“Bird in Time” a Great Time Capsule

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BIRD IN TIME / Complete musical contents available by clicking here; also includes interviews with Max Roach, Teddy Edwards, Roy Porter, Howard McGhee, Earl Coleman, Milt Jackson & Parker / ESP-DISK’ 4050, 4 CDs (mono)

Bernard Stollman, who died in 2015 at the age of 85, was one of New York City’s original wacked-out Commie-Socialists—a sure fit for the “Social Justice” bunch of today. He went to Columbia University where he pursued a law degree, working as an unpaid intern for a law firm who was working on the estates of Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday. He developed a love of both jazz and Esperanto, envisioning a one-world-order where everyone would speak that artificial and now arcane language. Indeed, the ESP of ESP-DISK’ is short for Esperanto, not an abbreviation of Extra Sensory Perception as many of us in the 1960s assumed. He put out the label’s first release, Ni Kantu en Esperanto, at his own expense, but then received a large financial gift from his parents—who owned a chain of women’s wear stores—to found the label full-time. Typically of so many Communists and Socialists, he didn’t put his money where his mouth was. In addition to issuing (illegally, be it noted) old recordings and performances by Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, he also signed a wide range of avant-garde artists of the time like Paul Bley, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders and Don Cherry as well as such “underground” rock bands as Pearls Before Swine, the Holy Modal Rounders and The Fugs (later The Village Fugs). Most of them—the living ones, anyway—frequently sued him for failure to pay royalties. As per Wikipedia, Tom Rapp of Pearls Before Swine claimed “We never got any money from ESP. Never, not even like a hundred dollars or something. My real sense is that he [Stollman] was abducted by aliens, and when he was probed it erased his memory of where all the money was.” Similarly, Peter Stampfel who founded both the Holy Modal Rounders and The Fugs said Stollman told him that “the contract says that all rights belong to me. You have no royalties ever, ever, ever. The publishing is mine. You don’t own the songs anymore. We don’t owe you anything.”

Such is the way of all armchair Communists and Socialists. They talk a good game, but THEY are never the ones to share ANYTHING with you or the underclass they claim to represent. Just ask the Haitians who are still picketing the Clinton Foundation over being screwed by them in hurricane relief, or the Latino workers suing Ben & Jerry’s for underpaying them.

But Stollman recorded some truly great and original music, though most of it really didn’t sell well enough copies to recoup his outlay. He sold the label in 1974 and worked as an assistant New York Attorney General. After retiring, he revived the label in 2005.

This particular release is a generally marvelous set that somehow slipped through the cracks when it was issued in 2009, but is still a valuable and fascinating resource for early Parkeriana. Bird in Time takes you from Charlie Parker’s beginnings, surprisingly related by Parker himself in a rare interview, up through 1947 when he was literally the hottest thing in jazz and on top of the world. Most of the performances included are airchecks and acetates, the only exceptions being six Dial sides from 1946-47.

Parker0001Being an ESP-DISK’ production, the sound is a little raw on most of the tracks and very raw on others. No attempt was made to clean up the hum, surface noise or pops, and in some cases—particularly the early material—this is more than a little frustrating. It almost but not quite supplants the Definitive Records issue, Charlie Parker Complete Recordings with Lennie Tristano, and pretty much replaces the now-very rare Spotlite LP Early Bird. The latter contains a clutch of 1943 airchecks with the Jay McShann band, but Bird only plays solo on a couple of tracks, Lonely Boy Blues and Jump the Blues.

I had a few questions pop into my mind as I moved from disc to disc. Question #1: As long as you were including some commercial discs to illustrate Bird’s musical evolution, why only 6 from Dial and none from Savoy…not even his two most popular Savoy tracks, Red Cross and Now’s the Time? Question #2: If you were including Dial tracks, why the infamous recording of Lover Man where Bird was so stoned that he missed his entrance and flubbed a few notes in the first chorus? Or the really lame Trumpet at Tempopop tune The Gypsy, where Bird plays straight and the song isn’t even interesting? Question #3: After including so many interviews praising the playing of trumpeter Howard McGhee, including interviews with Maggie himself, why no examples of just how blistering he could really play? True, there are a handful of sides with Maggie, but nothing on the level of his superb Dial recording of Trumpet at Tempo, which is actually Back Home Again in Indiana with a new title? And considering that the Definitive CD of Parker and Tristano came out in 2006, why bother including so many of their broadcast tracks? Yes, they’re terrific, but unless you include ALL of them (and they don’t), a handful would have sufficed.

Parker0002

The Jay McShann band with Parker on alto sax.

That being said, the set really is an ear-opener. In addition to the eight famous early recordings from 1940-42 that comprised side 1 of the Spotlite LP, there are additional acetates from about the same era that I didn’t even know existed. Incidentally, those 1940 acetates are important for including the only known recordings of once-famed trumpeter Bernard “Buddy” Anderson. It was Dizzy Gillespie who related that Anderson “was into a new style that used a soft vibrato and combined shimmering legato and crackling staccato passages before anyone else.” Anderson worked with Dizzy and Parker in the Billy Eckstine band , but made no records with them, and died of tuberculosis in 1944. These sides also give some exposure to tenor saxist Bob Mabane who likewise had very little exposure in the recording studio.

The two biggest surprises for me were an aircheck in which Bird plays with the Nat King Cole Trio and half a complete set with a 1945 big band led by trumpeter Cootie Williams. I didn’t know either existed, and to be honest I never knew that Williams had a big band, in 1945 or any other time. Somehow I missed this chapter of his career, and the loss was mine, because the orchestra was very tight and very professional. Apparently, this band (minus Parker) made the first recording of Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight in 1944, so it has a definite place in jazz history. The arrangements are terrific (although Williams evidently received permission from Duke Ellington to use his 1940 chart of Concerto for Cootie, later renamed Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me) and both the ensemble execution and solos are wonderful.

As you go through the four CDs in this set, you learn some interesting little sidelights about Bird’s arrival in New York, his tremendous impact on the West Coast (Norman Granz, who had heard a worn-out acetate of Parker in 1944 and thought little of him, was blown away when he heard him live in California and added him to his Jazz at the Philharmonic tours), and his relationship with various musicians. Aside from his heroin habit, which brought everyone down (including Bird himself), everyone loved him as a person as well as a musician. He has this wonderfully lovable side to him that was neither phony nor put on. You can hear it in his speaking voice in the few interviews included here; whereas the others all sound hepped up, as if they’re anxious to tell their stories, Parker sounds consistently relaxed, laid-back and genial. There is always the hint of a smile in his voice. He obviously enjoyed life and had a good sense of humor, two traits that endeared him to Gillespie in addition to his immense talent.

You can thus trace the artistic evolution of one of the most original and important jazz musicians of all time, and the layout of the album—those few caveats I mentioned aside—is fascinating. Since I had to review the album from streaming audio of the mp3 tracks, I had no access to the two fulsome booklets that apparently accompany the hard copy of the set, and none of my missives to ESP-DISK’ could persuade them to send me Adobe PDF copies of said booklets. Thus I can’t comment on how wonderful they are, or aren’t, but I would assume that they are well-researched since Stollman was involved in the Parker estate case. (Luckily for him Chan Parker, Charlie’s common-law wife who had no real legal claim to his royalties, died in 1999.) Bird’s personal life was a mess, and you can pick some of that up in the commentary heard in this set, but he based his blistering sixteenth-note alto style on the blues and thus was never very far away from them in mood, and it shows. A few lapses aside, it is amazing how consistent his work was. It’s the one thing he never skimped on. His mind was continually active and he almost never coasted, which was the reason he became such a legend in his own lifetime.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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