(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MAY 2010)
It is unlikely that anyone in the pantheon of jazz greats has been idolized more and heard and appreciated less than Charlie "Bird" Parker, the mercurial alto saxophone genius and bebop trailblazer.
There are several reasons for this strange dichotomy: Although Parker already was attracting attention in his mid teens, his career lasted barely 20 years. His relatively small number of studio recordings sound primitive by today's standards, there is little live footage of him playing compared to say John Coltrane or Miles Davis, and the expectations Parker raised among fans attracted to him well after his death were sometimes dashed by a sound that can seem old-fashioned to modern ears.
I myself was afflicted by that feeling until my own ear matured to the point where I finally understood what an extraordinary if troubled force Parker was as well as the enormous extent to which he influenced succeeding generations of sax and other jazz players.
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Black jazzmen were not extensively interviewed in the Forties and Fifties, which helps explain why there is so much confusion concerning the childhood of Charlie Parker, who often was referred to as Charles Christopher Parker Jr., although neither his birth certificate or gravestone bear a middle name.
Born in Kansas City, Kansas in 1920 to a homemaker and an evangelist preacher with a wandering eye and fondness for drink, this only child was playing sax by the age of 11 or 12. Some people claim that baritone sax was Parker's first instrument, but that seems unlikely because a child that age would barely be able to hold yet alone play such a behemoth. Some people also claim that he inherited his talent from a piano-playing father, but Parker insisted that Charlie Sr., whom he deeply resented for abandoning he and his mother, didn't play an instrument. At age 14, Parker joined his school's band using a rented instrument. Again the historic record is vague with some people saying that he was terrible and others asserting that his genius showed through from the outset. What is known is that he was growing up too fast for his own good.
He dropped out of school a year later, got married and threw himself into the vibrant jazz community across the river in Kansas City, Missouri, a scene fueled by alcohol, benzedrine and marijuana. His first jam session was a disaster because, as he later explained, he only knew how to play "Honeysuckle Rose" and the first eight bars of "Lazy River," became hopelessly lost when the other musicians launched into "Body and Soul," and was hooted off the stage at the Hi-Hat Club.
Parker did what any dedicated jazzman would do. He wood-shedded, practicing for long hours every day. He began to develop a personal style that had elements of what became bebop, which is characterized by a blazingly fast tempo and improvisation based on a combination of harmonic structure and melody.His first big break came in 1938 when he joined a territory band led by pianist Jay McShann.
But Parker was dogged by a morphine addiction developed while he was hospitalized after a car crash in 1936 that would lead to a lifetime of on-again, off-again heroin use. He also developed another habit -- borrowing money or pawning his sax or borrowing a horn from a friend and pawning it. An acquaintance recalled that at age 18 Parker already looked like a man twice that age. It would be only a matter of time before Parker moved to New York City, probably the only place where he would be able to attain his goals, and in 1939 he abandoned his wife and their young son, as had his father before him, pawned his sax and headed east. The year is significant because that was when tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins dramatically reappeared after five years in Europe and recorded a cover of his own version of "Body and Soul" that heralded the bebop era.
Parker landed a $9 a week job as a dishwasher at a Harlem restaurant where Art Tatum, a pianist who was to have an enormous influence on him, played. He intermittently rejoined McShann's band and then beginning in 1942 played with Earl Hines for a year. It was here that he met trumpet great and fellow bebopper Dizzy Gillespie.
Gillespie introduced Parker to a group of young musicians and he jammed at after-hours clubs in Harlem with Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk, drummer Kenny Clarke and guitarist Charlie Christian, among other avant-garde iconoclasts who were shaking the jazz world to its core.
Parker says that his breakthrough as a soloist came one night in 1939 when he was jamming on "Cherokee" with guitarist William "Biddy" Fleet and hit upon a method that, as he later explained, enabled him to play "what I had been hearing in my head for some time" by pushing the harmonic envelope through extended chords on the higher intervals of a song's harmonies.
Some jazz historians consider this session to be the birth of bebop, but it is no such thing. As with most new forms in the history of jazz, several pioneers were breaking through simultaneously, and in this case that included Hawkins and Gillespie, although Parker was unquestionably the major catalyst.
As one Parker biographer put it, "Dizzy was training for the marathon and Charlie was the man on the flying trapeze."
There are virtually no recordings of the early years of bebop because of a Musician's Union ban on all commercial recordings from 1942 to 1944 that was part of an ultimately successful struggle to get royalties from record sales for out-of-work musicians.
It wasn't until 1945 that Parker's collaborations with Gillespie and others gained widespread attention and a growing appeal to jazzmen. The most famous of these collaborations was a November 1945 recording date for the Savoy label that has been called the greatest jazz session ever. Among the tracks recorded were Parker's masterpiece "Ko-Ko," which was based on the chords of "Cherokee," became his signature song and should not be confused with Duke Ellington's "Ko-Ko."
"Everything had a musical significance for him," said double bassist Gene Ramey of Parker's increasingly sophisticated soloing. "He'd hear dogs barking, for instance, and he would say it was a conversation -- and if he was blowing his horn he would have something to play that would portray that to us. When we were riding in a car between jobs we might pass down a country lane and see the trees and some leaves, and he'd have a sound for that. And maybe some girl would walk past on the dance floor while he was playing, and something she might have would give him an idea for something to play on his solo." But some older musicians, whom beboppers derisively referred to as"moldy figs," weren't buying the new sound. Or perhaps realized that they would never be able to keep up with Parker. A critic for the then decidedly retrograde Down Beat magazine panned "Ko-Ko," writing that " . . . he's far off form -- a bad reed and inexcusable fluffs do not add up to good jazz."
