.
The recording ban changed the calculus for Bird’s manager, Billy Shaw, who wanted Bird to leave minor league labels behind. Due to this sudden plot twist, though, it became a priority to get his client recorded by any means possible. Bird hurried to fulfill his Dial contract before the ban took effect, with the added incentive of being done with Ross Russell once and for all. In addition to the October 28th date, Bird’s working quintet would return to WOR Studios just one week later, on November 4th, and again on December 17th. These three recording sessions produced many of the masterpieces that are central to Bird’s legacy.
At this juncture, it’s time to give Ross Russell the credit he’s due. Recording Bird was a thankless job, and it’s not as though he got rich doing it. Billy Shaw renegotiated Bird’s contract before these sessions took place, and Russell had to empty his bank accounts, take out a loan, and hit up his mother to finance these sessions. From the beginning, he had been willing to gamble on Bird’s genius, because he understood the importance of Bird’s music and the lasting impact it would have. This is more than you can say for a great many people at the time. Recouping his losses through record sales must have happened very gradually, over decades, and after a certain point he must have lost legal control, because the Dial recordings have appeared on countless bootleg Bird collections, first on LP, then on CD, and now on streaming services. But it’s safe to say that he eventually made it all back through his ethically bankrupt biography, Bird Lives. I will count to ten and move on.
The October 28th date produced six sides, as did the following sessions. (Bird’s Savoy dates produced the customary four.) The working quintet was so efficient that the sessions never ran overtime. Bird chose to round out these dates with ballad performances, not something he was noted for previously. With one exception, the surreptitiously-recorded Meandering, Bird recorded no ballads at all for Savoy, and to most listeners he was known for his daredevil tempos. Ballad performances from earlier in his career had generally consisted of obligatos behind vocalists.
The Dial Recordings changed all that. His performance on Take A of Embraceable You became one of the most analyzed solos in jazz history, and the others, Out Of Nowhere, Don’t Blame Me, and My Old Flame are held in equally high esteem. Out Of Nowhere required three takes to get the running time under three minutes. Don’t Blame Me and My Old Flame required only one take apiece. Embraceable You required two.
It’s not clear exactly when or how Bird developed an affection for Embraceable You, but he performed it throughout his career. He first recorded it on tenor saxophone in 1943, during his tenure with the Earl Hines Orchestra. Billy Eckstine, the band’s vocalist, had a friend named Bob Redcross who held jam sessions in his room at the Savoy Hotel in Chicago. Redcross owned a portable disc cutter (a Sears Silvertone!) and made a point of recording Bird and Diz when the Hines band was in town. For reasons unknown, Redcross recorded Bird playing along with a solo piano rendition of Embraceable You recorded by Hazel Scott. His crude recording technology was made cruder still by the war effort. Due to the metal shortage, the blank discs he used were made out of wax-covered glass. The sound quality is not for the faint of heart, and for that reason I didn’t include it as part of the Embraceable You medley.
The medley consists of four additional versions, in chronological order. The first is from the November 26th 1945 Savoy Records date that produced Billie’s Bounce, Now’s The Time, Thriving From A Riff (Anthropology) andthe uptempo masterpiece, Ko Ko.This version of Embraceable You was released as Meandering, and it was captured without Bird’s knowledge. Bird and Teddy Reig, Savoy’s A&R man, had just returned from a visit to Bird’s repairman (Reig: “We went to 48th Street off 6th. There was this little guy in the back next to Manny’s. He was Bird’s man–he took care of Bird’s horn.”). Bird and Dizzy (on piano!) played through a chorus Embraceable You to check out the repair job, just prior to recording Ko Ko, which concluded the session.
The second version is Take B from the October 28th 1947 date in question, which is the take that was originally released. Take A, released later as an alternate take, is the version that has received so much critical attention. Take B is slightly faster and structured in an entirely different manner. It serves to refute the cliche, parroted by many critics, that Bird refined his ideas as takes progressed, leading up to the master take. This is exactly what Bird didn’t do, and it was the hallmark of his genius. Each solo was a world of its own.
The third version comes from the September 17th 1949 Jazz at the Philharmonic concert. It’s a particularly valuable solo, despite being a bit sharp and chirpy. At certain times, both in the studio and out, Bird had to wrestle to control squeaky reeds. These chirps spoiled many a take, and it’s unclear why Bird, known for his skill at crafting reeds, couldn’t mitigate this. In any case, this JATP performance demonstrates his ability to shut out everything extraneous and enter an internal world where only music exists. He bides his time through the chain of solos that precede him, then steps effortlessly into the moment. Thankfully, ballads at JATP resulted in more meaningful solos, free from gratuitous riffing and shameless pandering. Ballads are the ultimate test of musicianship, and Bird made his most profound statements at such tempos, including this exquisite example.
The final version comes from Bird at St. Nick’s, the February 18th 1950 outing at NYC’s St. Nicholas Arena, recorded by Don Lamphere and/or Jimmy Knepper. This night may be the highpoint of Bird’s artistry on record, despite the poor sound quality. Certainly, nothing else surpasses it. He opens his solo with the same six-note motif from Take A of the Dial recording. (This incessantly analyzed motif was actually a quote from a forgotten 1939 pop tune called A Table In The Corner.) He proceeds from there to push harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic boundaries to the limit, in a solo that consists almost entirely of new ideas. He would reach these same heights at Birdland a few months later, in the company of Fats Navarro and Bud Powell.
And yet 1950 also marks the beginning of Bird’s artistic decline. The next surviving rendition of Embraceable You, recorded live in Sweden in December, consists, to my ears, anyway, of the hollow virtuosity that became Bird’s default mode whenever he chose to relax his standards. A 1952 live rendition with Milt Jackson is more heartfelt, but it’s basically a melody statement with virtuosic embellishments, characteristic of the Charlie Parker with Strings concept. Ditto a live 1953 Montreal rendition. None of these comes close to the pure melodic invention of earlier years.
It was impossible for Bird not to communicate whatever he was feeling when he played, and as the 50s progressed, the predominant feeling, for me, was a sort of aggressive apathy.
By 1952, it had become clear that Bird’s race would deny him any genuine artistic and financial recognition, that supporting a family was a huge responsibility for which he was ill-equipped, that he would continue to be singled out for persecution by the white power structure (as evidenced by his arrest on narcotics charges and the suspension of his cabaret card), and that his future was going to play out on the road, as a single backed by local rhythm sections, moving from one miserly nightclub to the next, harassed by white owners and union officials, continually tempted by alcohol, all while suffering from painful and debilitating medical problems that made him crave heroin, the only drug that offered him relief.
Bird had plenty of brilliant moments in the 50s, when the circumstances were right and he was motivated to tap into the wellspring he never truly lost touch with. But much of the time his attitude seemed to be, If you consider my art form a mere commodity, and a not very valuable one at that, why in the world should I bother to prove you wrong?
These renditions of Embraceable You (the Redcross recording and the medley)are the work of a man who held himself to almost impossible artistic standards and met them every time he picked up his horn, year after year after year, until there finally came a time when he couldn’t keep it up any longer. The triumph of Bird’s life was that he kept it up for as long as he did. The miracle of his life is that it happened at all.