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Unpacking My Bird... A Discovery Most Joyful!


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Thus I finally arrive at what is probably the most prized possession a music collector such as myself could ever have: The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker
It is about thirty short strides, from my office in the cellar of my home, to a storeroom, where I keep the boxes-full of CDs that have remained unpacked since I have moved into this town home. But today will be different. I have something more to look forward to. Something I have waited a long time for. So I have decided to descend to the storeroom to re-evaluate an important part of my collection.

Now I will make the short journey to unpack that box from my CD library. Yes indeed and I am filled with joy. I know that that box will soon present its contents to me: and they will be one of my most precious collections—one that comprises Charlie Parker's music. The CDs in this collection have not yet been displayed on my library shelves. They are, as yet untouched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. Do not worry. But let me invite you to join me in the disorder of boxes and crates that have been ripped open with knife and box-cutter, in the depths of my basement library, where the air is now saturated with the dust of wood shavings, the floor covered with bubble wrap and torn paper. I invite my thirteen-year-old son—who recently began his own sojourn into the land of jazz—to come and join me as I make a voyage of discovery among piles of volumes of Bird recordings that will be emerging from their darkness, seeing the light of day for the first time in about two years! I hope to share some of the mood... the excitement with him... I will not be elegiac, that's for sure! But I do feel a powerful sense of anticipation, the kind aroused in the heart of a genuine collector.

I do not deny it: I am one of that tribe. But I am now concerned about conveying some of the excitement in the relationship of a record collector and his possessions, into collecting that rare object of the heart's desire, rather than the collection, per se... There is a rising tide of memories that surges in a collector's mind when he or she surveys his or her collection. This is a feeling that never really goes away, but surfaces each time the collector marches past his collection, even if merely to review the spines of the records, or CDs.

Another thing: Every passion teeters on the edge of chaos. But as a collector the passion borders on the chaos of memories—and in my case, when collecting something of considerable vintage—tele-transporting to an era possibly long gone. More than that, the chance, the fate that suffuses the past as I inhabit it and it becomes real to me... both are wonderfully and conspicuously present before me in the accustomed confusion of the music disc or discs (as is the case today). Dates of performance and its capture on record become the exactitude. But everything else is surrounded by the romance of the art and the considerable burning passion of the collected piece.

There is, in the life of a collector (such as I am) a dialectical tension between the twin poles of order and disorder. This tension is tied also to a very mysterious relationship of ownership—a relationship that does not emphasize functional and utilitarian value, but rather becomes part of and studies the music as it lives in the time of its performance and its fate. A strange thrill passes over me as I handle this last item of my Bird collection. This great black and white package that I hold is, indeed special. Probably more so than the 1953 recording that Mingus made and released of the quintet at Massey Hall, an LP that came to my hands via an uncle who had a passion for bebop and a talent for collecting great music... And more recently: the release of that lost Carnegie Hall concert by Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane in 1957. So much of what I will write shortly will describe this one particular addition to my collection, as I believe it is the most important musical document I own.

I pride myself with Jazz at Massey Hall, (Prestige LP, May 15, 1953—later on CD, of which I have two editions,) The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve (September 19, 1988,) The Complete Savoy and Dial Master Takes (Savoy, October 25 1990,) The Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings (Savoy, June 18, 2002) and The Complete Royal Roost Recordings (Dial,) Bird at St Nicks (Debut, 1992), The Complete Birth of Bebop Stash, 1942), Charlie Parker and Lennie Tristano—mostly radio shows recorded in 1947, 1949 and 1951—(Definitive Records, 2006) and about forty other recordings of Bird that I bought, years ago when there was very little available. I listen to this music regularly, often in twilight or even in the wee hours of a morning. I am always transported to a club or studio where the music is performed. In fact I can almost see shadowy figures of Bird, Dizzy, Bud Powell, Mingus and Roach blazing through their repertoire each on the stage of Massey Hall, or bantering with Symphony Sid on that boisterous New Year...