Five years later, Down Beat would name Parker as best alto sax player for the first and not the last time.
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The Parker-Gillespie ensemble embarked on a trip to Los Angeles at the end of 1945. The gig was a flop, primarily because West coast audiences were not ready for bebop even if West Coast musicians were. Most of the group returned to New York, but Parker cashed in his return ticket to buy heroin.
Miles Davis, as usual, was more blunt: "In Los Angeles, [Parker] was just another broke, weird, drunken nigger playing some strange music. Los Angeles is a city built on celebrating stars and Bird didn't look like no star."
When Parker couldn't score heroin he drank heavily and one night wandered into the lobby of his hotel naked, prompting the manager to lock him in his room where he passed out with a lit cigarette in his hand, setting his mattress afire. Parker was not just out of orbit, he was out of circulation after being arrested and committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital for six months.
Initially clean and healthy (and his syphilis cured) after being released from Camarillo, Parker did some of his best playing and recording.Much of it was with his so-called "classic" quartet, which included trumpeter Davis, double bassist Tommy Potter and drummer Max Roach, and occasionally a fifth member, pianist John Lewis. Savoy and Dial recording sessions included a series of slower tempo performances of songs from the so-called American Songbook, including "Bird of Paradise" (based on "All the Things You Are") and "Embraceable You."
Parker's career turned another corner in 1949 when he made good on a longstanding desire to perform with a string section, as well as exercise his classical muse (and love of the innovative classical composer Igor Stravinsky), playing what came to be known as Third Stream music, which incorporated jazz and classical elements with backing strings.
His improvisations during these sessions -- a rare period when he was more or less drug free and sober -- were more distilled and his tone softer and more economical than on his small-group recordings. His lines are gorgeous, and the Bird With Strings album (remastered and reissued as Charlie Parker With Strings) is a personal favorite.
Inevitably, some fans thought Parker had sold out by pandering to popular tastes just as the jazz world was falling under his spell. Many sax players blatantly intimidated Parker, prompting hard bop bass player Charles Mingus to write "Gunslinging Bird" (meaning "If Charlie Parker were a gunslinger, there would be a whole lot of dead copycats").
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By 1953, Parker was again fully under the thumb of heroin, but often was playing brilliantly.
"After Bird got high, he just played his ass off," is how Davis put it, and Parker can be credited -- which is to say blamed -- for prompting too many young players, most prominently Davis himself, to follow in his footsteps after they concluded that his brilliance was because of his drug use. Unfortunately or otherwise, there is truth to that.
One of the best performances of his career occurred that year at Massey Hall in Toronto where he played with Gillespie, Mingus, Bud Powell and Roach. Parker had yet again pawned his sax and played a Grafton plastic sax that Gillespie had found for him. Jazz at Massey Hall, the resulting album recorded live by Mingus, lists Parker as "Charlie Chan" for contractual reasons.
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Like much about Parker, the derivation of his nickname "Yardbird," which usually was shortened to "Bird," is not entirely clear.
Most people agree that it was a reference to his "Yardbird Suite," while Parker himself suggested that it was a reference to a chicken intended for the pot. The lone holdout was Gillespie, who always referred to Parker as "Yard."
Parker married twice and had a 13-year relationship with common-law wife Chan Richardson Parker, but when he developed pneumonia in March 1955 he turned to friend and jazz patron Nica de Koenigswater, confiding that "I've been dead for four years . . . I'm just a husk." Parker and Chan loved each other deeply, but he had become so volatile and so dependent on alcohol and drugs that she went into hiding with her children.
Parker died on March 12, 1955 in De Koenigswater's Stanhope Hotel suite in New York City. The immediate cause of death was pneumonia, but he also had severe ulcers, advanced cirrhosis and had attempted suicide at least once. Although Parker was only 34, the coroner who performed his autopsy mistakenly estimated him to be 53.
The two unquestionable giants of jazz are trumpeter Louis Armstrong, whose rapid-fire playing caught Parker's attention at an early age and he tried to emulate before finding his own groove, and Duke Ellington, who must be considered the greatest American composer in any genre." What he did was enormous," said Ellington of Parker. "You hear his music everywhere now . . . But people talk too much about the man -- the people who don't know him -- when the important thing was his music."
In the end, Charlie Parker's remarkable gifts escape easy analysis. They seem to have little to do with the influences of other artists and even less to do with his upbringing. For me, they remain immense but inexplicable. And will forever remain that way.
PHOTOGRAPHS (From top to bottom): Jay McShane; Biddy Fleet; C0leman Hawkins (1939); Parker and Gene Ramey in Kansas City (1940); Parker (1945), Parker (ca. 1945), Parker and Miles Davis (ca. 1947); Igor Stravinsky; Parker (1949); Parker at Birdland, New York City (1951); Parker and Dizzy Gillespie (1951); Parker (1952); Parker with Chan Robertson Parker and daughter Kim (ca. 1953).