Bop Lives!

A recently discovered concert recording finds Bird and Diz at their peaks

The story of how bebop was, and was not, documented on recordings is one of serendipity and missed opportunities, felicity and rotten luck. There were sides made with the right people but at the wrong time, others made with the wrong people at the right time, squeaky saxophones out to sabotage inspired solos, great bass players that one has to use some imagination to hear, plus labor disputes, technological limitations, heroin. The recording ban of '43 and '44 kept Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie from committing their initial bop essays to wax, and when things got going again the commercial records of the time still couldn't accommodate the seven-minute renditions Bird and Diz would present in concert. Then again, those last two factors were curses and blessings. We get an incomplete historical record of bop's evolution--and a marvelously realized form once it debuts in '45. We have few records of how the music was actually played and heard in clubs--and a lot of perfect, economical solos that might have given quarter to some second-rate ideas if allowed to go on for an extra minute. Well, it's a great story.

Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945, a newly uncovered recording just released by the tiny Uptown label, offers a new wrinkle. The Holy Grail of live bebop albums has long been that of the concert recorded in 1953 at Toronto's Massey Hall with Gillespie, Parker, Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus, and Max Roach. And for good reason: The music is wonderful, the personnel impeccable, and you get to hear everyone stretch out. But it was recorded in 1953. At which point "A Night in Tunisia," "Salt Peanuts," and the other new-jazz standards in the set had been around the block 28 or 30 times. The sense of upheaval, of ushering in a new epoch with a bag of lightning, was gone, naturally.

This Uptown album is all electricity, much of it from the music, some of it from the romance that the listener can't help bringing to the party. Town Hall was recorded only a few months after Gillespie and Parker's first commercial recordings together, just as they were starting to find their audience, right as they were in the midst of changing jazz forever. It features the trumpeter and alto saxophonist backed by pianist Al Haig, bassist Curley Russell, and the not yet famous but already great drummer Max Roach. All the tunes are either on the brisk side of mid-tempo or in the realm of Oh Christ, how do these guys play so fast? No ballads, no blues. Which is a minus in that one should always wish for more of prime Charlie Parker playing ballads and blues, but a plus in that, as master of ceremonies Symphony Sid puts it, things "jump like mad." (They'd jump even madder had Powell been in Haig's chair, though Haig performs well.) The concert even has narrative tension. As it starts, a nervous Sid announces that Bird hasn't shown up yet and tenorman Don Byas might be filling in. "Our alto sax player is probably shooting up somewhere," he says--no, of course not, but that's what you're thinking. But then Parker does show, during the opening number. Upon his arrival, the crowd stirs, some cheer. And right away he's on fire, navigating all of Gillespie's rapid changes and matching his rapid runs, responding to Roach's pistol accents. (Sidney Catlett replaces Roach for the final tracks, "Hot House" and "52nd Street Theme," which, all due respect to Catlett, brings the energy down a bit and seems to move time back a few years.) Great improvisations abound, though for some loopy reason my favorite moment is the first turnaround of the "Groovin' High" theme. I've just never heard it sound quite as pretty before.

The fidelity is better than you'd think. As with almost all recordings made before the '50s, the upright bass is weak in the mix, though in contrast to the period norm, the bass drum is too loud (it is nice to catch each of Roach's kicks). Quibbles and the expected hiss aside, the sound is, well, not as vibrant as the music, but vibrant enough--Gillespie's trumpet in particular glimmers. Maybe the best part is that no one knew until recently that the concert had been recorded. A record dealer found the acetates in a junk shop, where they'd been sitting for decades, and sold them to Uptown's Robert E. Sunenblick, an internal physician who moonlights as an indie-label honcho. And you thought all that junk in junk shops actually was junk.

 
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