Wednesday, June 4, 2014

52nd Street and Birdland

Public Domain image from the Library of Congress's William P. Gottlieb Collection

Me at the same spot on 52nd Street and 6th. Ave. camera facing east

It's 1943 and you just arrived at Penn Station by train. You walk underneath the vaulted glass ceiling of the main concourse, jump into a cab and ask him to take you to "The Street." In 2014, that request would certainly earn you a weird look, but in 1943 the cabby knows exactly where you mean. After being dropped off at your destination, you proceed to a club called The Famous Door to hear Buck Clayton play with Count Basie's band. Then it's off to the Onyx to hear Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Pettiford's new group. After that, you hit two or three more clubs until you finally stumble back out into the street during the early morning hours. You have probably heard more jazz masters in one evening than most people get to hear in a lifetime today. But, in 1943, this was just a typical night out on 52nd Street.

Beginning in the mid-1930's, 52nd Street was THE destination for live jazz. This two-block strip of brownstones between Fifth and Seventh Avenues featured famous musicians in clubs with snappy names like The Spotlite and The 3 Deuces. So why did this street become the center of the jazz world during this time? The origins of nightlife on 52nd Street dates back to the 1920's when the street harbored several known speakeasies, but things really took off in the late 20's when the city eased its residential restrictions on drinking establishments in that area. By 1930, it was the hub of a vibrant midtown entertainment district. On top of that, some of the white jazz patrons who had frequented the Harlem clubs uptown began to avoid the area after the 1935 Harlem Race Riots, which made this small strip of midtown bars an ideal location for new jazz clubs.

52nd Street was unique from a musical standpoint in that it served to dissolve many of the stylistic and racial demarcations that had been so prevalent in jazz throughout the 1920's and early 1930's. Until that time, jazz in New York was primarily seen as a music performed by blacks for predominantly white audiences in uptown venues such as the Cotton Club. But in the late 1930's, things began to change. The popular revival of early New Orleans jazz rekindled an appreciation for early jazz during a time when swing was enjoying its popular heyday. All the while, the first elements of bebop were also beginning to percolate in the music. On 52nd Street, all of these styles existed together. 'Dixieland' musicians played alongside swing musicians, who played alongside bebop musicians. On any given night, you could hear the entire history of the music. Clubs were also given more freedom to allow both integrated bands and audiences, which furthered to tear down the racial boundaries of jazz.

Just as importantly, the close proximity of the clubs fostered a strong sense of musical community. Musicians would play a set at one club and walk to another to either listen to or sit in with another band, and this steady musical exchange of ideas created a sense of solidarity. Through a natural process of musical exchange, jazz performers collectively decided the direction the music would take. Young musicians had to earn the respect of their peers by playing with established masters in order to move up within the ranks of the scene.

Sadly, this master/apprentice relationship has all but dissolved away. The heyday of 52nd Street represents a time when there was an important sense of musical democracy. That's not to say there wasn't infighting within the ranks of jazz, but there was always a sense in jazz of a collective evolution. Jazz always relied on its elder statesmen to reinforce certain musical priorities in the new generation of players; things like swinging, playing the blues and telling a musical story that speaks to people. It is these elements that have always tied the different periods of jazz together. In contrast, the every-man-for-himself mentality that exists today has created a kind of stylistic anarchy. I feel strongly that without an internal system of checks and balances, we are slowly losing the underlying musical DNA of jazz that dates all the way back to Africa. But I digress.

Alas, the 52nd Street of days past only exists now in recordings and in our collective memory. As you can see from the photo at the top of this post, not even the brownstones that housed these legendary clubs still stand. All have been replaced by modern skyscrapers; that is, except for The 21 Club, which now operates as a restaurant. Fortunately, the music was captured on a few live recordings and radio broadcasts from various clubs here. So let's pretend we're back on "The Street" during its heyday, and let's peek our head into a few clubs to check out some of my favorite trumpeters of the time.

Our first stop is The Onyx Club to hear Miles Davis with Charlie Parker. This bootleg recording was made at The Onyx on July 6, 1948. Bear in mind that this is almost nine years before Davis recorded his Birth of the Cool album. At this time, he was still heavily influenced by Dizzy Gillespie. Unfortunately, this bootleg recording famously cuts out most everything but Bird's solos, so you only hear snippets of Davis's playing, but it gives a real sense of the atmosphere in the club.

Our next stop is The Yacht Club to hear Herman Autrey with Fat Waller's band. Autrey was an underrated composer and trumpeter who was mostly associated with Waller's band. This live radio broadcast from the club was made in 1938, and really gives the listener a sense of the vibrancy of a 52nd Street venue. Check out Autrey's tasteful playing behind Waller's vocals on "You Can't Be Mine."

