A loose, sketched illustration of a black vinyl LP, framed by the words 'Murakami on Charlie Parker' in gold
A loose, sketched illustration of a black vinyl LP, framed by the words 'Murakami on Charlie Parker' in gold

The musicians featured on the Bird and Diz album were a strange mix to be sure. Dizzy Gillespie and bassist Curley Russell were solid and steady professionals.  But then the producer, Norman Granz, brought drummer Buddy Rich to the impromptu session, and Bird (Parker) invited Thelonious Monk, who was out of work at the time. It was a cobbled-together quintet that seemed to have little in common.

Buddy Rich was the most popular drummer of the day, a musician of unparalleled technique who commanded equally eye-popping fees. In sharp contrast, Monk’s avant-garde music still mystified most people: lacking fans and gigs, he went his silent way playing what he liked. Anyone could have predicted their styles would be like oil and water. Uncomprehending and uninterested in what the other guy was all about, they simply did their own thing, pursuing their own musical goals.

I sometimes shake my head and wonder what the two of them could have talked about when they met in the studio that day. Did their personalities clash as much as their music did? My guess is yes, though there is no way to be sure. As far as I know, the two never played together again.

The first time I heard Bird and Diz I thought it was a shame that Rich had played the drums — Max Roach or Kenny Clarke, I felt, would have been a better choice. Monk had few solos (though his backing is brilliant), but his piano penetrates the listener like a freshly sharpened stake. Rich’s flashy swing drumming, by contrast, rides on top of the music, as if to ask, “How about this? Or this?” in the process tossing a wet blanket over what Monk is doing.

Nevertheless, when I played the album again not long ago, strangely, I found myself convinced that, whatever else one might say, Rich’s drumming is actually fantastic. It still comes across as over the top and out of place, but — and I may understand this better now because I am older — that very excess gives the session its unique flavour, and makes it so much fun. Indeed, it is Rich’s unreflective, unrelenting drumming that forces Monk to assert the direction of his solitary musical path so firmly. Had it been Roach or Clarke, Monk and the others might have stayed within their comfort zone and never pushed themselves to that point. Then we might well have turned to other recordings to find Charlie Parker’s best performance.

Although Rich’s drumming definitely annoys at times, if you listen closely you come to realize that it never interferes with the music as a whole. That is because he is so adept at pulling back at those critical junctures when the other musicians step forward. He wasn’t a star drummer for nothing, after all. This may speak to Norman Granz’s rare talent as a producer. Just listening to the brushes caress the cymbals in the introduction to “Bloomdido,” the first cut on Bird and Diz, puts a big smile on my face. Not bad, huh?

I planned to write about Charlie Parker, but I ended up writing about Buddy Rich instead.

Image: Mica Murphy / Penguin

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