The famous alto break.

bird-rossDial Records was one of the many small, specialty record labels that popped up after World War II. Unlike some of the others, Dial was focused almost exclusively on jazz. Owner Ross Russell was an ersatz novelist, reporter and music journalist. He served in the Merchant Marine during the war, and while stranded in the Arctic after being torpedoed by a German u-boat, kept a journal that was eventually published by Life magazine. He subsequently settled in Los Angeles, opened a record store, and began recording some of young beboppers who had just started infiltrating the post-war jazz scene in southern California. He ultimately signed saxophonist Charlie Parker, who recorded a series of now-essential sessions for Russell while he was living in LA in the 1946-47 period. Parker had acquired a heroin habit years earlier, but it became particularly debilitating when he moved to LA, eventually landing him in Camarillo State Hospital for an extended medical incarceration. Bird recorded quite a few sides for Dial, but just before the mental and physical breakdown that precipitated his hospitalization, Russell infamously recorded him performing “Lover Man.” In spite of Parker’s borderline coherence and obvious inability to play at anything like his usual level of brilliance, Russell released the recording, much to the chagrin of Bird, and much to the detriment of Russell’s later reputation among musicians and critics. Years later, after leaving the record business, Russell further sullied his own reputation by writing an “authorized” biography of Bird which contained all manner of fabrication, exaggeration and out-and-out fantasy. A happier moment for both Russell and Parker—pictured at left at another Dial session—was the March, 1946 recording of “A Night in Tunisia,” written by former Bird collaborator Dizzy Gillespie, and perhaps the best-known of all the Dial recordings. Bird, along with his protege, a young Miles Davis, are joined by Lucky Thompson and a rhythm section made up of LA stalwarts, and while Parker’s solo is nothing short of brilliant, it’s the short, blazing improvised cadenza with which he begins it that still stands as a challenge to anyone attempting a life in jazz. It’s 8 seconds or so of blazing invention; one of those rare meetings of virtuoso technique and creative expression that feel like diamonds when one first stumbles upon one of them. This cadenza is now known as “the famous alto break,” by anyone who cares about jazz in its heyday, and sends chills down through the decades like little else in the 20th century audio lexicon. You can hear it here, and you can remember it with a Dial Records t-shirt—featuring the label of “Night in Tunisia”—available through our sister site, Growling Hamster.

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