Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Magician's Stenographer (Charlie Parker & Dean Bennedetti)


The Parker/ Benedetti box set has held a talismanic fascination for me since I first discovered its existence. Dean Benedetti was the man who followed Charlie Parker around taping his saxophone solos – and only his solos – for a short period in the mid-to-late 1940s. It was an act of obsessional devotion. Benedetti had thrown away a promising career as a professional saxophonist because he had heard Parker one night and realised that this was the way in which the alto saxophone was meant to be played - and that his calling lay in becoming Parker’s self-appointed amanuensis: his unpaid, un-hired secretary. What Benedetti had immediately recognised was that Charlie Parker was a bona-fide genius, and that nobody was documenting his performances. He set to work.

I knew about all this from reading Ross Russell’s biography of Parker, “Bird Lives”. I also knew that the hardline according to the “Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD” was that Russell was more than a little inclined to exaggerate, or even directly falsify. But I also learned from this Penguin guide that the Benedetti archive really existed and was available to buy: a bunch of jazz obsessives running a company in Connecticut called Mosaic records specialized in complete sets of recordings of noted artists at specific stages of their careers. These were only available by mail order or from specialist shops. Lovingly restored. lavishly annotated, cripplingly expensive – the Benedetti set was 7 cd’s long and cost well over £100. And what did this thing actually consist of? Literally hundreds of (in some cases very) short recordings of snippets of performances that had taken place in small clubs in California over half a century ago. These recordings were allegedly of exceptionally low fidelity. How could they not be, considering how they were made? The legend according to Russell was that Benedetti had used an ex-Nazi wire recorder. Imagine that! Little reels of wire! But no, the sober report in the Penguin guide gives this the lie: in reality Benedetti’s tool had been a disc-cutting machine. Which is even better! Imagine this guy, Benedetti, sitting in a locked toilet cubicle (Ross Russell again, unrefuted so I take it as gospel) monitoring the levels on a weird, ancient 78rpm disc-cutter. Imagine the fragility of those discs! How  precious they were! For what was on those discs was nothing less than the sound of Bird in flight: casually giving proof of his extraordinary gifts night after night, scattering unprecedented streams of notes to the four winds without a thought for posterity. Only Dean, huddled over his machine in the gloom of a stinking nightclub toilet cubicle, only Dean could provide documentary evidence to the sceptics and the faithful alike. Dean Benedetti: the magician’s stenographer.

Myself, I’d avoided Parker’s music for years, scared of his reputation. I knew that if I got stuck in then I would probably become obsessed; and I was already obsessed with so much music, even then the library was out of control. Then, one day, inevitably, it happened: in all innocence my flatmate loaned me a copy of the Dial Masters. “Listen to this”, he said, “it’s great stuff, you might really like it”.  I could tell just by looking at the cover that it was dangerous. I avoided listening to it for weeks, not until my flatmate started asking for it back did I finally give in. And, yes, it was “The Famous Alto Break” that did it for me. This was the unaccompanied four bar bridge to “A Night In Tunisia” - famous amongst Bird-fanciers as a particularly choice bit of Parker. When I heard it I was dumbstruck, as so many have been before and as I’m sure so many will be in the future. I played it over and over. The dam duly broke: I’d find myself singing bebop riffs at bus stops. Vainly, I would try to play them on the guitar, not knowing where to start. I made tapes for bewildered friends. I was hooked. Charlie Parker had got me. 

I’ll try not to bore you with the details but as the years went by I found that  I had gradually got hold of all the Dial sessions, and all the Savoy sessions, with all the out-takes, some 11 lp’s (I made sure to get ‘em on vinyl) representing about four years of Parker’s 11 year recording career (not including juvenilia). They all sounded roughly the same but they were all totally different: musical snowflakes. And like snowflakes they were all so exquisitely detailed, so intricate and - when Bird was flying - so effortlessly perfect. As well as these I had got some of the Verve sessions -  which I didn’t like so much, Parker having been placed by Norman Granz into some highly incongruous commercial settings - plus some live sessions from the later period: the ‘Massey Hall’ concert, Birdland, Royal Roost radio broadcasts etc. I was helped in this by my friend Stan Britt, veteran jazz critic and true believer in Bird from way back. There was no doubt in my mind, any more than there was in Stan’s, any more than there can have been in Benedetti’s, that Parker was among the most extraordinary musicians of the 20th century.  

