ROSS RUSSELL AND BEBOP
By Jim Burns
I recently re-read Ross Russell’s novel, The Sound, certainly not for the first time and probably not for the last. It’s not a literary classic, but the subject-matter and Russell’s vibrant accounts of the characters and the milieu in which they operate always fascinates me. His descriptions of the music at the centre of the book make me want to get out the records from the period and listen to them again.
It’s not surprising that Russell describes the music so well. He had played an important role in the early days of the bebop movement of the 1940s, not as a musician but as someone who helped draw attention to bop by starting a company to record Charlie Parker and other practitioners of the new sounds. Not many major record labels were interested in promoting bebop in the mid-1940s and it was left to Dial, Savoy, and other scattered small companies to take a chance with artists like Parker, Dexter Gordon, and Howard McGhee. There are stories about some of the small record labels that came and went in the 1940s, and their shady ways of operating, but without them there would have been fewer examples available of the changes taking place in jazz and popular music.
So who was Ross Russell? He was born in Los Angeles in 1909. In the 1930s he published pulp fiction in magazines, and was a great admirer of the work of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. He served in the Merchant Marine during the Second World War In both the European and Pacific theatres. When the war ended he returned to Los Angeles and, being an enthusiastic jazz fan, decided to open a record shop. He was initially a collector of traditional-style jazz, but when he started to listen to the records by Charlie Parker that local hipsters ordered he became interested in bebop. Opening a record shop was probably a wise choice in more ways than one. Russell had considered trying to get into screenwriting in Hollywood, but later reminisced that, had he done so, he might have been caught up in the HUAC investigations into communism in the film industry. Most of his contacts in the studios were writers who were later blacklisted.
His next step was to form a record company, Dial, to record Charlie Parker who he had met and become friendly with. Parker was in Los Angeles with a group led by Dizzy Gillespie which had a booking at Billy Berg’s Club in Hollywood. But he was proving to be somewhat unreliable due to his drug addiction and the fact that narcotics were not as easy to come by on the West Coast as they were in New York. Parker asked Russell to be his manager, and he also willingly signed an agreement to record for Dial. He was actually under contract to another company at the time.
I’m not intending to analyse the music that Parker produced for Dial. There were seven sessions, some recorded in Los Angeles, some in New York after Russell had moved there. Russell’s own accounts – there were several – can be found in various places, the most accessible probably being in Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker, edited by Bob Reisner. But one recording date does stand out, if not for the best reasons. In July, 1946, Parker went into the studio and came up with the music from the famous (or infamous) Lover Man session. He was in poor condition, due to being unable to obtain the necessary supply of heroin, and was barely able to play. Howard McGhee, the trumpet player on the date, was a tower of strength, but even he, and the rhythm-section, could not cover up for Bird’s dismal performance.
It has always been a matter of contention whether or not the four tracks that Parker managed to stumble through should have ever been released. But they were, much to his annoyance. Russell’s intentions, beyond wanting to try to recover his losses, can be questioned, and they led to accusations of exploitation. Had he realised that there would be an audience for recorded evidence of a great jazzman breaking down? In the studio was a journalist associate of Russell’s, a man called Elliot Grennard who wrote a short-story called “Sparrow’s Last Jump” which was a lightly-fictionalised account of the events of that day. It was published in Harper’s Magazine in 1947. He later recalled Russell saying that he’d “lost a thousand bucks” because of what had happened. At the end of the story the narrator makes the comment: “Yeah, Sparrow’s last recording would sure make a collector’s item. One buck, plus tax, is cheap enough for a record of a guy going nuts”.
Russell had recorded other modern jazz musicians in California – Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, Dodo Marmarosa, - and besides making the final Parker records for Dial in New York in 1947, he produced a session with singer Earl Coleman backed by the brilliant trumpeter Fats Navarro and tenor saxophonist Don Lanphere. There may be an irony in the fact that Russell seemed keen to record Coleman. In 1947 when Parker brought the singer to a Dial session and insisted he should be recorded, Russell had remarked that he needed a singer like he needed a hole in his head. Bird’s version of “This is Always”, with a vocal by Coleman, turned out to be one of Dial’s best-selling discs.
After 1948 Russell seems to have given up on jazz, at least from a recording point of view, and focused on contemporary classical scores, releasing records of the music of Schoenberg, Ernst Krenek, and others. In the 1950s he turned to documenting calypso music in the West Indies. I can’t offer any critical comments on what he recorded, either classical or calypso, but it has been suggested that he offended Schoenberg in the same way that he’d upset Parker by issuing records of what the composer considered sub-standard performances.
Biographical information regarding what Russell did in the 1950s and after is fairly limited. At one time or another he lived in various countries, contributed articles to jazz magazines, taught jazz history courses at the University of California and elsewhere, and sold the Dial records catalogue, especially the Parker sides, to one or two different companies. The material was perhaps best preserved by Spotlite Records, based in the United Kingdom. Russell had kept most of the recorded tracks, including incomplete takes, so critics and ardent fans could study Parker’s work in particular. He claimed that Parker was often at his best on the first take, even if the group as a whole didn’t function as well as it did on later takes, so there was a good reason for issuing everything that survived. It was Parker’s music that mattered most of all.
