In earlier parts of this series, Phil and I covered the sessions surrounding Ko-Ko, Lover Man, Milestones and Parker's Mood. Today, Phil and I discuss Parker's live recordings captured at New York's Royal Roost between December 1948 and March 1949. These recordings not only provide listeners with a vivid sense of what it was like to hear Parker in a club setting but also document what could be heard on the radio back then if you had gumption to stay up late:
JazzWax: What do Charlie Parker's live Royal Roost recordings tell us about him as an artist?
Phil Schaap: The first consideration is whether one likes Charlie Parker better in a live setting or a recording studio. A lot of people prefer Parker live, for the spontaneity and energy. But there's more to these particular live sessions. With the Roost recordings, you're getting a great quantity of music featuring Bird with his working band, not Bird in jam sessions. Some Roost performances are more raggedy than others, but you’re hearing a working band on the gig.
JW: Why is a working band so important?
PS: You really don't have many other previous examples of Parker recording with the same band he played gigs with every night. The big exception is the Dean Benedetti field recordings, which only captured Bird's solos. What's more, the Roost radio broadcasts capture an exciting audio quality.
JW: Who recorded them?
PS: I believe they were recorded by WMCA's technicians rather than as pure air checks. The reason I feel strongly about this is that when you hear WMCA announcer Bob Garrity back at the studio doing the commercial breaks, he sounds very dull. From a fidelity standpoint, he should be at least be equal in sound quality to what’s being recorded at the club. Instead, his voice gets very dull.
JW: So what do we have here?
PS: I believe you’re hearing an air check when Garrity is on doing ads back at the studio but a professionally miked field-location recording when you hear Parker and his band.
JW: What else makes the Roost recordings remarkable?
PS: The fact that this radio show was on weekly is unbelievable. In essence, you have an appointment to hear Bird live once a week for four months. Wow. That is distinctive.
JW: What are we hearing in the development of Parker as an artist?
PS: He’s clearly in a comfort zone. I always have high expectations for Bird, and on these recordings he fulfills them. I expect Bird to play at an optimum during this period with his working band. He’s a nightclub creature and he’s in a club. He carefully picked the band and you’re hearing him with that band. They’re working nightly so they’re going to be more cohesive. So my expectations are set by those parameters. [Photo: Charlie Parker and Kenny Dorham on stage at the Royal Roost]
JW: Yet he sounds pretty good on every recording.
PS: Of course. If you threw Charlie Parker in with anybody, he’s going to sound great. But if you let him pick the setting and an all-star team of musicians, he should sound even better. And he does on these Roost recordings.
JW: So this is Bird in the wild.
PS: Well, he’s certainly playing longer solos than on studio recordings. He's in his habitat, which is probably more accurate than "in the wild."
JW: But doesn't he become a greater miracle through these recordings?
PS: I’m kind of one-universe kind of guy. To me, Bird is the miracle, regardless of the setting. I understand the importance of the Roost recordings but I don’t have to use them as part of a rating system against the Savoy studio recordings or anything else. They are what they are. I’m not putting any negative aspect on your enthusiasm. But my enthusiasm is expressed by my esthetic and my judgment. [Photo of Charlie Parker at the Royal Roost courtesy of Evette Dorham, daughter of Kenny Dorham]
JW: Let me rephrase: When you hear Parker at the Roost, does his playing become something more special for you?
PS: We’d be much less informed if we didn't have those recordings. But I’m going by a different group of identifying factors than perhaps your questions are probing. I want to hear a working band. On most of his previous studio dates as a leader, he’s not leading a working band.
JW: So the fact that these recordings capture Parker with the band he gigged with night after night make them extra special.
PS: Yes, in that regard they are very special.
Tomorrow, Phil Schaap talks about the reason for Miles Davis' departure from the Charlie Parker All Stars and the recording of Charlie Parker with Strings in 1949.
JazzWax note: Technically, Parker is captured on the live Royal Roost recordings with two working bands. In November and for much of December 1948, we hear him with Miles Davis (tp) Al Haig (p) Tommy Potter (b) and Max Roach (d). When Miles Davis decides to leave the quintet in late December, he is replaced by Kenny Dorham starting on December 25.
JazzWax tracks: The live Royal Roost recordings can be found on The Complete Live Performances on Savoy: Sept. 29, 1947-Oct. 25, 1950 at iTunes or here.
The other major live set is The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker (Mosaic). Benedetti was a saxophonist who became so enamored of Parker's playing that he recorded him on rudimentary disc and tape machines. But without sufficient blank discs and tape to record entire sets, Benedetti economized by capturing only Parker's solos. The result is a fascinating document of Parker's playing in different venues in Los Angeles and New York between March 1947 and July 1948. This extensive set is the only record of Parker in these clubs during this crucial period of bebop's development and emerging popularity.
Mosaic's 7-CD box set features only Parker solos and includes a superb 48-page booklet and discography authored by Phil Schaap, Bop Porter, Jim Patrick, Charlie Lourie and Michael Cuscuna. You'll find this box here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Charlie Parker on Christmas morning 1948 with Kenny Dorham playing White Christmas at the Royal Roost. We tend to take this recording for granted today, treating it as a tongue-in-cheek interpretation of a holiday standard. But it's actually much more. Listen carefully as Parker and Dorham ingeniously and lovingly give the seasonal pop tune the bebop treatment...