CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Charlie Parker, the Birth of Bebop, and America’s Greatest Recording Session

In a salute to Bird’s centennial, Colin Fleming digs deep into the events of November 26, 1945, pores over the priceless artifacts it produced, and ponders their lasting significance

Charlie Parker at the Three Deuces, August 1947 (photo: William P. Gottlieb Collection/Library of Congress)
Charlie Parker at the Three Deuces, August 1947 (photo: William P. Gottlieb Collection/Library of Congress)

It is November 26, 1945 in New York City, the Monday morning after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and producer Teddy Reig has arrived at the apartment of Charlie Parker to fetch the alto saxophonist—who required some looking after—and bring him to WOR Studios. The previous week, toasts had been drunk over the signing of a Union contract for a standard recording session, something that hadn’t been standard for quite some time; there had been a two-year ban on such sessions to save on shellac as part of the war rationing effort. The session is to last for three hours, with the aim of producing four sides.

The paperwork stipulates the presence of Parker, Miles Davis on trumpet, Bud Powell on piano, Curly Russell on bass, and Max Roach on drums. The compositions are slated as Charlie Parker originals, which, as we will see, means nothing so simple as “These are my tunes.” The altoist opens the door, greets Reig, then informs him that the brilliant Bud Powell will not be making the date after all. He’s gone to Philly with his mom so she can buy a house.

But someone had spent the night at Parker’s crib, and that person was Dizzy Gillespie. “Here’s your piano player,” Parker informs the confused Reig as the latter eyes the man soon to be known as America’s modern trumpet virtuoso. Never mind the switch on instruments, Parker says. Everything is going to work out just fine.

Charlie Parker will soon be able to lay claim to a number of those “best such and such” designations we enjoy extolling, and what will occur on this afternoon, besides becoming a ne plus ultra superlative unto itself—America’s single greatest recording session—will put many more in motion, eventually. There will be the string session undertakings of 1949, the jazz “Dream Team” gig from Toronto’s Massey Hall in 1953, and Parker himself, commencing right here, right now, will become to the alto sax as Babe Ruth is to the home run, Louis Armstrong to the trumpet, Jackson Pollock to the drip canvas, Hitchcock to the suspense picture.

But there is no session regarding which we can be more unequivocal in terms of what it wrought, that is also wrapped in such mystery. The debate regarding the events of this fabled Monday is traceable to the mid-1950s, when the date in question was released as a stand-alone LP called The Charlie Parker Story. It numbered among the first jazz records I heard, and though I was reared on the sound of electricity—loud guitars, stacks of amps—I was not prepared for what was really a redefining of the word “electricity.” That music could be electric, kinetically if not literally, with no one plugging into anything, changed my perceptions—and, I’m sure, many others’ perceptions—of what is possible.

The title of that LP was telling: Here was the essence of Parker, encapsulated in the more or less real-time events of a day in the studio. The Beatles reached their apogee with an account of a day in a life, and Parker’s own “plain day”—a simple recording session after an imposed hiatus—also possesses a regular, workmanlike element. Punch the clock, chop the wood, whatever term one wishes to use. But what an elision to the transcendent we are about to witness, from what was initially earmarked as the mere making of wares that are once again legally sellable. Cut the wood, pop out the emerald. 

Parker was rather like John Keats: older than his years without being old, or the young-man version of an older person. With Parker you get the vim of a Mozart, an energy that feels forever retainable, despite when health fails and tragedy mounts. His development, from the jump, was hastened. Something, or someone, put him on a swift curve. At all of 16, he leaves his home in Kansas City, Missouri, takes to the road with bands. A bus accident damages his spine, requires painkillers, and hooks the man known as Bird on opioids, which will play a large role in his death at the age of 34, less than 10 years after the November 26, 1945 session that invents bebop, so far as the listening public was concerned.

The advent of this new music had been occurring under cover of darkness, in after-hours clubs. Parker and his acolytes workshopped in front of each other—vulnerable, brave, in love with risk, willing to fail, willing to try again. The music is complicated, moves at rates no music yet had in the States, but under that smoky veil of night, and in untold hours in private, Sisyphus is going to be able to send the boulder shooting off the top of the hill, as if to suggest there was nothing the best of the bebop generation couldn’t do.

The dismissive old-timers—who weren’t really old at all—were branded as “moldy figs.” The beboppers themselves would have swung if their music favored the pace of the generation before, but it was far too cometary; Parker always sounded like he had other planets to get to before the day was out. The likes of Coleman Hawkins, a member of the moldy-fig generation but never a moldy fig himself, heard what Parker was doing and decided the time was right to get the hell out of the swing era. The old dawn was fading, Bird’s new day arising.

Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming writes fiction and nonfiction on myriad topics—art, film, music, sports, literature—for a wide range of publications. He also talks regularly on the radio for the likes of NPR and Downtown with Rich Kimball. His most recent book, Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls (Tailwinds), was published in 2019, with an entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club to follow in 2020. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com (where you’ll also find his unique online journal, the Many Moments More blog) and on Twitter @colinfleminglit. He lives in Boston and has contributed to JazzTimes since 2006.