Now it's off to the late set at The Famous Door to hear the Count Basie Orchestra. Recorded live from the club in 1939, this version of "Roseland Shuffle" features Lester Young on tenor sax. But check out Basie's trumpet section. Most likely, it would have included Buck Clayton, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Shad Collins and Ed Lewis. No trumpet section swings harder than this one!

Although many associate 52nd Street with the bebop movement, bebop didn't actually make it down to midtown until the mid-1940's. By the time Gillespie and company arrived on 52nd Street, the area was actually in the start of a slow decline. As various jazz clubs fell to the wayside, bars and strip joints began to fill in the gaps, and the reputation and character of 52nd Street began to change, bringing with it drugs and prostitution. Although the area was fading away as a musical center, bebop continued to flourish in a number of new clubs that were popping up nearby, clubs like the Royal Roost, Bop City, and Birdland. These new bebop-focused establishments catered to a largely teenage audience, and some even went as far as to install bleachers and soda fountains. Eventually, even these clubs gave way to seedier establishments, and by the late 1960's, the police began to shut things down. For a detailed account of the decline of 52nd Street, check out this post from one of my favorite blogs, "Jeremiah's Vanishing New York."

The last stop on our trip is to the original location of Birdland. The original building still stands at 1678 Broadway, just around the corner from 52nd Street. Although Birdland moved from this location back in the 1960's (first uptown, then to its current location on 44th St.), this is the original basement club where so many famous recordings were made such as John Coltrane's "Live at Birdland" and Count Basie's "Basie at Birdland." The club was famous for its master of ceremonies, the four-feet-tall, high-voiced Pee Wee Marquette, as well as for its live broadcasts by Symphony Sid, the famous disc jockey on WJZ.

As you can see from the photo to the left, the front of the building has been modernized and is now a "Gentlemen's Club." In an area completely overrun by skyscrapers and corporate chains, I must admit, I'm glad that the club has hung on through the years, even if the form of entertainment presented there has changed a bit. Better it survives as a strip club than a new Chipotle. After all, maybe some of the magic is still there in the walls behind all of those mirrors and neon lights. My dream is that someone will restore the location to its original glory one day. One can only hope. For now, I leave you with one of my favorite albums ever recorded at Birdland. This album is Art Blakey's "A Night at Birdland " and happens to feature my favorite jazz trumpeter of all time, Clifford Brown. So sit back, let Pee Wee introduce the band, and let's take a trip together back to the glory days of Birdland.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Charlie Parker Residence

This next entry brings us to 151 Avenue B in the heart of the East Village. It would be easy to walk by this unassuming brownstone on the edge of Tompkins Square Park without knowing its historical significance. But if you stop to look, you'll see two small plaques designating the building as an Historic Landmark. This is due to the fact that none other that Charlie Parker lived there from 1950-1954 with his wife Chan Richardson and their three children. Today, it's known simply as the Charlie Parker Residence.

After Parker's death, the building was known among jazz musicians in the city as a sort of unofficial jazz shrine, but it wasn't until Judy Rhodes bought it in 1979 that the building was recognized for its historical significance. Rhodes spent the next several years lobbying to have her home designated as a National Historic Landmark, a goal she finally achieved in 1999. In the meantime, she also helped to get the the stretch of Avenue B between 7th and l0th Streets renamed "Charlie Parker Place" as well as help to establish the annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival.

In an art form already full of geniuses, Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong, in my mind, stand above them all. Both advanced this art form musically, intellectually and spiritually, and their influences on 20th century music are so large as to be nearly impossible to exaggerate. As this blog is about Charlie Parker, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the many great jazz trumpeters with whom he collaborated. When you think about it, Parker's band was one of the first launching pads for jazz trumpeters before the days of the Jazz Messengers or Horace Silver's quintet. Almost all of the greatest modern jazz trumpeters worked with him in some capacity at one time or another.

First, we'll start with Dizzy Gillespie, Parker's main collaborator. Dizzy was truly in a league of his own as a trumpeter, a musical innovator and an ambassador for the music. To this day, I don't really think any trumpeter has achieved the heights of trumpet mastery, musical daring and sheer innovation that he did. He brought a level of rhythmic and harmonic sophistication to jazz that had never been heard before and has rarely been matched since. He extended he possibilities of the instrument in terms of range and dexterity and, along with Fats Navarro, was one of the only trumpet players who could truly keep up with Bird on the bandstand. Gillespie of course went on to forge his own path in music. As he got older, his style became even more personal, and he began to experiment with both big bands and Afro-cuban music. He also had a style and personality that was all his own, from the berets and goatees of his earlier years to his bent horn and puffy cheeks, there was no mistaking who you were seeing or hearing when he took the bandstand.

