A Jazz Legend Brought To Life

December 02, 1990|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

"Does the name Dean Benedetti mean anything to you?"

Unless you're a particularly devoted jazz fan, the answer to that question is likely to be "No." Although Benedetti led what is believed to have been the first be-bop band to spring up in California, a band which at various times included Jimmy Knepper, Russ Freeman and Joe Albany, he himself never made any records. As a result, Benedetti's legacy as a player is mostly anecdotal.

Dean Benedetti did make recordings, however -- recordings of Charlie Parker. Live recordings. Hundreds of them, capturing the jazz great in the heat of the moment, and at the height of his powers.

Or so went the legend, anyway. A classic shaggy dog story, it cast Benedetti as a maniacally devoted fan who crisscrossed the country with a captured Nazi wire recorder, never missing a show and never taping anything but Parker's solos.

When Parker finally died, in 1955, Benedetti drifted away, retreating to Italy with his stash of clandestine recordings. What happened after that, no one could say. Some claimed the spools ended up in a steamer trunk that sank to the bottom of the Atlantic; others insisted they had been sold, and were ferreted away by an even more fanatic collector. Eventually, Benedetti's recordings passed into the realm of myth, becoming a sort of be-bop Holy Grail.

In fact, the saga had so degenerated that when jazz historian Bob Porter answered his phone one March night in 1980 and heard an Italian-accented voice ask, "Does the name Dean Benedetti mean anything to you?" he almost took it as a prank. Sure Porter knew the name. He also knew enough about the legend to have decided it was mostly bunk.

But it wasn't -- not all of it, anyway. Although much of what had been passed down about Benedetti was exaggeration (and some of it outright libel), the fact was that he had taken a portable recorder to various nightclubs and captured a host of Parker solos. What's more, Benedetti's recordings weren't lost, but locked in a closet in Burbank, Calif. Which is what the man with the accent -- Dean's older brother, Rick Benedetti -- had called Porter about.

It took more than a decade to sort things out, but the contents of that closet have finally been released as "The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker" (Mosaic MD7-129). At last, the Grail has been captured.

Compiling 264 previously unknown Parker performances (plus a smattering of Benedetti's own music), this mail-order-only set offers an unprecedented perspective on a musician many consider the greatest improviser since Armstrong. To begin with, most of the selections are pure Parker -- Benedetti did indeed switch off his recorder once his idol had finished a solo.

Then there's the happy accident of Benedetti's timing. Most of the early recordings were made in March 1947, at a Los Angeles club called the Hi-De-Ho. These dates were significant for two reasons. First, Parker had just been released from the Camarillo State Hospital, and was drug-free for the first time in years. Secondly, Parker was a sideman on these dates, working with trumpeter Howard McGhee; consequently, Benedetti captures him improvising on songs that weren't normally in his repertoire.

Mosaic's "Complete Benedetti" also manages to clear away much of the myth surrounding the man. Until now, the only source most jazz fans had for information on Benedetti was record producer Ross Russell, whose Parker-infatuated books -- a novel titled "The Sound" and a biography called "Bird Lives!" -- painted Benedetti as a scheming sycophant, plying Parker with drugs while surreptitiously taping him on a captured Nazi wire recorder.

But as Parker archivist Phil Schaap states in the liner notes to the Mosaic collection, "There is no portion of Russell's portrait that cannot be disproved." Benedetti was never a drug dealer, nor did he shadow Parker's every move; in fact, his recordings, cut in 1947 and '48, cover only 15 nights of the saxophonist's career.

As for the "Nazi wire recorder," Benedetti didn't have one -- for the simple reason that such things never existed. Explains Schaap, "While the Germans had introduced wire recording and had a home-use model on the market by 1931, wire had been dispensed with by World War II and replaced by -- get this -- paper-based tape."

What Benedetti actually used was a Sears portable disc-cutter, which made 78 rpm acetate discs. It wasn't a professional-quality machine, nor was Benedetti an especially adept recording engineer. As a result, there's quite a disparity in the quality of these recordings; some are relatively clean and distinct, others are muddy and distorted.

If that weren't enough, many of Benedetti's recordings were badly deteriorated by the time Schaap -- who organized and engineered the Mosaic set -- started to reconstruct the collection. Several of the original acetates were missing, and represented by paper-tape dubs; other discs are described in the set's discography as "unsalvageable."

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