Friday, May 24, 2013

Dial in the Birdie

By David "Chet" Williamson Sneade

Charlie Parker and Ross Russell

He once owned Dial Records, a jazz label that documented some of Charlie Parker’s most important sides. So, how is it that at the label’s height, he walked away from the business, only to purchase a golf course in Leicester, MA?

He is Ross Russell, one of the most respected, yet reviled names in jazz history. In his career, he not only recorded Parker, but later became his biographer. He is the author of Bird Lives! The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker. His association with the legendary saxophonist gathers Russell both praise and condemnation.

Russell’s career in the music business and his life as a writer is well documented. His life in golf is not.  

From 1956-’59, he owned and operated the Leicester Country Club, one of the oldest golf courses in the state of Massachusetts and lived at 12 Boynton Street in Worcester. Other than that, very little is known about Russell’s time spent here.

The golf course had many owners in its long history. The most recent is Chuck Bois, who in addition to managing the day-to-day operations is trying collect memorabilia to adorn the clubhouse and banquet facility walls. He says that previous owners “took everything.”  

Speaking with town historians and librarians, they say that the Russell name is well-known in Leicester. Russell Manufacturing made game cards in town for decades and there are Russells scattered throughout the area. None, however, appear to be connected with Ross Russell.

So how and why did he come to Leicester? This is what we do know: The March 9, 1956 issue of the Leicester Weekly News reported the purchase of the golf course. The links were then called Mount Pleasant Country Club. It was sold by a “group of private owners to Ross Russell of New York City, and a former golf professional in California. Mr. Russell said he would operate the club on a semi-public basis rather than its form status as a private club. Season membership and semi-public pay plan will be introduced he said.”

The article also reported that he was a former golf professional at Westwood Hills Country Club, Beverly Hills, California and a native of the state [Glendale] who was a graduate of UCLA.

Other than that, nothing is written about Russell’s past, especially his jazz life. Most of the piece is about the history of the course, which was founded in 1896. The assessed value of the property in 1955, which included a clubhouse, sheds, and nearly 100 acres, was less than $15,000.

According to Edward M. Komara, author of The Dial Recordings of Charlie Parker; a discography, Russell “moved to Massachusetts and took up two of his previous professions, golf and writing.”

Tempo Music Shop  
Before getting into these vocations in further detail, a statement about Dial Records is in order. In 1946, after running the Tempo Music Shop, a record store in Hollywood, Russell founded the label. In addition to recording Parker, whom it is said the label was started for, Russell also recorded a who’s who of legendary bebop musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, and Wardell Gray.

Wardell Gray
Komara reported that by 1948, Russell was no longer interested in recording jazz, but released reissued material. “In later years, Russell regretted not scheduling additional jazz sessions, admitting that he had opportunities to record Thelonious Monk and the Modern Jazz Quartet.

“He continued his jazz reissues along with the new releases in contemporary classical music and calypso. Despite these recording sessions and acquisitions in jazz, classical, and folk, Dial closed in 1954.

“Russell sold his jazz sessions to the firm Concert Hall, sending them the master tapes, master pressing lists and log sheets on June 3, 1954. Less than a year later, on March 12, 1955, Dial’s leading artist Charlie Parker died in New York,” Komara said.

By 1955, Russell was also on the east coast. His forays into writing and golf were taking much of his time. According to Komara, before purchasing Leicester Country Club, Russell operated the Revere Golf Range in Revere, MA.

Apparently, Russell’s time spent in Leicester was in raising a family (he married five times and had four children), operating the course, and writing. Komara said that before selling LCC and returning to California, Russell worked on The Sound, “a novel depicting jazz musicians and hipsters in the 1940s. Also, Russell was contacted by Grove Press in 1957 for a biography of Charlie Parker, but no results at the time.”

Komara added that, after the publication of The Sound in 1960, Russell continued to write about jazz and eventually g0t busy working on the Parker biography.
A quick word on Russell’s controversial reputation in jazz: It dates back to Dial. The accounts are well documented. Russell is essentially demonized for insisting on recording Parker while he was dope-sick. The other is his graphic look at Bird’s addiction, which Russell is accused of indulging readers in within the biography.

Ross Russell

Regardless of what you think of the man, his words and/or actions, it is fascinating to think that just one year after Charlie Parker’s death, one of his biographers was walking the bucolic greens of Mt. Pleasant at Leicester Country Club, contemplating the lives of great jazz musicians.

Leicester Country Club today

*Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: Check out my features on Worcester songwriters at:  Thank you.


1 comment:

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