The history of Charlie Parker is well documented, so much so that most devotees of Bird's pioneering legacy undoubtedly have more than enough recordings to tell the tale. What they might not previously own is readily available in one package on this splendid four-CD set, containing a 100-track chronological musical and verbal account of Parker from 1940 to 1947. It encompasses items such as two whopping, finely detailed 32-page booklets, an early rare demo and interview with the saxophonist about his family and life as a teenager, and recordings with Jay McShann, Hazel Scott, Cootie Williams, Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Coleman, and Barry Ulanov's Metronome All Stars. The sound quality is good overall, though some of the early interview segments are paper thin, and a few of the songs have dropouts. Generally the studio or radio transcriptions are very good, and have held up through digital transfer. Interviews with Max Roach and Teddy Edwards are particularly illuminating and clearly recorded. The interviews with Roy Porter are just as interesting, but sound scratchy and not as clean.
Over this eight-year period, Parker became the singularly unique star of bop, and fell hard as a heroin addicted junkie, committed to the Camarillo rehabilitation center in California for six months in 1946. Prior to that, he was well on his way to stardom, and the 1940 sessions with McShann's band prove the point. These are the most valuable dates in that they showcase the alto and tenor saxophonist as a premier soloist and lead melody constructor. A well done cover of "Moten Swing," the jumpin' "Oh, Lady Be Good" with Bird on tenor, and the self-proclaimed "louder and funnier" "Wichita Blues" give sway to the emergence of Parker, the latter piece featuring trombonist and violinist Bob Gould. More McShann from radio broadcasts lay out further evidence, at times with Al Hibbler or Walter Brown singing, but "Swingmatism" expresses the emerging modern, tricky, multi-faceted approach. Tracks with guitarist Efferge Ware, trumpeter Billy Eckstine, pianist Hazel Scott, and vocalist Rubberlegs Williams suffer a bit from sound, but are all rare and precious sessions. Recordings with the Cootie Williams Orchestra from 1945 represent a high-water mark, ranging from the raucous, hard swinging Mary Lou Williams evergreen "711/Roll 'Em," a plus take of "Perdido," Williams originals like the swing jam "Night Cap," and sly, bluesy "Saturday Night." Several tracks with Gillespie and the Rebop Six include classics like the furious "Shaw 'Nuff," the inimitable "Groovin' High," and "Dizzy Atmosphere," including vibist Milt Jackson. These recordings, and following tracks were taken from the legendary Jubilee revue programs, hosted by the irascible Ernie "Bubbles" Whitman. There's an admirable session with poll winners Benny Carter, Willie Smith, and Parker all taking a featured tune.
But by the time Parker was signed to Dial records in 1946, you could clearly hear the deterioration in his playing. His second series of recordings for Dial with trumpeter Howard McGhee is, in the words of the booklet annotator, "falling apart," even though you hear a rare take of the fine Oscar Pettiford bop tune "Max Is Makin' Wax" (aka "Chance It"), and the obscure Parker blues "The Gypsy." Unfinished material and solos (Parker was also doing benzedrine), and the great material of classy crooner Coleman, especially "This Is Always," follow the post-Camarillo tracks where Bird sounds disinterested, and Dean Benedetti's well known "Hi-De-Ho" recordings with an inspired McGhee gave Parker somewhat of a boost. Parker had gained considerable weight in the hospital, McGhee was taking care of him, and it seemed that Bird's run might be done. Fortunately the Ulanov sessions marked a triumphant return, as Bird was paired again with Gillespie and Roach, clarinetist John LaPorta, pianist Lennie Tristano, bassist Ray Brown, and guitarist Billy Bauer. These Mutual Broadcasting System Bands for Bonds radio broadcasts from September 13 and 20 of 1947, proved Parker a capable team player, as well as a still impressive soloist. Included is the fiery "Hot House," a wild intro before calming to "On the Sunny Side of the Street," and a Dixieland jam plus bop styled take of "Tiger Rag" gone livid and crazy. After having won a poll of listeners, the band made a return appearance on November 8, with trumpeter Fats Navarro, bassist Tommy Potter, and tenor saxophonist Allen Eager replacing Diz, Brown, and Bauer. Parker is clearly feeling more confident, leading out on the fleet "Donna Lee" as the others lag behind. Bird in Time is an essential item for collectors of Parker's music, and though many of the recordings are available elsewhere, the salient interviews are not. As a complete package it further illustrates, musically and otherwise, what the saxophonist individually expressed and endured at a time when he was the main progenitor and flag waver of the bop revolution.