In the dense galaxy of jazz musicians, there was once an event horizon. It was called Charlie Parker, and beyond it, everything changed. His obsessions and addictions are what musicians would wish upon themselves, if only they could dip into his short and light-year-spanning jazz mind
Charlie Parker, looked, like Buddha. Charlie Parker, recently died, laughing at a juggler on TV.” As far as one can discern, Jack Kerouac intended to speak the truth. He was amongst the writers of the celebrated Beat Generation, whose words changed the way words were used since. The Beats weren’t about the swinging bodies of the roaring 20s. Instead, they were about “being beat” – their massive body of deep, existential and transcendental work in literature and art was fuelled by the listlessness of life in modern Americana. And if Kerouac was the great backpacker of the Beats, his journeying feet moved to the rhythm of Bebop – the most radical and energised music available to a wide-eyed youngster in post-H-bomb USA. As his voice warps and wafts in this beautiful reading of his own poem, he speaks of an untimely death – the deceased all of 34, a possessor of childlike eyes, and the man who gave an entire generation a whole new vocabulary of expression. In the free flow of their art – sometimes bereft of an obvious structure – if one heard hard enough, one could hear the alto saxophone of Charlie “The Bird” Parker.
It is difficult to talk about Charlie Parker’s music, like herding cats. Fast beyond thought and subtle beyond words, its presence is its only logic and proof. Talking about it is also pointless – his music is out there for people to listen to, a record of his untarnished talent and expression. His life though, is worth speaking about, a short and spectacular coming together of incidents that showed the world how free a human mind connected to a musical instrument can be. And it made music that people in the 21st century would do well to hear, and maybe enjoy.
A WORD ON THE BOP
To anyone without an open mind willing to tune in to the musician’s, bebop sounds panicked and comic at best, but usually just bad. It is a relentless piss in the face of simplistic, repeatable, and endlessly recycled structures for entertainment that sound ‘catchy’ and ‘nice’; the very structures that make pop music popular, and anthems sung together by thousands. An easy rebellion against similar structures, then a part of the Big Band jazz way of mainstream music, was at the cusp where bebop begins. Big bands, usually 20-30 large, had occupied the centrestage of jazz. Through the 30s, their popularity had grown to the point where daily performances at famous dance halls through the country – New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, Kansas – went on for ten hours regularly. Their staples were jazzed up arrangements of songs of yore – they just didn’t have enough written or rehearsed material to fill that kind of time. What they had though, were fiery, hyper-talented soloists for whom the cat and mouse of chasing notes was the purpose of life, and whose improvisational play from jams was soon to be heard unmitigated on stage. As this method evolved into the art form known as be-bop, its organic, almost nature-like complexity, freedom and precision would show the possibilities to millions. For most though, bebop would only be a dizzying display of the virtuoso ability of stark open musical minds, amongst which was Charlie Parker’s.
Parker’s story begins early, as it probably did for a coloured man in the America of the 30s. Kansas City was a thriving trade town with a railroad and an unlimited supply of thirsty travellers. Running parallel to the city’s money were booze, gambling, dancing, and a cutting-edge music scene as the background to it all. Count Basie’s band was in-house at the Reno Club, and this was where Parker got his first taste of pure, living jazz. By the age of 15, Parker had dropped out of school, become a member of the musician’s union, gotten married, and broken his spine as a passenger in a car accident. Morphine was the cure for the intense pain, it would go on to become a disease. Back home he found the same comfort in heroin, and the hours spent on the saxophone began to string themselves together into a force of nature. Spending more time on the bandstand and learning the tricks of double-time from the revered Buster Smith, and at the same time bumming notes and feeling his way through the music, Parker grew. Soon his talents were too large for his hometown Kansas, by 18 he was in New York – where a different kind of jazz was brewing in the dance halls of Harlem. Living with his idol Smith, receiving the best ideas to munch on from the best minds in jazz, and with the capital city of the world waiting in rapt attention the legend of Charlie Parker was on its way.
