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New Label for a New Sound

Dial Records is a missing link between jazz and rock ’n’ roll. 

On the evening of Feb. 26, 1946, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker signed a one-year contract at the Tempo Music Shop in Hollywood, Calif., to record exclusively for Dial Records. The agreement was a breakthrough for the rising bebop star, allowing him to record his improvised blues rather than the frantic jazz style popular back in New York. Over the next two years, Dial’s recordings by Parker and local bebop musicians not only radicalized jazz in Los Angeles but also had an electrifying effect on the city’s “jump blues”—an up-tempo boogie-woogie that would become known formally in 1949 as “rhythm and blues.”

Parker was a big catch for a small label like Dial. His reputation for breathtaking improvisation and agility was already well established prior to his arrival on the West Coast in December 1945, and he was widely admired by the city’s jazz and blues musicians. But signing Parker was still a gamble for Dial. Launched by Ross Russell to help stock the shelves of his Tempo record store, the independent label operated in a highly segregated city where the sizable white market was resistant to bebop. Parker’s worrisome drug habit also presented a liability for Dial, increasing the odds of missed studio sessions and legal trouble.

Charlie Parker at a Feb. 19, 1947, session.ENLARGE
Charlie Parker at a Feb. 19, 1947, session. RAY WHITTEN/COURTESY OF HARRY RANSOM HUMANITIES RESEARCH CENTER, THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS

Russell shrugged off these challenges, and between 1946 and ’48 he documented some of the most exciting and influential West Coast jazz of the period. All of these recordings can be heard on “The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions” (Mosaic)—a recently released nine-CD boxed set. Mosaic’s newly restored and remastered box chronologically illustrates the new jazz style unfolding in Los Angeles at the time and unintentionally provides a missing link between jazz and rock ’n’ roll. 

Despite the city’s hostile racial climate, Los Angeles was a hothouse of jazz and blues experimentation in the 1940s. During World War II, Lionel Hampton, Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner and other jazz and blues artists settled there and pioneered a rollicking blues style with boogie-woogie syncopation, a strong backbeat and whimsical song lyrics. After the war, shifts in the economy and the music industry’s power structure gave rise to small independent jazz and blues labels seeking fresh talent. On the jazz side, new groups showcased the improvisational prowess of star soloists like Parker, while blues bands began specializing in infectious dance beats and jumpy riffs that showcased horn players famous for their stamina and stagecraft.

When Parker first arrived in Los Angeles as part of the Dizzy Gillespie Sextet in December 1945, the group was booked into Billy Berg’s club for a two-month stay, and local jazz musicians flocked to see them. “It was kind of scary to hear, because they were playing so fast, a lot of notes, that we didn’t understand what they were playing,” said saxophonist Buddy Collette in “Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles.”

But when club attendance flagged in January 1946, Berg canceled the group’s extended run. Parker disappeared for weeks, cashing in his plane ticket to pay for a drug spree and forcing Gillespie to return to New York without him. In late February, Russell needed recordings for his new label, and the stranded Parker needed cash. A deal was struck, and Parker remained in Los Angeles, spending much of his time in the city’s black South Central district where many jazz and blues artists mingled and exchanged ideas.

Though many of the recordings in the Mosaic box have been issued in various forms on collections over the years, the new restoration and mastering by Steve Marlowe and Jonathan Horwich provide a much brighter and broader listen. Throughout the set, there are crisp and forceful reminders of Parker’s melodic brilliance and fluidity during his Los Angeles stay, including the catchy “Moose the Mooche,” the dramatic “Yardbird Suite” and a thrilling “Ornithology”—which he based on the chord changes to “How High the Moon.” Other examples of bebop’s development in L.A. include recordings by Sonny Berman’s Big Eight—an octet offshoot from Woody Herman’s big band—trumpeters Howard McGhee and Fats Navarro, pianist Dodo Marmarosa, and saxophonists Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray and Teddy Edwards.

There also are pained artistic moments, such as Parker’s July 29, 1946, recording session. Coping with heroin withdrawal, Parker struggled through four songs, including halting and endearing renditions of “Lover Man” and “The Gypsy.” Back at his hotel that night, Parker suffered a mental breakdown and twice wandered into the lobby naked. After setting fire to his bed, Parker was arrested and imprisoned for 10 days before Russell was able to negotiate a six-month stay at California’s Camarillo State Hospital. Released in late January 1947, Parker resumed recording, and his Dial efforts included refreshing, upbeat blues like “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” and “Carvin’ the Bird,” and the breezy “Stupendous,” based on Gershwin’s “’S Wonderful.”

Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon at their June 12, 1947, session.ENLARGE
Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon at their June 12, 1947, session. RAY WHITTEN/COURTESY OF HARRY RANSOM HUMANITIES RESEARCH CENTER, THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS

In 1947, Gordon’s muscular tenor-sax duel with Wardell Gray on “The Chase” and with Edwards on “The Duel” featured chorus after chorus of blistering improvisation. The 78s and Gordon’s live tenor battles at local clubs were carefully studied by the city’s jump-blues artists. Two No. 1 R&B hits in early 1949 were instrumentals by saxophonists—Big Jay McNeely’s “The Deacon’s Hop” and Paul Williams’s “The Huckle-Buck,” which was inspired by Parker’s “Now’s the Time.”

But despite Dial’s efforts to widen bebop’s appeal in Los Angeles, the music never caught on. A growing percentage of the city’s white population had migrated from the South and Southwest after the war, and the region’s suburban sprawl wasn’t conducive to bebop’s grinding intensity. Throughout 1947, Parker, Gordon and many other jazz artists left Los Angeles for New York, where studio and club work was more plentiful. Even Russell gave up on jazz at the end of 1948 and began issuing modern classical recordings starting in 1949.

West Coast R&B became a national sensation in 1949—music that was energized by L.A.’s audacious bebop movement and Dial’s recordings. By the early 1950s, radio stations took notice. Once they realized that white teens were buying significant numbers of R&B records, a new race-neutral term was needed to sell the music to the widest possible audience. They called it rock ’n’ roll.

Mr. Myers, a frequent contributor to the Journal, writes daily about music at JazzWax.com.