During a trip to Los Angeles to play at Billy Berg’s club on Sunset Strip, Charlie Parker made several recordings for Ross Russell’s Dial Records. His septet included trumpeter Miles Davis, tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson, pianist Dodo Marmarosa, bassist Vic McMillan, and drummer Roy Porter. During the first session on November 28, 1946, they recorded “Yardbird Suite,” originally titled “What Price Love?”
Parker had performed his 1940 composition during his tenure with Jay McShann’s Kansas City band which did not record it at the time. McShann wanted to record “Yardbird Suite” in a 1940 session but the producers insisted on blues material. He finally did record the composition, and it can be heard on his 1972 release, Man from Muskogee or the reissue of Hootie.
The tune is named after Parker who acquired his nickname “Yardbird” while with the McShann band. As Brian Priestley explains in Chasin’ the Bird: The Life and Legacy of Charlie Parker, “Accounts of the actual origin differ, but all except Charlie himself seem agreed that the reference was to a chicken intended for the pot. This later became shortened for general usage to ‘Bird,’ although Dizzy Gillespie, when reminiscing about Charlie even late in his life, still tended to refer to him as ‘Yard.’”
An even better story about the nickname (and related by several sources) was told by McShann in a 1999 interview. The pianist said that they were driving to a gig when his car hit a chicken. Parker yelled out, “Back up! You hit a yardbird.” Parker jumped out of the car, collected the chicken, brought it into the Lincoln, and had it cooked for dinner that night.
Several sources mention Parker’s fascination with classical composer Igor Stravinsky. In his book Charlie Parker: His Music and Life Carl Woideck says, “Although Parker generally tended to only write new melodies over preexisting forms, “Yardbird Suite” (its title is evidently a pun on the piece “Firebird Suite” by Igor Stravinsky; Parker had heard part or all of the ballet score several years before) is a wholly original composition in both melody (A and B sections) and chord progression.”
Some have speculated that “Yardbird Suite” was based on the Earl Hines composition “Rosetta,” but Priestley refutes that notion in the notes to his book. “...When recorded in 1946, its second bar is played over IVm-bVII7 but, if ‘Rosetta’ was the chord-sequence, the melody would contain a raised 9th and flatted 9th.”
In Bird Lives! The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie “Yarbird” Parker author Ross Russell (the owner of Dial Records which recorded Parker in 1946) attempted to help Parker by setting up a publishing company to copyright his compositions. But in1954 an attorney hired by Parker “found the matter a hopeless tangle of unexecuted agreements, breached contracts, and uncopyrighted material.”
After Parker’s death in 1955 a legal battle over his estate was pursued by his common-law wife and the mother of his children, Chan Parker, and his previous wife, Doris, whom he’d never divorced. “Summons were served on sixty-nine incredulous and indignant persons and firms in the phonograph record, concert bureau, booking, and music publishing industries....”
Some of his compositions had been sold outright and others were in the public domain and not copyrighted because Parker had never executed the Dial contract authorizing the publishing company. It was a mess, and this explains the discrepancies between the performance dates and copyright dates of Parker’s material. It also suggests that he did not copyright his lyric for “What Price Love?”
Therefore, confusion surrounds the lyrics of “Yardbird Suite/What Price Love?” In his book Visions of Jazz: The First Century, Gary Giddins says that Parker himself wrote a lyric: “‘Yardbird Suite’ [is] perhaps Parker’s most lyrical composition, and one for which he also wrote a lyric (he called the vocal version ‘What Price Love?’)” In his 1990 performance at a Parker tribute (available on DVD as Tribute to Charlie Parker), vocalist Jon Hendricks announces to the audience that the lyric for “What Price Love?” is Parker’s (in the second line Hendricks sings “my” instead of “one’s):
It’s hard to learn
How tears can burn one’s heart
But that’s a thing that I found out
Too late I guess,
Cause I’m in a mess.
Vocalist Sheila Jordan, who knew Parker, told JazzStandards.com that she learned the lyric from a 1948 recording by Earl Coleman, the first singer to record “What Price Love?” Woideck says, “This piece is best known in its instrumental incarnation, but in the 1940’s, singers Carmen McRae and Earl Coleman learned the lyric from Parker.”
McRae performed “Yardbird Suite” often and originally recorded it on her 1955 album By Special Request. However, in the liner notes to a 1991 compilation (Here to Stay) of her early Decca recordings, Dick Katz recalls that on March 12, 1955, he was on stage with Carmen when she performed the song around midnight at Carnegie Hall. “Later we learned that Bird had died that night, perhaps while Carmen was singing Eddie Jefferson’s vocal setting of his tune.” But the lyric which she sang was Parker’s own.
Eddie Jefferson did indeed write a lyric for “Yardbird Suite” and recorded it on his 1969 album Come Along with Me. Jefferson’s lyric is a celebration of bebop and its originators. It begins with these words and does not include the “What Price Love?” lyric or any reference to it:
What is the musical topic of the day?
Bebop so the critics say
Well, that is okay.
Vocalist Giacomo Gates recorded “What Price Love/Yardbird Suite” on his 1995 CD Blue Skies. Although in the liner notes the lyric is credited to Jefferson alone, Gates opens with the Parker lyric before segueing into Jefferson’s. “Originally called ‘What Price Love?’” Gates told JazzStandards.com, “Parker wrote the tune and lyric when he was 19 years old. Eddie Jefferson wrote the alternate lyric... as you know, I sing both. And another set of lyrics were written by Bob Dorough.’
Singer/songwriter/pianist Dorough recorded his lyric on his 1956 debut album Devil May Care. Vocalist Karrin Allyson sang his lyric on her 1995 album Azure Te. Neither album credits Dorough for the lyric which pays homage to the great talent and influence of the alto saxophonist:
His improvisation was miraculous,
Mastermind of rhythm was he,
He blew notes that nobody had ever blown before, till then
Blew ‘em as they’d never been.
Dorough told jazzstandards.com, “When Bird died (March, 1955) I decided to try a ‘vocalese’ on one of his tunes, and I picked ‘Yardbird Suite’ as being songlike and a bit atypical of Parker. I was influenced by the work of Annie Ross and King Pleasure, and I set myself the goal of lyricizing the riff and Bird’s chorus. It was quite a struggle and took several months of living with that piece. Because of legal difficulties I put no claim on the lyric, and the LP said merely ‘Yardbird Suite’ (Charlie Parker). Years later I got some sort of approval from Atlantic Music and a copyright on ‘Yardbird Suite (Charles ‘Yardbird’ Parker Was His Name).’” This explains why Dorough is not credited for the lyric on vocal versions using the original Parker title, “Yardbird Suite.”
Vocalists Vanessa Rubin (in a 1994 tribute to Carmen McRae) and Kevin Mahogany (1995) recorded “Yardbird Suite” with the Parker lyric. Instrumental recordings represent a variety of instrumentation: Modern Jazz Quartet, Heath Brothers, Claude Thornhill Orchestra, the Moscow Saxophone Quintet, saxophonists Frank Morgan and Bud Shank, guitarist Kenny Burrell, pianist Jodie Christian, and trumpeter Roy Hargrove.