THE OTHER SIDE OF MY HEARTBEAT
Splitting years between Kansas and NY, Parker was soon to meet with another musician, as explosive as himself and with ideas as revolutionary about the concepts of rhythm, harmony and structures in music. John Birks AKA Dizzy Gillespie had been on a similar musical trajectory as Parker’s, making a name for himself as an upcoming trumpeter with flash, flavour, admonished music reading skills, a vast mind and fat moon cheeks which everyone agreed, could blow. Gillespie was from the Philadelphia- Baltimore-NY jazz circuit-more urban, educated and upmarket – and regularly arranged and recorded with big bands, including that of Cab Calloway, in whose arse he once stuck a knife on stage. In Parker, Gillespie found an ally to create a more civil, conscious and fun rebellion to big bands. Swinging away from the pomp and sound of thirty musicians on stage, Parker and Gillespie, together with maverick music men of their times such as Thelonius Monk, developed a free-form of musical expression that hovered around the musician and his subconscious, instead of a sensory, boom-bang design of entertainment music.
Through the early ’40s, the two developed the that would turn into be-bop. These hot nights of limitless improvisation in the dance halls of Harlem were attracting a young breed of listeners and musicians, who were finding the expression free – from both the white and black America of its time, and were willing to connect to another exceptional human being through his music, which was outside colour. It is a misfortune that by the time be-bop became big enough to make it to recording studios, fights between the musicians’ unions and labels led to a recording ban. Most of what Parker and Gillespie did to each other’s music is lost but to the lucky thousands, who heard the Bird’s saxophone flights and Dizzy’s verticality on the trumpet, one after another, for hours. The two toured extensively though, and on one such tour to San Fran, Parker found a great heroin dealer and decided to stay back. Parker’s irregularities and addictions seemed to grow into hurdles for Gillespie’s massive talent and ambition, and the two parted ways. Never, however, did they not recognise how important they had been to each other’s music, and life. Gillespie’s 1993 obit from the New York Times recounts him putting this bluntly about Parker – “he was the other side of my heartbeat”.
IF YOU DON’T LIVE IT, IT WON’T COME OUT OF YOUR HORN
Many rate Charlie Parker amongst the best improvisational artists ever, but much of that depends on what one would call improvisation. Based on technicalities, Parker was probably far from prolific – his musical vocabulary has been fixed at somewhere around a hundred phrases, or riffs, which he used liberally and imaginatively in his aerial solos. What he did, like no one else before, was the way his off-camber, lopsided improvisations magically resolved themselves, and left behind a scent of amazement in listeners, which included his fellow musicians on stage. His harmonic ideas had never been tested before, but his intuitive use of the 9th, 11th and 13th notes of the chord created brand new flavours and spaces in songs that had been heard before, such as in his famed version of “Cherokee”. On closer inspection in modern times, Parker’s flurries have shown complete, well-constructed and musically logical phrases with no note off its place. And it all happened at tiny intervals, tens of notes per second.
One can imagine the hours spent on the loud saxophone, with cursing neighbors as a child and in hotel rooms with other musicians, before these riffs turned into muscle memory, so that the passage of time became blurred and said things that only music can and ought to say. “Master the instrument, master the music. Then forget it all, and just play”, goes one of Parker’s few quotes, and that’s why he could inspire an entire generation of individuals, which in his latter days included a certain mercurial trumpeter called Miles Davis. But Parker was always was about living it, being a human being, having a family and getting high, having mischief and calm, friends but seldom foes. And doing all this around music, with music, with enough humility and joy to take requests on stage even when he was performing at concert venues, as he later began to, around the world. Historian Frank Tirro is 82 and I borrow his words that relate Parker to today’s times, when the word Hipster, originally invented to describe the kinds of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, is back with commercial context. “Bird was a living justification of their philosophy,” he says. “The hipster is an underground man …[who] knows the hypocrisy of bureaucracy, the hatred implicit in religions – so what values are left for him? – except to go through life avoiding pain, keep his emotions in check, and after that, ‘be cool,’ and look for kicks. He is looking for something that transcends all this bullshit and finds it in jazz.” I haven’t much doubt left as to why Charlie Parker looked like Buddha.