But somehow, I never envisage my Bird collection as being complete. I have heard of a fan who had been Bird's shadow for several years in the 40s recording everything he played! Ross Russell had some not-so-nice words to say about him in Bird Lives (Da Capo, Reprinted 1996). His name is Dean Benedetti. I heard about how he used to follow Bird from gig to gig recording him on small machine. Like most of my kind, I also believed that this was either real and the recordings were either missing or destroyed, or that they never existed: another figment of the folklore surrounding Bird. I soon found out how wrong I was...

Flashback to the roaring 20s...

Born in 1920, Dean Benedetti was a working tenor saxophonist by the time World War II came around, leaning—like most other tenor players—towards Lester Young. He had a band that—at one time or other—featured Jimmy Knepper, Dale Snow and Joe Albany among others. Benedetti was obsessed with Lester Young's laid-back sound. He even affected it when he played... Then he heard Charlie Parker on a 1945 date (Guild) with Dizzy Gillespie. He fell, it appears, through a time warp and forgot all of the adulation due to Young, deciding that Parker was the state of the art (still is, in my view—listened to "Donna-Lee," "My Melancholy Baby..."lately?) He bought, it has been said everything he could find on Charlie Parker and studied the music, transcribing the solos so he could play them note for note.

In the winter of 1945, Benedetti and Bird's paths crossed on the West Coast. Now he could hear, first hand, the unique music of his idol, a magical sound the seemed to cascade from the alto horn of Bird... Unlike the records and transcriptions Benedetti heard over and over again, listening to The Master live, meant that every sound was momentary, heard once before it vanished into thin air, leaving behind only the memory of the momentous music that had passed. He had to do something, perhaps more than merely transcribing the music. But what...

Benedetti's day as a saxophonist were over when he was struck by Bird—sometime in the early mid-40s— he was convinced that this was listening to the definitive future of music and decided that he had to be a disciple, moving wherever Bird did, recording his unique music and studying it and assiduously transcribing it. Benedetti was excited. This was his epiphany. He had seen the light... better still heard the word and had to document it. But I am sure that he never knew really what he had done when he chased Bird form gig to gig with his wire recorder. He just knew he was on to something big! But just how big...? He was—I believe, the epitome of a true student of the musical arts. As such he chose to follow his idol. He knew, just as I believe that 'it was—and still is—in the music...' that music was your best teacher and 'the solos were where it was (and is) at! So Dean Benedetti chose to transcribe only Bird solos. But Benedetti did something extraordinary as well. He wrote down details: who played on alto, who was on trumpet, who sat in on piano; who was on drums and who played bass, trombone and more... He was the true and authentic discographer—in Bird lore—an ornithologist!

Shortly after Benedetti first heard and encountered Bird live, the alto saxophonist's drug problem got the better of his health. This necessitated Bird's incarceration at Camarillo Hospital. Benedetti was lost. He turned back to his 78s and his study of the new thing... this bebop... continued. A few months passed before his mentor was released from the Institution.

When Bird returned to the land of the living, when he was back and out of Camarillo, he swooped over and touched down at a friend—Chuck Copely's house. The recorders and the 78 acetates came flying out too! Bird licked the reed and started to play. His chops were impeccable. The needles scratched furiously as recording after recording was made. Benedetti found his true calling at this 'bootleg' session. He did not have to wait long, though Bird suddenly dropped out of sight for a while. But when he returned a couple of months later, Benedetti was waiting for him with his recorder and his blank acetates! But Benedetti decided that to study this genius, he need only have a record of what he played, his solos... no need for the band... Only Bird mattered. So that's what he'd do, hit record when Bird played... and when Bird blew his two or three short choruses; the settled down for the ensemble playing, Dean Benedetti would stop the recording...

Having tried to set the scene for the box of music I hold in my hand, I proceed to open it, this great black and white box that holds a priceless collection of music...

Fade to black...

Thus I finally arrive at what is probably the most prized possession a music collector such as myself could ever have—The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker (Mosaic, 1990). These are—as we know by now—recordings made by Parker's most dedicated fan between March 1, 1947 and July 11, 1948, made largely at the Hi-De-Ho, the Onyx and the Three Deuces...

