The Birth of Bebop: “The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions”

April 27, 2015 Updated: April 28, 2015

Mosaic is a label dedicated to high-quality reissues of jazz recordings. Its recently released box set, “The Complete Dial Masters,” documents the achievements of one of the most important independent labels, Dial Records, which was owned by Ross Russell (1909-2000).

Russell owned the Tempo Music Shop in L.A. and, when he started his own record label, he managed to document the young lions of the new bebop music. Not that it was an easy task, since the most important figure, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker (aka “Bird”), abused both heroin and alcohol (which led to his death at age 34) and many of the others had similar problems.

Russell and the musicians at the sessions had to be flexible. In February 1946, Parker was supposed to be recording with Dizzy Gillespie. However, Bird only appears on one track before he split. Nevertheless, the session went on and produced some exciting music, notably an early rendition of “‘Round Midnight.” The next month, Bird was in top form, recording the classics “Moose the Mooche,” “Yardbird Suite,” “Ornithology” and “Night in Tunisia” with a group that included fledgling trumpeter Miles Davis.

There’s the controversial session in July 1946, with Howard McGhee on trumpet, when Parker was drunk and apparently going through a mental breakdown. After the recording, he set fire to his hotel room and was sent to jail and then a mental hospital. Yet, the recording of “Lover Man” is highly emotional and, while fumbling, still effective.

After his release, Russell organized another session, with Parker and the unique pianist Erroll Garner, whom one does not associate with this type of music as well as vocalist Earl Coleman, a baritone in the Billy Eckstine mode. Nevertheless, they jelled.

Soon afterward, Parker was back in the studio, with McGhee, Wardell Gray, Dodo Marmorosa, and Barney Kessel. They turned out “Relaxin’ At Camarillo” (a tribute to the mental hospital Parker had stayed in) plus “Cheers,” “Carvin’ the Bird” and “Stupendous.”

By October 1946, Russell had moved his operation to New York and recorded more of Parker with a top flight group: Miles, Max Roach, Duke Jordan and Tommy Potter. They recorded “Dexterity,” “Bongo Bop,” “Dewey Square,” and “Bird of Paradise.” Parker’s high point in lyricism may be his ruminations on “Embraceable You,” which are also included in the Smithsonian’s set of classic jazz.

For later Parker sessions, Dial added the leading trombonist of the bebop era, J.J. Johnson. They produced the weirdly titled “Klact-Oveeseds-Tene” as well as “Crazeology,” “Drifting On a Reed” and “Scrapple From the Apple.” Parker waxed lyrical on the ballads “Out of Nowhere,” “Don’t Blame Me,” “My Old Flame” and others.

The set also contains then rising stars, such as baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff and a Howard McGhee session with Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, and James Moody. Trumpeter Fats Navarro’s brilliance comes to the fore in “Move” with Max Roach, Al Casey and Don Lanphere.

There is a trio session led by Dodo Marmarosa and a solo date by the ever playful and unclassifiable Erroll Garner.

A 1945 session led by vibes player Red Norvo (a swing player who kept up with the new music) has Parker and Gillespie, Flip Phillips, Teddy Wilson, Slam Stewart, and Specs Powell and J.C. Heard alternating. It was recorded for another label and bought by Dial.

Dexter Gordon relished cutting contests with other saxophonists and his most famous one is in this set, “The Chase” with Wardell Gray. Gordon also has a duel with Teddy Edwards that is included in the box set. If the young Gordon looked like a movie star, he became one near the end of his life. Starring in “‘Round Midnight,” he became the only jazz performer to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor.

The booklet contains a 1995 essay by Dial founder Ross Russell, who had written a biography of Charlie Parker (“Bird Lives”). There are also session by session analyses and the personnel and dates of each session. The booklet (on glossy paper) is filled with wonderful photographs and memorabilia, such as Charlie Parker’s handwritten contract.

These recordings mark a sea-change in American music, the transition from swing to bebop and capture Charlie Parker at his best.