The recording industry continues to reel from falling CD sales as music fans flock to low-cost streaming. But this is hardly the first disruptive technology to shake record companies to the core. In the early 1940s, musicians shut down almost all recording in a struggle for increased royalties, seeking compensation for jukebox and radio play. Much like today, seismic changes in the music business opened doors for new sounds and new business models.
In Los Angeles, where the wartime boom fueled an explosion of creativity in black music, nearly a dozen independent labels sprang up to document the profusion of talent after the American Federation of Musicians declared a strike in 1942 seeking 1-cent royalties on every record sold. Suddenly, styles ignored or overlooked by the big three -- Decca, Columbia and Victor -- found a home, and no indie created a more enduring legacy than Ross Russell’s Dial Records.
Russell, a writer who owned a small Hollywood music shop, launched Dial to record Charlie Parker, or Bird, the genius alto saxophonist who forged the virtuosic new vocabulary of bebop with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. On their first trip to the West Coast, they played a three-month gig at Billy Berg’s, one of the first integrated clubs in Hollywood. The engagement firmly established the bracing new style on the Southland scene, and Russell quickly set about documenting Diz and Bird. When the rest of the band headed home, Parker stayed in L.A. He’s featured on about a third of the tracks on a new nine-disc set by the mail-order label Mosaic: "The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions."
These recordings are the stuff of legend, capturing Bird on some his first dates under his own name, initially accompanied by a 20-year-old trumpeter named Miles Davis. Focusing on his original pieces, like “Yardbird Suite,” “Ornithology” and “Moose the Mooche,” Parker plays with dazzling fluency.
Russell recorded Bird at his best and at a moment of crisis, when his self-destructive habits caught up to him in the studio, leaving him ragged and forlorn on a version of “Lover Man.” Parker felt betrayed that Russell released the track, but he continued to record for Dial. When Bird moved back to New York in 1947, Russell and the label followed, recording the quintessential bebop combo on a series of blazing sessions featuring Bird’s working band with Miles, Max Roach, bassist Tommy Potter and pianist Duke Jordan.
But Dial continued to document L.A . modernists like trumpeter Howard McGhee, pianist Erroll Garner and tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who made a point of featuring another rising L.A. star, trombonist Melba Liston (she went on to do brilliant work as an arranger with Dizzy Gillespie and Randy Weston). A charismatic musician with a huge, muscular sound, Gordon gained a popular following in L.A. through his epic tenor battles with the lithe-toned Wardell Gray at a Central Avenue chicken joint called The-Bird-in-the-Basket. Using both sides of a 78, Russell captured their fierce but friendly jousting on “The Chase,” one of the label’s most popular records.
The pieces by Dexter, Bird and Errol Garner, who sounds irrepressibly joyful on solo and trio sessions, have circulated widely over the years, but the box set also includes some eye-opening discoveries. The 21-year-old trumpeter Sonny Berman, who died just months after his session, sounds magnificent with a band gleaned from Woody Herman’s orchestra. McGhee’s work is equally revelatory, as his work with pianist Dodo Marmarosa (who’s also featured on some sparkling trio tracks of his own) shows why he was considered a worthy rival for Gillespie.
Bebop is often portrayed as the movement that sundered jazz from its popular following, transforming it from dance music into art music. But that narrative is far too simple. While innovative L.A. artists like blues guitarist T-Bone Walker, R&B crooner Charles Brown, and Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers siphoned off much of jazz’s black audience, bebop had plenty of support, too.
The box set’s subtext is the devastation wrought by heroin on this generation of musicians. The roll call of achingly young casualties includes Bird, Berman, Gray, Fats Navarro and Serge Challof. Gordon, McGhee and drummer Roy Porter lost decades to addiction and incarceration. The liner notes, which aren’t quite up to Mosaic’s Grammy-winning standards, elide this sad reality, but provide a good overview of the label’s brief but glorious run.
After 1948, Russell briefly turned his attention to contemporary European composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Years later he wrote "Bird Lives!," a colorful but often apocryphal account of Charlie Parker’s life. But there’s no denying the musical truth that Russell captured in the studio. This smartly produced box set is designed for collectors who want every note, or anyone who wants a front-row seat at a revolution that continues to reverberate.