Russell also wrote several books, beginning with The Sound, a novel based in part on Parker’s life and music. Published in 1961 it was generally well-received, in jazz circles at least, though some people did find the close attention paid to the drugs situation a little distracting. But somewhere (I can’t pin down the source) I recall the writer Nat Hentoff saying of the 1940s: “That’s the way it was, and only someone looking for serialisation in Reader’s Digest would want to pretend otherwise”.
The Sound is colourful and it’s possible to see Russell’s grounding in the pulp fiction of the 1930s at work in some of the writing. But there’s no doubt that he knew the scene in terms of capturing the nature of the music. Early in the story Red Travers, a trumpet-player who is closely modelled on Charlie Parker, arrives in Los Angeles for a club engagement. He’s accompanied by a saxophonist from New York, but the rhythm-section is comprised of local musicians, among them Bernie, a white pianist. He isn’t too familiar with bebop, but has the musical training to follow what Travers is doing harmonically. His induction into the hot house atmosphere as Travers launches into a fast first number that initially confounds everyone apart from the saxophonist, is excitingly evoked by Russell. It always makes me want to listen to some authentic bebop whenever I read it. Which is, I think, a tribute to the quality of his writing when he’s concerned to describe what is happening during a performance by Travers.
A second book by Russell gave an indication of his genuine knowledge and appreciation of jazz developments. Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest, published in 1971, was a close look at an area which, as the book claimed, “was the source for many of the musical ideas that have dominated jazz from the late thirties to the present and resulted in the bebop revolution and the foundation of modern jazz style”. Tracing the music from its roots in “the blues, brass bands, and ragtime” Russell brings it to the 1930s when bands like those led by Andy Kirk, Count Basie and Jay McShann featured key soloists, including Howard McGhee, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker. What is particularly valuable about Russell’s history is that it doesn’t only document the activities and achievements of a few of the better-known names. Minor but interesting musicians like Buddy Anderson and John Jackson are given attention. Anderson, a trumpet player, “was the most advanced musician in the band (Jay McShann’s) after Parker”, and Jackson was an alto-saxophonist who, initially at least, sounded a little like Bird when both were working with McShann.
Russell’s best-known book was Bird Lives! The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker, published in 1972. Because of his involvements with Parker, and his experience of the Los Angeles jazz scene of the mid-1940s, Russell could obviously provide insights into the events relating to certain of Bird’s activities. This particularly applied to information about the Dial recordings and the situations surrounding them. And his awareness of the lively scene in “Lotus Land”, with its cast of hipsters, oddball characters, and enthusiastic musicians, added variety to his account. But questions were raised about some of the events and facts that Russell wrote about. He had talked to a great many musicians and others over the years, and it may have been that some of the information he gathered was more anecdotal than factual, and therefore not totally accurate. But it still occurs to me to think that there are things to be gained from Russell’s Bird biography. He makes the music come alive in a way that later commentators on Parker, while academically correct, often failed to do.
Russell died in January, 2000. He had been working on a book about bebop with Red Rodney, but it was incomplete at the time of his death. He knew the worth of his collection of records, books, magazines, manuscripts, interviews, and much more, and in 1980 had sold his archives to the University of Texas. I think he was aware that his association with Parker and other bop musicians at a time when major musical developments were in process gave him a place in jazz history.
1. The Sound by Ross Russell. Dutton, New York, 1961.
2. Jazz Style in Kansas City and the South West by Ross Russell. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1971.
3. Bird Lives! The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker by Ross Russell. Quartet Books, London, 1973.
4. Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker edited by Robert Reisner. Citadel Press, New York, 1962.
5. The Bebop Revolution in Words and Music edited by Dave Oliphant, Harry Ransome Humanities Research Centre, the University of Texas at Austin, 1994. This assembles some of the papers delivered at a symposium in 1992 and includes a particularly useful piece by Edward Komara on “The Dial Recordings of Charlie Parker”. There is also a Keynote Address by Ross Russell which was delivered on his behalf when health problems prevented him from attending the symposium. It’s informative about, among other things, the social and cultural scene in Los Angeles in the 1940s.
6. “Sparrow’s Last Jump” by Elliott Grennard in Jam Session edited by Ralph J. Gleason. Peter Davies, London, 1958.
7. Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles edited by Clora Bryant & others. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998.
8. Jazz West Coast: The Los Angeles Jazz Scene of the 1950s by Robert Gordon. Quartet Books, London, 1986. Despite its title the book has a couple of useful chapters about jazz in Los Angeles in the 1940s
9. West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California 1945-1960 by Ted Gioia. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998.
10. Bebop: A Social and Musical History by Scott DeVeaux. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.
Readers may be interested in my essay, “Bird Breaks Down” in Beat Scene 49, Coventry, Winter 2005/6, and in Radicals, Beats and Beboppers, Penniless Press, Warrington, 2011.