Friday, October 5, 2012

Charlie "Bird" Parker

The first time I heard Parker play, which was the first time I ever heard bebop, it became the sound that I've always associated with America's gift to world culture.  From big band music to the jangly, re-born cool of Miles Davis to the smooth, almost breathless sound of West Coast woodwinds from Art Pepper or, later, Tom Scott, it is always Parker and his metier that comes to mind when I hear the word "jazz". 

Like many artists, and certainly many musicians, Parker had considerable demons; and they would be the death of him.  However, during his heyday, his was the sound that brought in the audience, and the budding musicians, to listen and savor.  It's interesting to note, and perhaps a little lamentable, that with the advent of Parker, jazz translated from dance music to something more contemplative.  The dance halls filled with athletic couples gave way to the darker clubs inhabited by those who affected the appearance, if not the reality, of the demi-monde and came to encounter the darker portions of human experience.

Please click on the video above for a sample.

Like the music he played, Parker's genetics were the pure product of American assimilation.  His father was an African-American performer and his mother an American Indian [or, in the Caucasian language, a "Native American"] domestic.  Rather perfect for a jazz musician, don't you think?  He began to play at an early age [natch] and mastered all forms of the saxophone.  He worked as a journeyman musician until a trip to New York began to inspire his expression.

In 1939 Parker decided to stick around New York City for a while. There he remained for almost a year, worked as a professional musician and jamming for pleasure on the side. After his yearlong stint in New York, Parker was featured as a regular performer at a Chicago club before deciding to move back to New York permanently. Freshly back in New York, Parker was at first forced to wash dishes in order to get by. At work, Charlie met guitarist Biddy Fleet. It would prove a fruitful encounter. While jamming with Biddy Fleet, Parker, who was bored by popular musical conventions, discovered a signature technique that involved playing the higher intervals of a chord for the melody and making changes to back them up accordingly.

While in New York, Parker was heard by Dizzy Gillespie and Theolonius Monk, both of whom recognized the genius of what he was doing with the music.  They invited him to play with them and, beginning in 1945, jazz moved into its remarkable third stage of maturity.  From the same source as above:

At the end of that year, [Parker and Gillespie] launched a six-week nightclub tour of Hollywood. Together they managed to invent an entirely new style of jazz, commonly known as bop, or bebop. After the joint tour, Parker stayed on in Los Angeles performing until the summer of 1946. After a period of hospitalization, he returned to New York in January of 1947 and formed a quintet there. With his quintet, Parker performed some of his best-known and best-loved songs. During this time, he managed to showcase his talents, not only by playing bebop, but also by composing his own songs, including ballads like "Embraceable You," which falls under the broader jazz genre. From 1947 to 1951 Parker performed in ensembles and solo at a variety of venues, including clubs and radio stations. Parker also signed with a few different record labels during his later career. From 1945 to 1948 he recorded for Dial. In 1948 he recorded for Savoy Records before signing with the Mercury label. In 1949 Parker made his European debut at the Paris International Jazz Festival, and went on to visit Scandinavia in 1950. Meanwhile, back home in New York, the Birdland Club was being named in his honor. In March of 1955, Parker made his last public performance at Birdland, a week before his death.
 All of his recordings are still available in a variety of collections and media.  Clint Eastwood directed a film biography of him back in 1988 that was well-received by critics and jazz aficionados.  His place in the mid-century mind serves as the soundtrack for much of the experimental art of the period.  Below is one of my favorite TV moments from the old Tonight Show in 1958 or so, when the host, Steve Allen, played jazz piano behind Jack Kerouac reciting his poem, "Charlie Parker".  [Curmudgeon alert: Nowadays the Tonight Show features some giggling goof attempting to encourage a complete sentence out of some vapid and interchangeable young actress.]