Bird Lives! The Birth of Bebop, Captured on Disc
By FRED KAPLAN
Published: July 31, 2005
IT'S an unlikely story, but the most stunning jazz discovery in a decade -
the Rosetta Stone of bebop - was unearthed at an Elks Lodge in Chelmsford,
Mass. The trove consisted of seven 12-inch acetate discs, on which was
recorded a 40-minute concert by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker at Town
Hall in New York on June 22, 1945.
That date is significant. The two musicians - Diz and Bird, as the world
would soon know them - were still fairly obscure. (Most of the audience had
probably come to hear other musicians on the bill, especially the tenor
saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, who didn't show up.) The first
Gillespie-Parker record had been in stores for only a few weeks. The
second, produced on May 11, hadn't yet been released.
In short, these discs vividly transport us to the birth of modern jazz.
In those days of the 78 r.p.m. single, studio sessions were limited to
about three minutes per song, solos to 15 or 20 seconds. At the Town Hall
concert, the musicians were free to play the tunes - "Bebop," "Groovin'
High," "Hot House," "A Night in Tunisia" and "Salt Peanuts," all jazz
anthems by the end of that year but at the time still unknown - for twice
as long, and at a furious tempo. Solos went on for two minutes or more, and
they're blazing - Diz scaling heights on trumpet, Bird hitting speeds on
alto sax, that no one had heard before. The studio recordings, great as
they are, sound mellow, even quaint, by comparison.
Now, 60 years after the concert, the small jazz label Uptown Records has
sonically restored the acetates and transferred them to a CD titled simply
"Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker: Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945."
The acetates were brought to light by Uptown's proprietor, Dr. Robert E.
Sunenblick, an internal physician who splits his practice between Montreal
and Plattsburgh, N.Y. - and splits his life between seeing patients in the
afternoons and running a one-man record company in the mornings and at
Dr. Sunenblick, 56, has long been a denizen of the record-collecting
subculture, one of the bleary-eyed men who spend weekends at vinyl expos,
combing through stacks of LP's, 45's, 78's and the occasional tape or
acetate, yearning for out-of-print rarities or - the ultimate dream -
long-lost treasures. "They've got that psycho-killer look," he said with a
laugh. "I know it well; I get it myself sometimes."
In the early 1980's, while working in Manhattan for an emergency medical
service, Dr. Sunenblick started the Uptown label and began producing new
albums, often of once-prominent jazz musicians who had unjustly fallen into
shadows. After a divorce, he moved to Montreal and, removed from the live
music scene, began to explore the murky world of old, forgotten recordings.
Newspapers were reporting that someone had taken a home movie - and still
had the reel - of the legendary moment in the 1932 World Series when Babe
Ruth pointed to center field, then slugged the next pitch over the wall.
"It fascinated me that stuff like that exists," Dr. Sunenblick recalled in
a phone interview. "I got to thinking, what else exists in somebody's
closet?" He started looking.
In the early 90's, he traveled to Newton, Mass., to buy a record collection
from a former dealer. In the course of chatting, the seller told him about
a friend who had tape-recorded radio broadcasts of jazz concerts in the
40's and 50's.
Dr. Sunenblick went to see the friend. One of his tapes was of a concert in
Boston in 1954 by the West Coast trumpeter Chet Baker, his first East Coast
appearance. It became the first album in Uptown's Flashback Series.
Another, from the same batch of tapes, was a Boston concert by Charlie
Parker in 1952.
The Parker tape posed a puzzle. The reel was undated. So Dr. Sunenblick
went to the Boston Public Library and looked up microfiche of old
newspapers, searching for an advertisement for a Parker concert. He found
one in the long-defunct Boston Daily Record. The concert's date, he could
authenticate, was Dec. 14, 1952.
Meanwhile, a fellow record collector in Cleveland told him about a friend
who had a tape of a 1958 Coleman Hawkins performance at a high school dance
in Jamestown, N.Y. The dance took place in a ballroom one floor below a
radio station. Someone at the station had covertly wired a microphone
through the ceiling and recorded the date. The friend, an avid Hawkins
collector, had obtained the tape.
A disc jockey in Pittsburgh, another acquaintance from the used-records
circuit, told him about a trumpeter named Danny Conn, who had played in a
local nightclub with Dodo Marmarosa - a brilliant pianist who in the 1940's
had accompanied every jazz giant who came to Los Angeles. After suffering a
mental breakdown, Marmarosa returned to Pittsburgh, his hometown, and
resumed playing. Mr. Conn made tapes of their gigs. Dr. Sunenblick bought
them, had them restored, obtained the rights and released them.
AND on and on the discoveries went.
Which leads to a Saturday morning in the fall of 2000, when Dr. Sunenblick,
while visiting his daughter in Boston, drove to a record show at the Elks
Lodge in nearby Chelmsford.
He struck up a conversation with a "picker," a special breed of collector
who tracks down extremely rare records and sells them quickly for cash
only. A few weeks later, the picker, who lived in Milton, Mass., called
him, said he'd found a very unusual acetate, and offered to play it over
The first sound on the record was the voice of Sidney Torin, a popular New
York jazz D.J. in the 40's better known as Symphony Sid, introducing a
concert by the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet, featuring Charlie Parker, with Max
Roach on drums, Al Haig on piano and Curley Russell on bass.
Dr. Sunenblick knew that no live recordings of this quintet had ever been
found - or even been rumored to exist. The disc was the collector's dream,
a treasure-map fragment of a secret history.
The picker, who to this day insists on anonymity ("All these guys worry
about copyrights and tax collectors," Dr. Sunenblick said), told him he'd
found the acetate at an antique store just outside Stamford, Conn. Dr.
Sunenblick, who figured it had to be the first of a multidisc set, begged
him to go back to the store and look for the others. He found six more.
They turned out to contain the rest of the concert.
More than that, they sounded pretty good - cleaner and more balanced than
many studio sessions of the day - and they were complete; there were no
gaps or dropouts. It was clearly a professional job, engineered backstage
at Town Hall on two side-by-side disc-cutting machines.
Who recorded it? Why didn't he pass the discs around, try to sell them, or
even tell anybody about them? How did they end up in Connecticut?
Their sudden appearance, out of the blue, is a major find, but it stirs
deeper mysteries. Parker and Gillespie also played at Town Hall a month
earlier, on May 16, 1945. We know this because there are photos from that
concert (one of them is on the Uptown CD's cover). Are there acetates, too?
And if so, in what attic or junk shop have they been lurking the past