The scene is set! Bird appears with his band, sets up on stage... sound check... Dean is following closely behind, scrounging around for a table to set his recorder up... wait a minute... need a plug-point... Found it... Now let's get going! It is as if I were there too. And now I begin to feel a heat wave come over me. It is truly a strange feeling. I am becoming Benedetti, adjusting the wires, the microphone... tuning in to Bird...

The fire was lit at Copely's... The recorder in tow, Benedetti struck it out to the LA's Hi-De-Ho, March 1, 1947... and recorded almost every soaring Bird flight up until the gig ended March 13, 1947. Nothing until 1948, when Bird surfaces in New York at The Three Deuces, March 31, to be exact. Benedetti is there...and finally a fabulous week at the Onyx, end-July 1948. Probably because he believed that Bird was the ultimate musician, descended down from heaven, or probably because he was just the truly exacting student who had to know just how Bird heard the changes, he documented everything for transcription... This is probably why Benedetti's catalogue became so valuable and lasted until today. If was as Anatole France once suggested (in the context of books), "The only exact knowledge there is," he said "is the knowledge of the date of the publication and the format of the books." This ensured their continuing survival and also the best possible way to enjoy them: In their exact context of time and place! But Bird conspired to give us something more...infinitely more! It was the music he heard and the way it changed our world...

"I realized by using the high notes of the chords as a melodic line, and by the right harmonic progression, I could play what I heard inside me. That's when I was born..."

Humiliation at jams forced Bird to practice for hours on end until he was able to play the music he heard in his head. He could play many songs and often did, it has been said, in all twelve keys, and often played in unconventional concert key signatures... in E, for instance, which transposes to a C# for the alto saxophone! By 1945 it all came together on "Shaw 'Nuff" and "Hot House," perhaps the two most distinctive statements of the new thing called bebop. Dizzy, possibly his most worthy soul mate said, "At first we stressed different things. I was more for chord variations and he was more for melody, I think. But when we got together we influenced each other."

In 1946, Bird played a stint with Howard McGhee on the West Coast. Apparently things were stressful. Bird played a recording in a state of high anxiety and although he played—by all accounts—magnificently, he lost it and soon spent time at Camarillo, a psychiatric center, after suffering a nervous breakdown. Six months later, having been declared fit, he returned to the jazz life outside. Now he was in full flight and about to begin the most creative period of his life. After a two-week gig at the Hi-De-Ho, he traveled to New York, then across the US and on the Europe. As to this being the most creative period... Bird is the 'pioneer,' showing disciples the way, founding a whole new 'settlement...' a whole new school of music... transforming swing—with "Scrapple from the Apple," the blues—with "Parker's Mood" and "Cheryl," counterpoint—with "Chasing the Bird" and "Ah-Leu-Cha" and melody—with "Embraceable You." He also took the most revered standards of the day and jumped off with new chord patterns—The changes on "I Got Rhythm" were turned on their head, for instance... as on "Scrapple from the Apple..." In him, the blues was virtually given re-birth! And his ballad playing was so articulate and had such atmosphere that many spirits were touched beyond their sensory perception! His compositional skills—so often taken for granted when surveying his musical legacy—became highly developed to a fine degree, while still remaining spontaneous and clear! "Crazeology" and "Confirmation" are spectacular examples. The latter has been described by Martin Williams as "a most delightful and ingenious melody... a continuous invention. Most pop songs and jazz pieces have two parts, a main strain and a bridge, or a middle strain. The main strain is played twice before the bridge and once after. Confirmation skips along beautifully with no repeats (except for one very effective echo phrase) until the last eight bars, which are a kind of repeat in summary.

"Moreover the bridge does not seem an interruption or an interlude that breaks up the flow of the piece, but is a part of the continuously developing melody. Finally, if the chord sequence to "Confirmation" preceded the melody, then the melody became so strong as Parker worked on it that it forced him to alter the chords to fit its developing contours."