His technical innovations, marvellous though they were, were not his alone. Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Thelonious Monk to name but three were all working towards the same goal at the same time. And certainly Lester Young, who was Parker’s idol, had suggested in the mid to late 30s that he could have invented bebop there and then if it hadn’t seemed like so much hard work. No, what set Parker aside and above his contemporaries were his perfectly rounded phrases, his graceful ease and swing; at even the most punishing tempos he always sounded like he had time to spare. He always played melodies, even if they were sometimes rather oblique, and he had that extremely unusual gift of being able to make time do his bidding. It’s something that all great virtuosos have: it’s one of their distinguishing features, and it’s very difficult to describe  - even in technical language. He himself described what he did as being:  “just music. It’s just playing clean and looking for the pretty notes.”  
Nevertheless, Bird was well aware of his gifts and was notorious for playing tricks on his rhythm sections. He was fond of shaving off beats from bars by playing irregular phrase lengths that sounded regular by virtue of their melodic symmetry – perhaps a result of listening to Stravinsky and Berg, as Parker liked to do – and thereby throwing bass players and pianists into terrified confusion as they found themselves approaching the end of a 12 or 32 bar measure apparently several beats behind. “Don’t follow Bird!” Max Roach would bellow from behind his drums, as Parker would chuckle a phrase to finish the measure in exactly the right place - leaving the hapless accompanists in rhythmic limbo. (“I used to want to quit every night” – Miles Davis)

Of course, we have the records to prove all this, one only has to listen to them. But Dean Benedetti didn’t have a box set of cd’s to listen to. Only his precious home-made 78’s. He had seen what needed to be done and he had had the wherewithal and savvy to get it down anyway that he knew how. I admired him so much for what he had done. How the hipsters must have laughed up their sleeves at him: (“Hey, there goes Dean, that wiggy cat with his big box under his arm.”  “Uh, like, Dean got thrown out of the club by the union rep!” “No way!” “Dig that kinda shit!”) And what about the nights when his discs got broken, or spoiled, or lost, or when his microphone didn’t work, or when he would get interrupted and ejected by some philistine authority figure who had no conception of how important his work was. And where was his reward? Who defrayed Dean’s (not inconsiderable) expenses? What was his payment? Only the recordings themselves: the truth of how completely it was possible for a man to master the alto saxophone.

I saw the Benedetti box set in Honest Jon’s in Portobello Road. It was up on the wall behind the counter. I didn’t even ask to see it. I couldn’t begin to afford it. Anyway, it was madness wasn’t it? Seven cd’s of crackly lo-fi saxophone solos, all out of context. What kind of maniac would listen to such a thing? I sighed openly in the shop. I knew the answer to this question: Me. I knew also that some of the solos had been transcribed in manuscript. Imagine how painstakingly difficult that must have been. How much time and patience that would have taken. My own reading would be too rusty to get the full benefit from such scholarship, but wouldn’t it be something to just follow the line? It was driving me nuts. I had a record collector’s mental cold shower and bought something else instead. I never saw the box set again and I assumed that the very limited edition that Mosaic had pressed had been exhausted. All the nutters who were going to buy it had bought it – all except the ones who couldn’t afford it and who cares about them, right? 

Some years later, I was on tour in Europe playing bass with a celebrated pseudo-Arabic diva. We were in Helsinki and Hami the drummer told me he was going to check out this record shop he’d been told about. I tagged along for something to do before soundcheck. We took a tram down the road, saw the shop, hopped off, walked in. Hami went to look at World Music cd’s and I immersed myself in jazz. And there it was. At around £120 in Finnish money. I looked at it properly for the first time. It was everything I expected. The essays were long, the pictures superb, the transcriptions and annotations all present and correct. Oh God, oh God…
I tentatively showed it to Hami. He was tickled. Casually, but not without a knowing smile, he suggested I come back the next day and buy it with the money I was to make from the evening’s show. “You won’t regret it”, he said. Torture. As a panacea I bought two very cheap Parker albums – one of which I already had, albeit in a knackered copy, the other being some radio session with Dizzy from 1951. Nice, as it turned out: an insanely fast “Anthropology” which hangs together by magic, also a tough “Blue’n’Boogie”. But I digress. I came back the next day with the money in my hand and, do you know what, folks? I couldn’t do it. Just couldn’t. I sat there for what must have been an hour reading the booklet. It was fascinating, totally absorbing stuff. Serious discography is a kind of strange modern science but with roots stretching back to the kind of work  that the master librarians in the monasteries must have done in medieval times, or even earlier. Was it not they who were responsible for recording the culture for posterity? Likewise the compilers and producers of the Benedetti box. In it, they warmly praised Benedetti’s accuracy and scholarship: “He was one of us. And a good one”, wrote the editor at one point.  And I felt like weeping. Whose work is it that I was hankering after: Parker’s or Benedetti’s? I thought of Benedetti dying a painful, premature death, not long after Parker’s, of all that work, all the trouble he took. For what? So that fifty or so years later, a few hundred similarly minded devotees scattered all over the world should know the truths that Benedetti discovered about Parker’s music? I put the box down. It seemed too easy to just buy it, with this funny money. I put it back. Left the shop. Sat in a cafĂ©. Had a coffee. Cigarette. Stared into space. 

I realised that it’s enough just to know that it exists. I’m a working musician. The time it would take to listen to it, study it, absorb it, is time that Parker would have spent practising. It’s a hard discipline. But it’s simple and truthful. You serve the music. Parker himself once famously observed: “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” And this remark has been quoted endlessly by romantic apologists for Parker’s abominable, dysfunctional lifestyle. But I think he meant something else quite different from drugs, booze, whores and homelessness, he meant that you must serve the music. That’s what he and Benedetti had in common, what they shared, what they did together. The artist and his faithful Boswell.

And besides, how could I have solved the problem of the missing £120….? 

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