March 2005Listening to Charlie Parker, who died 50 years ago on March
12th, the first thing you thought about was freedom. Still is.
tennis legend Don Budge, who was also a legendary
jazz fan, built his style on hitting the ball hard while it was still on the
rise. "I guess Charlie Parker played like he was hitting a rising ball," Budge
said. "The cats must have spent a lot of time trying to figure that one out." A
variety of very different people had being turned around by Bird in
commonBudge, Jack Kerouac, Clint Eastwood, Louis Malle, Astor Piazzolla,
Boris Vian, Freddie Heineken, Donald Fagen, Alan Greenspan, Donald Justice, and
former French Prime Minister Jacques Delors, for example. In his memoir
Chronicles, Volume 1, Bob Dylan wrote that during his early years in
Greenwich Village he'd met a lot of people who acted as though "Bird had
transmitted some secret essence of life to them."
The nickname either
came from Yardbird, a southern word for chicken (Bird liked chicken), or from
the way he flew over the fast-moving, modulating chords of Ray Noble's
"Cherokee." Take your pick. He could fly. Parker's music was a door-opening
combination of courage, sophistication, physical strength, and street smarts.
He told the critic Nat Hentoff that he wanted to make a recording with six
woodwinds, a harp, and a vocal chorale, using Paul Hindemith's Kleine
Kammermusik as a model. He quoted phrases from Prokofiev's Scythian
Suite and Bizet's Carmen in his solos. "I had the pleasure of
meeting Edgar Varese," he once said on Boston radio: "The French composer. He
was very nice to me. He's willing to teach me. He wants to compose something
After he met Jean-Paul Sartre, Sartre was asked what they had
talked about. "Parker told me about his wish to study harmony at the Paris
Conservatoire," he replied. "We talked about modern music." It has been said
that Parker could converse with rocket scientists, brain surgeons, chess
players, gourmet chefs and so on; and that he liked to shoot the breeze with
neighborhood white folks. But insisting on his wide-ranging spiritwhich
was, in fact, remarkablehas become something of a condescension. Thanks
to a great degree to Parker, it is no longer newsworthy when a jazz musician
listens to Hindemith. That he would feel the need to brag about a serious
composer being seriously interested in him is kind of sad. He was so much more
than the wasted, uneducated black man named Charlie playing bebop in gin joints
most Americans took him for. He was making the serious music of his time. Think
of the alienation. It is not surprising that heroin was central to his huddle.
The newly released CD, Inglewood Jam: Bird and Chet Live at The
Trade Winds (Fresh Sounds) captures a jam session in a Polynesian
restaurant in Inglewood, California, on June 16th, 1952. "Jam session" is a
euphemism for playing for free. An unpaid Tuesday night in the 1950s in an
obscure club in the suburbs of Los Angeles with about 20 people in the room
must have been a downer. You can practically hear the gloom, the opiates, the
flash of color in a black and white world. Imagine the paranoia. It was not one
of Bird's best nights, the 22-year-old Chet
Baker was floundering on trumpet, and the piano was out of tune and tinny.
expanded the accepted ear. Basically, the name is a nonsense sound; like dada.
Over the years, an army of beboppers co-opted Bird's licks until they began to
sound like Woody Woodpecker. He once thanked the young altoman
Lee Konitz for "not playing like me." When
Django Reinhardt heard Bird and Dizzy Gillespie for the first time after the
war, he said: "They play so fast. I don't know if I can keep up with them."
Bebop was perceived as a threat. Louis Armstrong sang about those "poor little
boppers who lost their way."
By the time of his death at the age of 35,
Parker had become a sick, burnt-out junkie and alcoholic. Mostly, though, as
his fellow bebopper Thelonious Monk once put it, he was "tired of trying to
please them." Passing an evening with his friend Baroness Nica de Koenigswater,
a Rothschild heiress, in her apartment in the Stanhope hotel on Fifth Avenue,
he began to feel poorly. She called her doctor, who, guessing he was 60, asked
him if he drank alcohol. "Sometimes I take a sherry before dinner," Bird
replied. He broke into uncontrollable laughter as he and the Baroness watched
some jugglers on Tommy Dorsey's variety television show. He liked Tommy Dorsey.
Then he began to cough, throw up, wretch, and, spookily synchronized with a
loud clap of thunder over Central Park, he passed away.
still analyze Parker's improvisations on compositions with names like
Ornithology, Klactoveedsedstene, and Little Willie Leaps.
Half a century after Parker's death, 11 and a half-year-old Cooper Copetas, who
lives in Paris and has been playing the alto saxophone for three and a half
years, says: "He plays really fast. I like that. And he plays a good soft tune.
Bird's music keeps going."
Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for
the last twenty years. He is currently writing a book called "Parisian Jazz
Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of
Culturekiosque.com. Zwerin who has lived in France for 33 years, was promoted
recently from 'Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres' to 'Officier de
l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres" by the French Minister of Culture.