Bird made brief musical statements as phrases... sometimes these were almost understated... to be guessed... they shimmy behind a 'garland of notes' in which the phrases were embedded. But far from being useless embroidery, the phrases from themselves as perfectly articulated musical sermons of which themes—implied or expressed—were merely one of the constituent elements of the piece!

All this developed in the period after his incarceration at Camarillo, between 1947 and 1948. This period was the zenith of Bird's career... the time of his greatest influence... And because of the extent of his inventiveness across the board of music, he influenced not only players of the alto saxophone, but other musicians—including vocalists as well!

Small wonder why Dean Benedetti reckoned that there could be nothing more important in life at that time than recording and documenting the playing of Charlie Parker. And while he did not intend for me or you or thousands of other listeners and musicians alike to hear Bird as he played and revolutionized the music forever, he certainly succeeded in doing just that!

"Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn. They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art..."

If anyone 'lived it,' Bird did. In the period that followed his recovery from the nervous breakdown he sounds so much more relaxed... almost like he is having fun... the time of his life. And—as it turns out—Benedetti, who 'lived it' too, was there to capture much of these 461 original recordings (in LA) to be precise!

In 1947, Benedetti went to Sears Roebuck and bought a Wells Gardner portable disc cutter. Although not a top-of-the-line machine, this recorder served him well. Assisted by Jimmy Knepper, he recorded the Hi-De-Ho gig—that lasted almost two weeks—on this machine. Together the two recorded and meticulously documented the Bird solos. Benedetti and Knepper worked their way past several technical challenges, to ensure that we have some of the most important flights of fancy that ever flew in the face of jazz, from the soaring Bird...! His bandmates are almost unheard on the recordings, but Benedetti did document who player on each track. This was a group that was led by Howard McGhee (tp) and also included Hampton Hawes (p), Addison Farmer (b) and Roy Porter (d) as well as Earl Coleman and Danny Knight (voc). But we have more than just personnel listing—any recording of the day would have listed that.

Benedetti approached Bird with a view to enjoying his unprecedented genius and skill as well as to study; possibly to spread the word—at least among his friends—that the 'future of the musical arts' was here! Hence he recorded solos—to transcribe and listen to over and over.

Phil Schaap and Jim Patrick's masterly studies of the Benedetti Holdings (as they are called) revealed that the Los Angeles dates consisted of 23 original pieces—featuring both original melody and harmonic variation. Some 21 songs—the balance of the repertoire—are pieces that borrow from existing chord structure that support a melody distinct from what was originally written and/or played. Patrick identifies for us, eight pieces that use the general harmonic pattern of the twelve-bar blues, two the "I Got Rhythm" pattern, three a combination of "I Got Rhythm" and "Honeysuckle Rose" and eight other chord schemes. A similar pattern is found in Bird's New York repertoire from these Benedetti recordings.

On the Benedetti Holdings, Bird is represented by only three pieces—"Moose the Mooch," "Past Due," (aka "Relaxin' at Camarillo" and "Yardbird Suite"—composed solely by or attributed solely to Bird, the composer. But the discography also includes "Ornithology," and "Cool Blues," both co-written by Bird. Apart from this, there are also two pieces co-written with Dizzy—"Shaw 'Nuff" and "Thrivin' on a Riff" (aka "Anthropology"), two others with no composed melody—"Bird's Nest" and "Koko" and of course the four blues—including two with titles—"Jumpin' the Blues," and "Hootie Blues" and then the first date as leader, which introduced the world to "Now is the Time," and "Billie's Bounce." His two complete originals—true compositions, so to speak—are "Yardbird Suite" and "Confirmation," while most of the other pieces being variations on a set harmony—five based on "I Got Rhythm" and six blues-based pieces. The McGhee gig also meant that Bird would dip into the Coleman Hawkins songbook. 'Bean' was never a bebopper, but he was a great admirer and supporter of those young geniuses who were revolutionizing the music. Many of these young lions played on his recording sessions—Bird did too and recorded at Norman Granz' 1946 JATP gig. Hawkins' big-and-wide expressive tone and innovative harmonic conception attracted the beboppers. His compositions—"Bean Soup"—borrowed chord structures from "Tea for Two" and re-cast the song in a fresh harmonic setting. This is something that Bean was used to doing in the '40s and this became inspiration for the beboppers as they set about to re-cast some of the most precious items in the classic American songbook!

