Charlie Parker – Bird Lives!

Charlie Parker courtesy of Sony

Charlie Parker changed the direction and sound of jazz and remains as influential today as it was revolutionary in his lifetime. Brian Priestley explores the Charlie Parker story...

If a week is a long time in politics, then 50 years in musical development would be almost unimaginable without the aid of recordings. Just think about it.

In early 1955, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent judgement backing racial integration in schools was just beginning to be assessed. Simultaneously, Ray Charles’s ‘I Got A Woman’ (recorded six weeks before the turn of the year) was entering the R&B chart before crossing-over to the ‘pop’ listings. But, whereas Big Joe Turner’s ‘Shake Rattle And Roll’ crept into the pop chart for two weeks the previous summer, Bill Haley’s cleaned-up cover version was still there six months later.

That tells you a lot about America half a century ago. When Charlie Parker died in March 1955, he was not only alarmingly young. He also missed out on the great Civil Rights movement of the later 1950s and 1960s, and the general shake-up of society which that period brought about (and which many political and religious leaders in the U.S. are currently trying to reverse). Sadly for those interested in investigating the music, he missed out too on the first LP boom and the start of stereo, and he missed out on the era of Americans touring widely in Europe and being filmed for television. His recording output is very lopsided, as we’ll see, and video documentation is virtually nil.

The years between 1945 and 1955 represent a significant gap between the 1935-45 decade when jazz was pop, and 1955-65 when it was respected (and also sometimes popular). Parker did much to create that gap in the first place, but it’s ironic that he didn’t survive long enough to benefit from the renewed interest in jazz from 1955 onwards. He’d turned professional during the second half of the 1930s, that long-distant period when for a variety of reasons jazz (and jazz-derived) music set the tone for much of popular culture. It was called the Swing Era, and there’s been nothing like it ever since. Guys like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were the pin-ups of the day, despite the fact they were playing this highly rhythmic big-band music that was heavily jazz-oriented and – what was more unusual for white pop icons in those days – heavily black-influenced.

This surprising change in popular taste was one of music’s first-ever youth movements, and it contrasted with the smooth (or ‘sweet’) sounds of the early 1930s like chalk and cheese. If you wonder why we’re talking about what preceded Charlie Parker, it’s because the music of his teenage years provided the seeds of what he achieved. The fact that several black bands also became, if not rich, then nationally known names (including Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Count Basie) was equally important in inspiring younger black musicians to develop a style even more innovative than swing. And, while there may be a separatist agenda here (‘Let’s create something whitey can’t steal’), the ambitious artistry heard from people like predecessors Art Tatum or Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young was enough, in and of itself, to warrant closer examination and further extension by those capable of doing so.

Which is where Charlie Parker came in. The conventional view of the altoist goes something like this. ‘Parker was at least as famous for being a junkie, as he was for his music. Yet we know that we shouldn’t be influenced by this, so the musical verdict is that he was a great innovator, who just happened to create bebop single-handed.’ There are a number of simplifications there, but let’s break them down in reverse. First of all, the idea that any creation within the black music tradition was single-handed is likely to be false, because of the collective nature of the music. The reason musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach were so dismissive of Ross Russell’s book Bird Lives! is that it espoused the ‘great man’ theory at the expense of their own contributions. And you only have to listen to Parker’s recordings to realise that, while he could swing without any backing at all, he drew strength and inspiration from his accompanists in the moment – and from the whole tradition that preceded him. The renowned ‘Parker’s Mood’ could well be Exhibit A here, with Roach’s drumming (more audible in recent remasterings) being crucial after the piano solo.

The tradition of elevating Bird above his contemporaries goes back a long way, and not just with writers. When Down Beat published his first really in-depth interview in 1949 – timed to coincide with the intended opening of a new club called Birdland – they quoted an unnamed musician as saying ‘There’s only one man really plays bop. That’s Charlie Parker. All the others who say they’re playing bop are only trying to imitate him.’

Promoting the idea that bop was his creation and his alone, the interviewer famously describes (only partly in his own words) how he had a flash of understanding about the way he wanted to play, while jamming in Harlem with the obscure guitarist Biddy Fleet: ‘Charlie suddenly found that by using higher intervals of a chord… he could play this thing he had been “hearing”. Fleet picked it up behind him and bop was born.’

Well, that’s how music journalists wrote back then, so fair enough. But a lot of books are still talking in a not too dissimilar way now, which is not fair enough because bebop was not born suddenly. It isn’t merely the passage of time that makes late swing blend so easily into early bop. It’s the music. Many things no longer taken for granted – such as playing four beats to the bar, using 12-bar and 32-bar choruses, having successive soloists take turns on the same chord-sequence, the idea of having chord-sequences at all – all of these survived intact from swing to bop. And the fact that Parker in his interview described the differences between the styles in terms of harmony is actively misleading. Yes, Dizzy Gillespie’s contributions were to some extent about chords, and so were Thelonious Monk’s but – heard with today’s ears, or viewed on paper – Parker’s solos are actually very uncomplicated harmonically.

