Charlie Parker has been gone longer than he was with us, yet every few years his name resurfaces. In 1955 it was the "Bird Lives" graffiti. In the '60s and '70s it was memorial concerts and tributes. In the '80s, countless posthumously issued albums.
Now, 35 years after his death at 34, it's the story of a dual legend: "The Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker."
Dean Benedetti's recordings, long the subject of rumors, have been called the jazz world's counterpart to the Dead Sea Scrolls or King Tut's tomb. It was known that Benedetti, a saxophonist obsessed by Bird's music, had recorded him many times at clubs in Hollywood and New York, using a cheap portable disc cutter and a primitive reel-to-reel tape machine. What nobody seemed sure about was whether these gems still existed after Benedetti's death in 1957.
At last, the secret is out. Mosaic Records, a mail-order company specializing in boxed sets of rare items, disinterred the collection, which had been lying half-forgotten in a trunk acquired by Benedetti's brother Rick, and bought it in 1987.
"Rick had put the stuff in a closet," says Charlie Lourie of Mosaic, "because his brother's death was too painful to relate to; also perhaps he felt it could be something of value he could leave to his son.
"In 1980, Bob Porter, the jazz scholar, won a Grammy for his production of a Parker reissue album. Rick noticed this and called Porter, but Bob was so skeptical about the existence of the collection that he didn't get around to seeing Rick for a year or two.
"Eventually Porter contacted me and Michael Cuscuna at Mosaic, and we called in Phil Schaap, who's a great audio engineer. All this time nobody had even listened to the records, but when Clint Eastwood was preparing to do the 'Bird' movie he heard some of them. Clint decided the sound quality wasn't good enough for him, but in August of 1988, Schaap went to work on the gigantic job of converting all those shredding acid tapes and fragile, paper-based tapes into usable material."
Schaap labored for nearly a year on eliminating the sonic waste of clicks and pops. The Benedetti gold mine was finally whittled down to some 278 snippets, from a few seconds to five minutes long. The album contains some seven hours of the alto sax legend's improvisational genius, spread over seven CDs or 10 LPs (Mosaic Records, 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, Conn. 06902).
How does it stand up musically? Despite the endless editing, the sound quality inevitably is pre-digital, pre-stereo, prehistoric. The 1947 Hollywood recordings are weakest; those made a year later in two New York clubs are better recorded and tend toward longer cuts.
There is more to it than Bird's horn; here and there are glimpses of him announcing or directing. Even Benedetti is heard briefly, playing sax or piano, and a few other solos crop up, but Benedetti basically was concerned with the whole Bird and nothing but the Bird.
Many songs keep recurring, and although Parker never ad libbed on them the same way twice, it's less than a delight to hear the "52nd St. Theme" played 19 times. Still, "The Benedetti Records" can be recommended unreservedly to Bird-lorists for selective, non-continuous listening. Moreover, the 48-page booklet is a masterpiece of historiography, with Parker's solos transcribed, rare photos, and microscopically detailed essays by Schaap, Porter and Jim Patrick.