Bird was in the avant-garde of this method of re-shaping classic melodies, and re-creating a new harmonic construction. But he added something more: Bird made melodic quotation an almost essential element of his art. But he his genius was such that he was also aware of other musical idioms and quoted from popular song, children's music, classical compositions—including symphonic works—in addition to quoting from his own work, played differently as well as other jazz compositions! For instance, "My Kinda Love," a '20s chart is woven into "Big Noise" ("Wee") and "Bird's Nest" opens with a figure from "The Man I Love," as is "Country Gardens" to the bebop, "Byas a Drink." Bird also used some of his solos recorded here to develop melodic lines in some of his own pieces. A case in point: The solo on "The Jumpin' Blues" which became the melodic opening for "Ornithology" and the idea for he (tenor) solo on "Three Guesses" became the opening figure for "Red Cross!"

This pattern followed with Bird from LA to New York, where he played in a band comprising Miles Davis (tp), Duke Jordan (p), Tommy Potter (b) and Max Roach (d). His ideas are more developed and urgent. The music is hotter, razor-sharp and possess a propulsive feel that is almost palpable. Benedetti has recorded—sometimes---whole songs that are full of surprises and melodic and harmonic invention. Miles recalling the atmosphere much later suggesting the scene was electrifying, with Bird seemingly like a switch turned on delivering a current that powered the whole music scene; like a thousand lights turned on. The New York Repertoire shares the same eight titles with the L.A. repertoire, but the music is more slanted, much more defined in the rhythm of bebop. Bird had composed much more of his own music and this is represented here, too. Of the 33 entries in the Benedetti Holdings, 18 are original pieces, featuring their own melody and harmony; 15 use the 'borrowed chord' technique with a new melody worked over the original and in the second half of the Holdings 4 pieces are based on the blues pattern; 3 use "I Got Rhythm"; one uses a combination of "I Got Rhythm" and "Honeysuckle Rose" and seven use a mix of other chord schematics.

"You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail."

By the time Bird got to New York in 1947-48, he had reached new heights. He was truly, as many now called him, 'The Great Charlie Parker.' He was on top of his game, brilliant, full control and so supremely in control of his music and its environment that it seemed that he could do no wrong (although there are several occasions when he sounds repetitive and trite... almost a caricature of himself... probably just plain tired!) BUT he challenges his cohorts to reach further into themselves to come up with fresh ideas—a he did and at the speed of light! This is the Bird that continues to haunt the music with his presence, prompting the legend, 'Bird Lives' to pop up not just as graffiti on city streets, but also in the head when music bursts out of a cafe or any other venue where jazz is played, or off the radio or home stereo—no matter what whether it is contemporary, that is written and played decades after his death. Such was the giant shadow of the musician, who was Bird. And Benedetti (ably assisted by Jimmy Knepper) were responsible in no small measure for bringing this to a brighter light.

Need one ask, now, what the significance of The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker is, or why I am so excited to return to my Charlie 'Bird' Parker collection? I think not! The Dean Benedetti... is an essential part of Bird discography. It puts a spotlight on an essential period when Bird was shaping his sound, prior to flying high as an innovator and as a composer. It sits in any Bird collection with pride of place among the Stash, Dial, Savoy and Royal Roost recordings. It is as priceless as that rarest of rare Mingus recording at Massey Hall. But it is more... Because of the sheer volume and consistent quality of playing this is The Holy Grail of music on record—certainly in the idiom of jazz. It will take a set of Buddy Bolden recordings to reduce the significance of this presentation from Mosaic!

Photo Credit

William P. Gottlieb (Featured Story)

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