The Famous Alto Break

Ross Russel (the founder of Dial Records) wrote in his book ‘Bird Lives!' on page 212:
"…The last side of the session was ‘A Night In Tunisia’. The first time around Charlie played a stunning break. When the master was played back, it was obvious this version could not be used. It was full of mistakes made by others. “I’ll never make that break again,” Charlie said. Nor was he quite able to duplicate the suspenseful line of the first effort. After many false starts and five complete versions of Tunisia, the session ended at nine in the evening…”

The surviving tapes of the session have been available for a long time, on a Spotlite record issued in 1972. There are two full takes of ‘A Night In Tunisia' with the studio matrix numbers D-1013-4 and 1013-5, and the fragment containing the famous break, matrix number D1013-1. It is possible that the first take was unusable because of the other musicians' mistakes, as Russell says, but the existing audio is only 50 seconds long and no evident mistakes can be heard.

If you listen to all three takes with no preconceptions, the most obvious thing is how similar the three breaks are: Parker was basically playing a similar pattern every time. If the average listener was exposed to the three cuts, without being told which one was the supposedly ‘famous’ one, I doubt most people could reliably pick it from the three.

A lot of other myths about these famous 50 seconds circulate on the Internet. The strangest (and, of course, unconfirmed) one is that because Parker played such an unbelievable break from the bridge to the solo section that he ‘completely lost the band’. The next time around, they made Miles Davis stand in the corner, plug his ears, and count the band back in…

This break and other delicious goodies can be found on ‘Charlie Parker: The Complete Dial Sessions’. 

Charlie Parker: The Complete Dial Sessions

Charlie Parker - Alto Saxophone
Miles Davis - Trumpet
Lucky Thompson - Tenor Saxophone
Dodo Marmarosa - Piano
Vic McMillan - Bass
Roy Porter - Drums