If, as is incontrovertibly the case, Charlie Parker is the most influential figure in post-war jazz and if, as we are always told, it was his live experimentations that captured the true “Bird in Flight”, then this (representing the pick of a four CD collection) must therefore be just about the most important modern jazz album ever made.
The historical significance of the cream of Parker’s radio broadcasts from the Royal Roost is probably even greater than the much loved 1953 Jazz at Massey Hall set, which has the advantage of being a complete live performance but was actually a (superior) reunion session rather than a portrait of the artist in his pioneering phase. These sessions, from the late ‘40s, show Parker at the moment when the bebop style had reached its full expressive powers, with the new vocabulary now established but still fresh and operating at the very frontiers of the Modernist movement.
Fortunately, its musical strengths are almost enough to carry the weight of the impossible expectations we thus bring to any actual Parker recording. A few tracks in and you suddenly realise that everything you’ve read is true, that there never was and there still isn’t anyone quite like him. Also, because of the unique atmosphere of these club broadcasts, if you don’t find yourself musing about notions of genius, imagining yourself back in that most creative and troubled of decades or picturing yourself as a young hipster in that most hip of audiences, then jazz is not for you and I bid you farewell.
In late 1948, Charlie Parker was booked for a long residency at the Royal Roost. The former chicken restaurant (at 1580 or 1474 Broadway, depending on which sleeve notes you read) had moved in to fill the gap created by the decline in fortunes of 52nd street, which never recovered from its free and easy war-time days or the attentions of racially motivated police scrutiny. The self-proclaimed “Metropolitan Bopera House” was to present the new jazz in a club setting more suited to the “concert” aspirations of the new generation. The Innermost of the In Crowd duly gathered to pay homage to their heroes. Parker was the hero of heroes, of course. Recognising that this was no ordinary gig, the proselytizing DJ, Symphony Sid, transmitted the Saturday night sessions on local radio. Thankfully, one Bronx jazz buff (Boris Rose, not the better remembered Dean Benedetti) recorded these and they form the core material for this priceless opportunity to hear Parker as only the privileged few heard him at the time.
Far reaching as were its consequences, Parker’s revolution was in essence a simple one. Its aim (and its achievement) was the liberation of the jazz solo. Some time in 1939 or 1940, while searching for a way to avoid what was becoming a rather restrictive and stereotyped approach to soloing, he discovered, in the process of working through “Cherokee”, that “by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I’d been hearing. I came alive.” Indeed he did.
A few standards (essentially, “Cherokee”, “How High the Moon”, “I Got Rhythm”) plus a strong dose of Kansas City blues provided the basis of everything to come. Never has an artistic sea change been conjured up from such a seemingly straightforward discovery. The core values were very strong though, residing as they did in the African-American musical continuum. The breakthrough was one of changed perspective and, of course, the supreme playing power needed to put Parker’s ideas and insight into practice.
And that is what you get on these recordings—pure Parker, putting that conceptual leap into, by now nearly perfect, practice. Fascinating as it is to hear a young, frenetic Miles Davis, delightful though his trumpet replacement, Kenny Dorham, sounds, the focus of attention is rarely far from Parker. A focus of amazement too—at the daring, the incisiveness and most of all the absolute logicality of every phrase and flourish. This is all the more astounding because, even if he had not been present, a series of line-ups that includes (apart from Davis and Dorham) Tadd Dameron, Curley Russell, Max Roach, Tommy Potter, Al Haig, Joe Harris, Lucky Thompson, and Milt Jackson would represent a major chunk of jazz history in itself. All perform admirably (though piano and bass don’t always come across as clearly as one would wish) but all are secondary to the altoist and his applied imagination.
A splendid “period hip” intro from Symphony Sid introduces Monk’s “52nd Street” and the music hits full throttle straight away. So many great moments—“Hot House”, “Chasin’ the Bird”, “Scrapple from the Apple”, “Barbados”, “Groovin’ High”, “Salt Peanuts”, “Cheryl”, and “Anthropology”—all of them prime examples of bebop heaven and each containing a Parker solo that still challenges, still appears beyond the reach of lesser mortals. Only on “Little Willie Leaps In” does he sound at all awkward and unsure. On the other hand, “Scrapple from the Apple” is the finest version available and the Kansas City echoes apparent on “Chasin’ the Bird” add warmth and unexpected roundness to the tune. Each song is in fact, a model of compact, creative magic that easily transcends both time and technological limitation.
The inclusion of a very tender “East of the Sun” does make you wish that a few more ballads had been caught on tape. Parker was superb at a slower tempo, listen without prejudice to the once despised With Strings sessions for full proof. No complaints though. Bebop was mostly about rapid-fire playing and impossibly quick changes, and that is what is on offer here in abundance. Not self-indulgently or anarchically, but with a precision and control his epigones could not always manage.
Bebop, like Parker himself, was an incandescence that lit up the night but could not be sustained. This package, with well-written and authoritative sleeve-notes, allows us as close an experience of that moment as can be hoped for. The spoken intros add historical and nostalgic resonance. But this is no heritage trip. If you want to know why “Bird Lives” mysteriously appeared on so many walls after Parker’s untimely death, the “Roost” recordings are as good a place as any to begin to find the answer. Vital—in every sense of the word.