Weekly Posting, October 9th, 2020

On October 7th, 1949, Down Beat magazine published an article under the headline: Bird Wrong; Bop Must Get A Beat: Diz. This was Dizzy Gillespie’s response to a September 9th Down Beat article published under the headline: No Bop Roots In Jazz: Parker. In relative terms, this was a surprisingly public feud between two of the foremost architects of modern jazz. Had they consulted the third architect, perhaps the headline would have read: I Don’t Know Where It’s Going; Maybe It’s Going To Hell; You Can’t Make Anything Go Anywhere: Monk.

The September 9th article by Michael Levin and John S. Wilson has been a source of ongoing controversy for decades now, as generation after generation of Charlie Parker (Bird) enthusiasts has grappled with it’s inconsistencies, contradictions, and outright put-ons. But it was hugely influential, and Bird speaks more directly on key subjects here than in any other article or interview we have. He is often quoted verbatim (one hopes), although his words are also paraphrased to a fare-thee-well, adding vexing ambiguities.

It seems as though the authors had to browbeat Bird into answering most of their questions concerning the origins of bebop and its distinguishing characteristics, during the course of which he stated, “Bop is no love-child of jazz”. They open the article with this contentious quote, but more controversial, to me personally anyway, is their description of Bird as “the chubby little alto man”. I mean, really.

Despite his general reticence, Bird seems quite willing to unload on one subject in particular: Dizzy. The authors opted not to paraphrase, and his words are worth reproducing in their entirety, as they reveal much about Bird’s thinking, as well as his use of language in general.

Gillespie‘s playing has changed from being stuck in front of a big band. Anybody’s does. He’s a fine musician. The leopard coats and the wild hats are just another part of the managers routines to make him box office. Some guys said, “Here’s bop.“ Wham! They said, “Here’s something we can make money on.“ Wham! “Here’s a comedian.“ Wham! “Here’s a guy who talks funny talk.“ The same thing happened a couple of years ago when they stuck his name on some tunes of mine to give him a better commercial reputation. That big band is a bad thing for Diz. A big band slows anybody down because you don’t get a chance to play enough. Diz has an awful lot of ideas when he wants to, but if he stays with the big band he’ll forget everything he ever played. He isn’t repeating notes yet, but he is repeating patterns.

Criticizing Dizzy’s playing this way was deeply personal, even more so in print. What possessed him? Part of it must have been sour grapes, part of it a general disdain for big bands, part of it a general disgust with the music business, but that still doesn’t quite add up.

Bird used the article to settle other old scores, as well. He apparently unloaded on Ross Russell at some length, although in this case the authors paraphrased it all. He went quite a bit further than complaining about the release of Lover Man. Bird goes on to assert that Russell forced him to sign a new recording contract in exchange for freeing him from Camarillo State Hospital, and goes on from there to say that he subsequently learned that Russell’s help hadn’t been necessary to begin with. He had never made these claims before, which casts some doubt on their veracity, but circumstances had recently changed. Bird had fulfilled the Dial contract in question as of December 17th, 1947, leaving him free to despise Russell retroactively and without reservation, and he did so for the rest of his life.         

It is to Dizzy’s great credit that he left Bird’s hurtful remarks unaddressed. Just as alarming to him, though, were Bird’s musical assertions. The most curious of these is the distinction Bird makes repeatedly between “jazz” and “bebop”, and his insistence that the two forms are unrelated. This can be viewed as a matter of semantics. If you substitute the term “swing” for “jazz”, his assertions seem less extreme. Yet Bird is quoted as saying that “bop is something entirely separate and apart”, and is paraphrased as saying that it drew little from jazz, and has no roots in it. This is where we approach the outskirts of put-on. It’s beyond dispute that Bird was a traditionalist. Astonishing as his music was at the time, it’s plain to see in retrospect that it was distilled from virtually everything that came before it. That’s why it still astonishes today. Bird had the intellect, heart, and soul required to absorb the many traditions that surrounded him and then revitalize them every way.

Dizzy certainly understood this. He was, after all, in much the same position, and he seems more flabbergasted by Bird’s assertions than outraged. At the very outset of his response, Dizzy says, “Bop is an interpretation of jazz. It’s all part of the same thing.” But he moves quickly from there to address another of Bird’s quotes. Under pressure from Levin and Wilson to specify the differences between jazz and bop, Bird said:

The beat in a bop band is with the music, against it, behind it. It pushes it. It helps it. Help is the big thing. It has no continuity of beat, no steady chug chug. Jazz has, and that’s why bop is – more flexible.”

This was a very real issue for Dizzy at the time. His big band had been struggling commercially because its music was difficult to dance to, and Dizzy was already in the throes of adapting his books to mitigate this. So the article offered a timely opportunity to explain what he was going through. He said:

Bop is part of jazz, and jazz music is to dance to. The trouble with bop as it’s played now is that people can’t dance to it. They don’t hear those four beats. We’ll never get bop across to a wider audience until they can dance to it. They are not particular about whether you’re playing a flatted fifth or a ruptured 129th as long as they can dance to it. I’m not turning my back on bop. My band has a distinctive sound and I want to keep that. But I want to make bop bigger, get it a wider audience.  

I confess I know very little about Dizzy’s various big bands, but I believe he disbanded this particular incarnation the following year. He was up against history. The big band era was over and bebop never transitioned into dance music, R&B having gotten there first.

The war of words in Down Beat no doubt contributed to the notion of a “feud” between Bird and Diz. The idea probably had its start when Dizzy returned from Los Angeles without Bird in February1946. There were those who thought Diz had abandoned him there, ultimately resulting in his “nervous breakdown” and incarceration at Camarillo. This was nonsense. Bird exchanged his plane ticket for cash and stayed on, in part for the very purpose of breaking with Dizzy and striking out on his own. When Bird returned to New York in April 1947, there was a fleeting moment when reviving their partnership seemed a possibility. Bird was hypothetically clean at that point, but Dizzy discovered in the course of a single evening that Bird had begun dabbling with heroin again, and he ended their musical association once and for all.

Both men insisted time and again that there was never any ill will between them, and there was really no need to invent some kind of feud to explain their estrangement. In truth, their partnership couldn’t have lasted much longer than it did, because they were polar opposites in personality and behavior. While it lasted, though, they broke through every musical barrier and merged into a single voice. Maybe a bond that intense can only exist for a short while. Their friendship couldn’t last, so they settled for something deeper.

Today’s musical offering isn’t too far off the beaten track, because Bird, Dizzy, and Bud Powell never recorded together in the studio. All we have is live performances, of which there are, I believe, a grand total of two: the 1953 concert at Massey Hall in Toronto and this, a broadcast from Birdland on March 31st, 1951, just four tunes snatched off the airwaves by the indispensable Boris Rose. All three men are in peak form, although Bird makes a point of stepping on Bud’s solos, robbing the world of precious choruses. Tommy Potter is on bass, and a flame-throwing Roy Haynes is on drums. The ubiquitous “Symphony Sid” is the MC.

Blue ‘N’ Boogie, March 31st, 1951
Anthropology, March 31st, 1951
Round Midnight, March 31st, 1951
A Night In Tunisia, March 31st, 1951

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s