When new works by dead artists are discovered, the first question asked is, Where have they been hiding all these years? Perhaps a safe deposit box in a Swiss bank? Or maybe a warehouse in a broken down industrial neighborhood? Or did a lucky collector pick it up at a garage sale?
Last November, a lost cantata by Mozart came to light in the archives of the Czech Museum of Music—its origins long unrecognized because the composer’s name was written in a code. A few months earlier, a missing score by Stravinsky was discovered in a dusty pile of manuscripts, untouched for decades, in a storage area of the St Petersburg Conservatoire. If the room hadn’t been emptied for repairs, the music might never have been found.
So when the Verve label announced a few months ago the impending release of Unheard Bird, a double album of unreleased music by legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, fans wondered where this music had been hiding in the 64 years since it was recorded.
After all, Verve had already released various “complete” sets of Parker’s music. Scholars have studied Parker, often called by his nickname Bird, and his recorded output with scrupulous care. Many biographies have been published and discographies compiled. Yet two hours of music—a significant addition to Parker’s legacy—shows up and, until recently, none of the experts even knew it existed!
I am happy to report that the music is outstanding, but the mystery remains. If there’s a story behind these tracks—and there must be, no?—Verve isn’t telling it.
Phil Schaap, a leading expert on Parker’s recording sessions, co-produced the release of this music. He is the perfect person for this project. When David Remnick wrote a profile of Schaap for The New Yorker in 2008, the article’s subhead was, “Thinking About Charlie Parker Every Day.” In the piece, Remnick compared Schaap’s interest in Bird to the obsessions of a “mad Talmudic scholar.”
Yet in his detailed liner notes to Unheard Bird, Schaap says little about the source of these finds, except to note that the music comes from the “camp”of Norman Granz, the founder of Verve who produced Bird’s work for the label. In a follow-up communication, Schaap tells me that he has had “no contact” with the party who discovered these tracks. Schaap didn’t even get access to the original recordings, but worked from digital transfers.
I will offer some personal speculations, for what they are worth. I’ve heard rumors that a former business associate (not a family member) of Norman Granz has put historical materials related to the record producer up for sale via a dealer. It seems likely that the new Parker music comes from that source—but I couldn’t find anyone willing to talk on the record about this unusual situation.
I note that Granz sold Verve, and its Charlie Parker recordings, to MGM in 1961. He held on to some archival jazz material, and brought it to his new label, Pablo, which he sold to Fantasy Records in 1987. Whatever recordings he still had left at that juncture would almost certainly have passed on to his family upon his death in 2001. The new recordings apparently escaped these transactions—and we can only speculate why the “owner” does not want to get credit for the find.
Yet what a treasure trove here! “These previously unknown takes are a blockbuster,” Phil Schaap declares, and I concur with his judgment. Unheard Bird includes 58 previously unknown takes recorded between 1949 and 1952. Given the paucity of Parker’s commercial work—you could listen to his entire output of studio recordings in a single day—this represents a substantial addition to his corpus.
No one did more than Charlie Parker to establish the modern jazz sound of the ’40s. He reinvented the melodic and rhythmic vocabulary of the music, and served as the leading role model for improvisers during the next half-century. He never achieved the name recognition of a Miles Davis or a John Coltrane. But make no mistake, without Charlie Parker, we may never have heard of these later stars. Miles only came to the attention of jazz fans after Parker hired him, and Coltrane’s first recordings reveal his slavish imitation of Bird’s work.
The music in Unheard Bird covers a wide range of settings and material. We get to hear new takes from Parker’s South of the Border Latin jazz project. We are treated to never-before-heard music with a big band from the recording sessions for Parker’s album of Cole Porter songs. New takes from the celebrated 1950 quintet session with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk are included, as well as quartet music alongside Buddy Rich, Ray Brown, and Hank Jones. We also get a snippet of music from Bird’s work with string orchestra, as well as combo performances with Kenny Dorham and Max Roach.
Bird lovers will find no shocks or surprises here. The songs themselves will be familiar from previously released material, but the improvisations are different, and Parker plays at a very high level throughout. In some instances, a new take offers different insights on the saxophonist’s mindset. For example, a previously unheard version of “Fiesta” is taken at a slower tempo from the released master, and Bird plays with an uncharacteristically warm and romantic tone—almost as if he is crafting a track for radio airplay. Listeners who only know the more intense version released in the ’50s will find this alternate approach a revelation.
In other instances, the interpretation is unchanged, but the addition of new takes gives us more to savor. What a joy to have several new versions of Parker’s romp through a fast blues, or an alternative take of his performance of “What Is This Thing Called Love” with a big band. In each instance, Verve also includes the previously released master for comparison—a smart move that will help new fans appreciate the significance of the recent discoveries.
These tracks may represent the last major addition to Charlie Parker’s legacy of recorded work. Schaap previously assisted in the 1990 release of the famous Dean Benedetti recordings of Charlie Parker—seven hours of music captured on a portable device by a rabid fan. But many listeners were disappointed by the poor sound quality of those tracks. Unheard Bird, in contrast, includes high quality studio recordings made with audio fidelity as good as anything Parker ever recorded.
The Verve label has had a tumultuous history since founder Granz sold it more than a half century ago. In recent years, Verve has struggled to find a new identity, sometimes keeping to its jazz roots, in other instances releasing music by aging pop stars such as Donny Osmond and Barry Manilow. The recent appointment of Danny Bennett, son of iconic singer Tony Bennett, as its new president and CEO was a promising move, and this stellar release gives fans some hope that the label is again on an upswing.
Are there other undiscovered masterworks out there waiting for discovery? I can hope, though I doubt any more Parker material of this range and caliber will come our way. But Norman Granz recorded many other legendary artists—including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, and Dizzy Gillespie. Perhaps this mysterious new source of old music will give us unexpected offerings from the other stars of the Verve catalog.