Musings on Bird, I: Recorded and Unrecorded Bird

 Off the cuff notes and thoughts on Bird, Part I:

In the process of trying to compile most of Charlie Parker's recorded output, I determined that there are about three full days of known recordings (over 70 hours), of which about one full day (24 hours) is made up of his solo improvisations. The cult status that Bird achieved and became mythologized into is reflected by the vast amount of bootleg recordings that surfaced after his death, which now vastly outstrips by volume the studio documents released during his lifetime. 

William P. Gottlieb, ca. 1948 (March or April, per Dean Benedetti?)

Despite the unmatched consistency and clarity of his melodic vocabulary, whose boundedness reflects Parker's supremely discerning and selective musical mind, the recorded legacy of Bird has now become a morass of fragments of live recordings of wildly inconsistent quality, in addition to the mountain of false starts, incomplete, and alternate takes released over the years. Although the intention of these releases and recordings is understandable—that any recorded Charlie Parker should be treasured and made available to the world—the result of acting on this motive has been a thorough disintegration of the sense of wholeness and perfection that should rightfully accompany the corpus of Bird's recorded legacy. 

That being said, there is still a separation between the casual listener's exposure to the master takes across Dial, Savoy, and Verve and the more initiated listener's venturing into the alternate takes and live recordings, but the fact that it's so easy now for a new listener to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of recorded Bird seems an unintentionally negative outcome of the effort to make all of his documented utterances available for all time.

I don't have any solutions for the current predicament described above, although Peter Watrous has suggested to me in correspondence that making all of the live, non-studio-sanctioned recordings available in one place with reliable discographical information and notes would be one way to help ensure that Bird's music be more widely appreciated and easily accessed without drowning in the surfeit of mishmash releases on the internet.

Of course, I'm not complaining that the recordings themselves are available, but the piecemeal nature of private recordings surfacing over the years has resulted in the archival nightmare that we find ourselves in now. Fortunately, Peter Losin's Miles Ahead website exists as an invaluable free resource (although he accepts donations to keep it running), which synthesizes a vast amount of discographical research by many leading Ornithologists.

And while we have many more available recordings of Charlie Parker now than we did in 1955 or even 1985, there are still known events that went unrecorded: We know that he played in Philadelphia with Clifford Brown in 1952 at the Showboat, for instance, and that he enjoyed playing with the young Brownie so much that he mentioned him on a very recently surfaced, on-air interview with Leigh Kamman. 

Or the time when, according to Steve Lacy in an interview, Bird sat in with Duke Ellington's band at the Band Box in early '53 in New York City and played "Honeysuckle Rose," "Tea for Two," and a blues together. Or any of the number of times that John Coltrane and Bird crossed paths, such as in February 1947 when they supposed played together at a session at Red Callender's home near the ocean, or in the famous photo with a dazed Bird posing with Dizzy and Coltrane off to the side, or at the December 7, 1947 benefit concert where Bird performed as a guest soloist with Jimmy Heath's big band. And so on and so on.