A New Collection of Charlie Parker’s False Starts in the Studio Helps Humanize the Jazz Giant
If jazz is a story of process, then perhaps no musician embodies that ideal better than Charlie Parker, the bebop alto saxophonist — also known as "Bird" — who died 61 years ago at the age of 34. An avatar of focus, Parker brought to the table an array of ferocious improvisational abilities, learned on the bandstand and through hours of dedicated practice, that suggested raw talent alone wouldn't make you great. For John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins (to name just two musicians he influenced), that was a welcome message.
Since his death, a number of posthumous releases have revealed the nuances of Parker's fastidious approach, such as Bird: The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve (1988) and The Complete Charlie Parker With Strings, released just last year. But those titles, it turns out, were misleading. A new two-disc collection of Parker's Verve recordings, Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes, is set to debut July 1 — featuring 58 never-before-heard alternate takes and false starts that render Parker's slightly tannic tone and filigreed phrasing in crisp high fidelity.
"The improvisations are the big surprises," says Phil Schaap, who produced the record and is the longtime host of Bird Flight, a daily show on Columbia University radio. "The solos allow you to follow the process of improvisation within the same context, which used to be the biggest thrill of all for us jazz listeners."
As the world's most obsessive cataloger of Parker's music, Schaap suspected there were missing recordings when he combed through Verve's vaults in Edison, New Jersey, over thirty years ago. His research, he says, indicated that he "had half of a torn twenty-dollar bill." It wasn't until 2014 that Schaap realized his intuition was correct. An associate of the late impresario and record producer Norman Granz, who worked with Parker, had acetate discs in storage — and Verve, now owned by Universal Music Group, was able to procure copies.
Why these discs weren't released earlier is a mystery. Schaap says he bugged Granz about the possibility of missing tracks repeatedly before his death in 2001. Granz, he says, may or may not have known about their existence; as a champion of the finished product, perhaps he simply didn't see the point. Granz recorded Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Oscar Peterson, among countless other greats. Why would anyone care about Parker's outtakes?
There are lots of reasons. For dedicated catalogers like Schaap, of course, the discovery itself is thrilling. Made between 1949 and 1952, the new tracks showcase Parker in a number of contexts — in a quintet including Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, against the backdrop of lush string accompaniment, with Machito's Afro-Cuban orchestra, fronting a big band.
The recordings also show just how wildly imaginative Parker could be at any moment; he rarely repeated himself and worked diligently in the studio to fine-tune each take. In his composition "An Oscar for Treadwell," for example, which uses the chord changes from Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm," Parker enters each of the four solos included on the collection with a fresh rhythmic recombination.
But while the new tracks — set alongside the previously released master takes, for comparison's sake — show that Parker was a perfectionist, he wasn't perfect. There are, for instance, botched lines, slurred phrases, and stock licks played occasionally throughout.
For that reason, the saxophonist Steve Coleman questions the ethics of airing Parker's dirty laundry, so to speak. "Musicians don't want stuff like that released," he says.
It's a salient point in the wake of Go Set a Watchman, the first draft of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the recent release of which bothered some who felt it sullied the novelist's image. It isn't a stretch to assume Parker didn't want these recordings to be heard either. He never forgave record producer Ross Russell for the 1946 release of his narcotized "Lover Man," which featured Parker stuttering through the melody as he battled heroin withdrawal.
Still, Unheard Bird comes at an appropriate time. There's been a recent renaissance of Bird-related material, some of which, like this new record, helps to humanize the musician, to rescue him from the tragic-figure status made famous in Julio Cortázar's short story "The Pursuer" and Clint Eastwood's noirish biopic Bird. Stanley Crouch's 2013 biography Kansas City Lightning, for instance, over thirty years in the making, presents the musician as a complex figure, a genius who represented "three hundred years of black American dance and music."
His influence extends beyond jazz. Charlie Parker's Yardbird, which premiered at the Apollo in April, is an operatic exploration of his life. Beyoncé has channeled Bird, scatting "Ornithology," one of his most popular compositions. Improvising hip-hop artists have borrowed from him, too, perhaps not in sound but surely in style, says Loren Schoenberg, the founding director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. "That's exactly what Charlie Parker's doing," he says. "He's rhyming in rhythm."
Six decades after his death, Parker's fierce sense of individuality — the nastiness of his playing, the way he refused to pander to his audience — still has a lot to teach us, says Roy Nathanson, a saxophonist and poet who counts Bird as his greatest influence. "There's nothing more modern than this shit," he says.
Whether any other Parker recordings will be dug up in the future is an open question. It's unlikely, Schaap says, though Bird's fourth take of Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?" (which Schaap couldn't track down) may yet surface. In the meantime, these unissued tracks should keep the ornithologists busy. "What we hear is the work, and the work is the jazz," Schaap says. "And all of a sudden, we've got 58 new ways of hearing Charlie Parker."
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