Although we tend to get obsessed with the mechanics of music, the ultimate goal in jazz is to find your own voice. Miles Davis stands as the greatest testament to the value of that pursuit. After Dizzy parted ways with Parker, it would have been very easy for Parker to look to one of the many trumpeters of the day who were trying to imitate Gillespie's style. Instead, Parker went with a young trumpet player named Miles Davis, who had been working on a starker, more stripped-down improvisational style. And although Miles always had way more technique than people gave him credit for (Just listen to his live radio recordings with Tadd Dameron.), he was smart enough to realize he would have to define his own sound if he wanted to make a mark in music. By the 1950's, Davis had fully realized a new highly personalized style that emphasized timbre, mood and space. But it took a musical master like Parker to hear what he was trying to achieve and to give him the freedom to get there. Check out Davis in the clip below. Although he is still deeply rooted in the bebop language, you can already hear a more relaxed sense of refinement in his playing, as if he is trying to strip away the embellishments of this new style of music and find only the essential notes.

Next we have one of my favorite trumpet players of all time, Fats Navarro. Navarro is truly an unappreciated giant in the lineage of jazz trumpet players. A big man with a uniquely high voice, he was nicknamed "Fat Girl" by his fellow musicians. Navarro took much of what Gillespie pioneered and refined it into a logical, linear style of playing that would set the tone for so many jazz trumpet players who came after him. Although Fats had incredible high range and technique, his highly logical solos always sounded fluid and well-conceived. 

As a young player, I stumbled onto a Fats Navarro recording in a discount cassette bin at my local mall. When I heard him, I could not believe he wasn't talked about more among jazz musicians. Unfortunately, Fats did not record as extensively as his contemporaries, partly due to the fact that he came into prominence during the famous recording ban of the 1940s. Like Parker, Fats had his own health issues including his weight, a case of tuberculosis and an addiction to heroin, all of which would work together to claim his life at the young age of 26. Although Fats was not a regular member of Parker's group, he made a couple of great live recordings, the best of which is probably "Bird and Fats Live At Birdland 1950." His influence is best heard in the recordings of his main disciple, Clifford Brown, who further expanded on this style in the 1950s. 

Jazz musicians have been ahead of the curve in terms of race relations throughout the history of this music. Whether it was Benny Goodman with Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis with Bill Evans, or Louis Armstrong with Jack Teagarden, jazz musicians tend to put a premium on whether someone can play over anything else. In the case of Charlie Parker, not only did he hire a redheaded trumpet player in an otherwise all-black band, but he actually brought him along on a multi-state tour across the racially segregated south! Realizing this gesture of racial progressivism might not fly in Dixie, Parker found a workaround by billing the trumpeter as "Albino Red." I am, of course, referring to the great Red Rodney. Unfortunately, Rodney never reached greater heights after his stint with Parker, and his career took a bit of a downward turn due to a variety of factors including drug addiction, family tragedy and chop issues. But, he managed to make a comeback in the 1970's and recorded up until his death in 1994. 

The next trumpeter to play extensively with Parker is one of those figures who is universally loved by musicians, but perhaps was never afforded the wider recognition that he rightly deserved. Upon first listening to a Kenny Dorham solo, you might think what he is playing is easy. But any trumpet player who ever has tried to transcribe his trumpet solo on "Una Mas" quickly realizes that Dorham's solos are no joke. His formidable technique is masked behind a softer articulation and a beautiful round tone, allowing him play long poetic passages accented by moments of real fire. Dorham went on to help define the funky, soulful Blue Note sound of the 1960's, but his approach was always deeply rooted in his days playing with Parker and the other innovators of the bebop revolution.

Next up is Howard McGhee. McGhee was part of the modern jazz clique in the 1940's, but he has always been overshadowed by other trumpeters of his generation. He is perhaps best remembered as being the trumpeter on the famous (or infamous) Charlie Parker recording of "Lover Man." Although Parker was so ill, he had to be held up during part of the recording, McGhee shines on his solo spots. Take for example the recording below of "Max Making Wax," in which he shows of his ability to build lines well into his high range. Aside for his time with Parker, I also love his famous trumpet duel with Fats Navarro on "Boplicity." 

I would also be remiss if I didn't mention some recordings of other trumpeters who performed with Parker, although not necessarily as members of his band. Some of these honorable mentions are are:

Chet Baker: "Charlie Parker/Sonny Criss/Chet Baker - Inglewood Jam 6-16-'52"
Roy Eldridge: "Jazz at the Philharmonic 1949"
Rolf Ericsson: "Bird In Sweden"
Benny Harris: "Tico Tico / La Paloma"
Al Killian and Buck Clayton: "Jazz At The Philharmonic - Bird And Pres - The '46 Concerts"
Charlie Shavers: "Charlie Parker Jam Session"

Lastly, I will leave you with a recording of perhaps the most amazing trumpet section of all time: Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Fats Navarro playing as members of the Metronome All-Stars, which also included Charlie Parker. Enjoy!