At Billy Berg’s: An Obbligato (1945)

Charlie Parker, ca. August 1947. William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection,
Music Division, Library of Congress.

Inside the one-story stucco building that houses the night club, in the part
farthest removed from the bandstand – in the men’s room, to be exact – a man
is listening to music through a set of earphones. He is a tall man with pale
ivory skin and raven hair brushed back in neat waves from a high, prideful
forehead, and he is dressed immaculately in cocoa-brown trousers, with knife
pleats and wide cuffs, a narrow belt of rubbed pigskin, a cream-colored sport
shirt with a softly rolled collar, no tie, and a lapel-less band jacket cut from
fawn-colored camel’s hair. His name is Dean Benedetti, and he is a kind of
amateur recording engineer. His job is to take musical notes by means of a
portable recording machine. The music that Dean Benedetti can hear through
the earphones is being picked up by a small, sensitive microphone hung from a
fastening in the padded leatherette shell of the bandstand outside. From the
microphone a wire, of very fine gauge, its color matching that of the interior
decor of the night club, runs along walls, facings, moldings, and door frames
until it reaches the menīs room. There Dean has come to an understanding
with the elderly Negro who dispenses towels and shoe laces to the customers
of the night club. The men’s room is larger than most, equipped with a mirror
and three each of wash basins, urinals, and toilet stalls. To the door of one of
the stalls has been hung an OUT OF ORDER sign. Inside, on the closed lid of
the toilet, Benedetti sits with the portable recording machine cradled in his lap,
the headphones clamped to his ears, monitoring the music coming from the
bandstand. Tonight Dean’s arrangements are a little complicated. Ordinarily he
likes to work from a table in the main room of a night club. Tonight he has run
into difficulties. The business agent of the musicianīs union, which forbids
unauthorized recording of live performances, has complained to the manage-
ment and Dean has been asked to leave. Luckily, this happened thirty minutes
before the opening set. After making a show of quitting the premises, Dean
returned through a service entrance, and carried out emergency
arrangements. He is an old hand at this kind of thing. In the course of his
musical note-taking Dean has been thrown out of clubs too numerous too
mention. It has happened to him in New York, Boston, and Chicago. Dean
always travels with spare wire leads, fastenings, and hand tools.

In the toilet stall he is comfortable and secure. Union officials, waiters,
bouncers, the owner of the night club (a man named Billy Berg) cannot
interfere with his work. To be able to make musical notes unmolested is
important to Dean. When the music reaches the pitch and excitement mounts,
the decibel meter must be watched carefully and the gain control knob
constantly adjusted to the volume being put into the machine. If he fails to do
this, the valuable tapes will be overcut and the notes distorted.

As the opening set of the evening begins, Dean listens closely, identifying each
of the men in the band by turn. As yet no tape is running through the
recording heads. Dean hears an opening figure, played by the drummer, Stan
Levey, followed by a series of round, mellow notes that walk up the
fingerboardof the contrabass, played by Ray Brown. Then the pianist, Al Haig,
joins in and the rhythm section is all together, setting up its sinuous, driving
beat. The band is opening with a tune titled „A NIGHT IN TUNISIA“. After a few
measures, gonglike notes, seemingly out of time, but accurately setting up a
second rhythmic line and adding to the tension, are played by a vibraphone.
That is Milt Jackson. Dean Benedetti waits for the entry of the wind
instruments. He is ready to start the machine. A trumpet is heard. It seems to
blurp, gargle, and falter. But that is just a musical put-on, one of Dizzyīs little
tricks. Instantly the trumpet recovers from the fake false start and soars into
the upper register with faultless control. All of the instrumental voices are
familiar. It is childīs play for a man with Benedettiīs ear to identify the various
players. Even if Dean were unfamiliar with the personnel of the band, he would
have no trouble in sorting out Dizzy Gillespie from all the trumpet players or Al
Haig from all of the pianists playing jazz in America. Before abandoning his
own instrument, the alto saxophone, and settling on his present vocation,
Dean was a member of the jazz community, not one of its principal figures by
any means, but a minor one with status. He has a comprehensive knowledge
of jazz instrumental style.

Now a saxophone joins the trumpet, and immediately Dean starts the machine
running. This was what he was waiting for – the saxophone. In the earphones
he hears a group of lush, quivering notes, and knows that something is amiss.
The sounds do not come from an alto saxophone but a tenor. No tenor
saxophonist was scheduled to appear with the band tonight. Dean recognizes
the player. It is a man named Eli „Lucky“ Thompson, last heard of as being at
liberty in these parts.

Dean has no difficulty in identifying the player by the vibrato and phrasing. The
style is a variation of Don Byas out of Coleman Hawkins. A tenor saxophonist
has been substituted for the alto saxophonist, the man Dean came to record.
He stops the tape at once. Charlie Parker, the easiest of all contemporary
jazzmen to identify because of the power and the clarity of his tone, cannot be
heard, even in the ensemble parts, therefore is not on the bandstand.
Something is wrong. It is his custom to record only the Parker parts. Solos by
other musicians, even those as eminent in the new movement as Dizzy
Gillespie and Al Haig, let alone Lucky Thompson, do not merit Deanīs time or
material. In his view these men are just barely good enough to occupy the
same bandstand with Charlie Parker, of interest only because of their
supporting roles. Benedetti places the recording machine on the lid of the toilet
seat and closes the stall. Bird has missed the opening set.

From Ross Russel: ‘Bird Lives! The high life and hard times of Charlie
„Yardbird“ Parker’
, pp. 1 – 4.

Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Reprinted with