Peter Watrous’ Dec. 23, 1990 New York Times review of this 7-cd box set of Dean Benedetti’s legendary recordings of Charlie Parker in full flight…
The cover, featuring a picture of a record player, and the title, The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker, get right to the core of the business. Parker’s music is competing with the elephant-size myth of Dean Benedetti as hipster, saxophonist and a man who trailed Parker around with a microphone capturing his every note. Though the live music on this seven-CD boxed set was played by Parker, his picture is not on the cover; Benedetti gets star billing.
These are the legendary, lost Dean Benedetti recordings. If the one lost wax cylinder purportedly made by the New Orleans trumpeter Buddy Bolden is the holy grail of jazz, then the Benedetti recordings are the vice-holy grail.
Benedetti’s myth was embellished by Ross Russell’s often fictive biography of Charlie Parker, Bird Lives (1973), in which Benedetti lurks around recording everything Parker plays. Although apocryphal, Mr. Russell’s story dramatizes Parker’s appeal and his immense cultural influence. Bird Lives is Parker as icon, a genius hellbent on destruction while Benedetti (and by implication, everybody else) followed, catching every drop of the elixir. Within limits, the story is true fiction: the eagerly awaited release of this boxed set, the product of enormous work and hard-won rewards, is an example of how powerful Parker’s appeal still is.
Recorded by Benedetti between March 1, 1947, and July 11, 1948, the set collects 15 days’ worth of Parker’s improvisations and rehearsals at a variety of clubs, including the Hi-De-Ho in Los Angeles and the Three Deuces and the Onyx in New York. The music more or less vanished into lore after Benedetti’s death in 1957. Parker died in 1955.
The tapes reappeared in 1988 at Benedetti’s brother’s house in Burbank, Calif., and Mosaic Records (35 Melrose Place, Stamford, Conn.06902) has reissued as much as it could. There are a few minutes of recordings that, for financial reasons, weren’t included in the set, making this, in reality, The Almost Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings.
The musician discovered Parker early on. In the mid-1940’s, Benedetti was a scuffling saxophonist at the center of a group of young, modernist jazz musicians. He first heard his idol in 1945, when Parker, who infrequently recorded under his own name, was known only to jazz cognoscenti. Benedetti was an avid discographer who searched out Parker’s recorded appearances as a sideman; he and the trombonist Jimmy Knepper transcribed Parker’s solos to learn the secret to be-bop, then a relatively new style. This is standard practice: musicians traditionally use recordings to learn the craft of jazz, repeating a recording over and over until it’s down on paper or in their heads and under their fingers.
In 1946, Parker showed up in California, where Benedetti was living, and like the good student he was, Benedetti sat at the feet of the master at all his club appearances. But the master liked drugs and was quickly thrown into CamarilloStateHospital, leaving Benedetti without the musical resources he needed to develop as a musician, aside from Parker’s scant official recordings. When Parker emerged from Camarillo in 1947, Benedetti bought a disk-cutting recorder (and later a tape recorder) and began recording Parker at clubs to gain access to his improvisations. The saxophonists Jackie McLean and Sonny Rollins also recorded Parker, off radio programs, and would spend the day transcribing or learning fresh Parker solos.
But recording technology of the time was primitive, and these performances are low-fi at best. The tapes were badly labeled and recorded on material that has deteriorated. Most important, Benedetti rarely recorded more than Parker’s solos – he was, after all, just trying to learn Parker’s improvisations. So what we have here is about seven hours of scraps, badly recorded. An attempt has been made to coordinate the pieces (solos on the same song are often spliced together) and to put them in chronological order, which is highly speculative, given the labeling fiasco; the discography in the set’s booklet demands a Ph.D. to be understood. But clearly a huge amount of effort has been put into the boxed set.
The obscurity of the tapes has contributed to their legendary status: the less available they are, the easier to imagine their greatness. The reputation is mostly merited.
Though there are no revelations outside of Parker’s off-the-horn screams on “Chasin’ the Bird” from the Onyx Club and an occasionally unusual tune like “Sportsman’s Hop,” the overwhelming amount of material is Parker at work, sometimes inspired, sometimes indifferent, but always Parker. Though the booklet claims that the tapes are analogous to unearthing King Tut’s tomb, lost Monteverdi operas or unknown van Gogh paintings, it’s more like finding a Shakespeare play with everything but the best monologues cut out. The language is brilliant, but the context has been lost.
Still, the monologues can be extraordinary. Some Onyx Club material – which often includes opening melodies and other musicians’ solos, unlike a majority of the music – has an almost unbearable lyricism. “This Time the Dream’s on Me” is one example. On the Don Byas composition “Byas a Drink,” Parker’s solo astounds in its lucidity and narrative drive.
But like most of the music, it’s no better than Parker on the volumes of recordings that already exist; it’s just additional knowledge about his musical life. The value of the set isn’t merely in the music, it’s in its ability to measure the size of a jazz myth.