So, having disposed of the idea that anything he did was done single-handedly, we’ve also seen that bebop wasn’t so different from what immediately preceded it. And, in disagreeing about the accuracy of his own most quoted statement, we’re well on the way to saying that he wasn’t an innovator either. Certainly, the ‘higher intervals’ were no great mystery – all Charlie was probably saying was that it took him till he was 18 or 19 to ‘hear’ them and play them. But they were to be found already in the advanced swing soloists like Tatum, Hawkins, Young, Roy Eldridge, even Benny Goodman on occasion. Parker was, at this level, just another great soloist, the one who grabbed everything that was in the air (from the innovative to the deeply traditional) and absorbed it into his style better than anyone else in the 1940s.


“His sound initially repelled some listeners and seduced others like a veritable Pied Piper”


What was different about his playing, of course, was his sound, which initially repelled some listeners and seduced others like a veritable Pied Piper. The recently reissued, and not particularly recommendable, reissue from a 1952 jam-session (Chet And Bird) has at least two revealing moments. The track probably recorded first includes an opening alto solo that, for a while, has you wondering whether it’s really Parker or the other listed saxophonist (Sonny Criss, who copied some of Charlie’s habits, both musical and non-musical) – but the mystery is solved within the first few notes of the second alto solo because, despite the bootleg quality, you recognise Parker instantly. The other side of the coin is another track from the same set, which begins with the song ‘Indiana’ done very straight, perhaps in answer to a request. Can that really be Bird playing so simply? But, again, you know it’s him even before he employs any of his usual vocabulary, because the tone is so distinctive.

Charlie Parker with Dizzy Gillespie (courtesy of Verve Records)The thing that was so impressive to sympathetic fellow musicians, and so bewildering to those who couldn’t get with it, was his superb rhythmic assurance. While Gillespie, for instance, had already shown an interest in the cross-rhythms of Afro-Latin and Afro-Caribbean music, Parker’s background didn’t include that kind of experience. But he frequently played (over a conventional swing accompaniment) as if he was juggling all the polyrhythmic accents that could be thrown at him by a Latin rhythm-section. Gillespie, in his autobiography To Be Or Not To Bop, even said of Charlie’s early work that ‘Rhythmically, he was quite advanced’ and that ‘After we started playing together, I started to play, rhythmically, more like him.’ Quite a compliment, coming from Dizzy, while Miles in his own book described how easily Parker could unintentionally throw his own accompanists, let alone his listeners.

Significantly, in his 1949 interview, there’s a bit that’s less frequently quoted these days – perhaps it seems less coherent, as he struggles to define the key difference between bebop and swing. Charlie talks (to two non-musician writers, one of whom three years earlier had panned the first-ever single under Parker’s own name) about rhythm. What he says makes perfect sense, if you appreciate the distinct qualities of a swing rhythm-section and a bebop rhythm-section: ‘The beat in a bop band is with the music, against it, behind it… It has no continuity of beat, no steady chugging.’ In other words, the absence of a heavy four from the rhythm guitar or from the drummer’s bass and snare left chord instruments and drums free to make seemingly random responses to whoever was playing the solo line. Charlie seldom told drummers or pianists what to do (unlike Gillespie) but he made this way of playing seem the only way to go for younger musicians.

How far he’s also responsible for turning them on to hard drugs is a subject for debate. But the first heroin epidemic in the U.S. began as early as the 1930s (Dizzy’s book mentions a trumpeter with Jimmie Lunceford, who I take to be Tommy Stevenson, as the first addict he was aware of) and, by the time of the Parker ‘imitators’, the epidemic was so widespread it’s surprising more musicians didn’t die. Of those that did, many were trumpeters, including both black (Fats Navarro, dead at 26) and white (Sonny Berman, whose touring room-mate Ralph Burns once told me of fellow bandsmen’s efforts to disguise Berman’s fatal heart-attack at 22). Rather than artistic reasons, it’s much more likely to have been curiosity and a desire to be in with the in-crowd that initially hooked these victims, and it’s likely to be just the same for Parker himself, in his mid-teens in Kansas City.

K.C. was what’s called a ‘wide-open town’ in the 1930s (it provided the basis for Robert Altman’s 1996 movie Kansas City which, as well as evoking the town’s political corruption, also re-created the all-night jam-sessions that featured people like Lester Young and Ben Webster). Whereas 1920s Chicago and Harlem night-life was built on booze, 1930s Kaycee had a place in its economy for heroin, with many enthusiastic clients among its exploited entertainment workers. No wonder players like Ben and Lester and Basie and Mary Lou Williams (with the Andy Kirk band) moved on as soon as they got the opportunity. And no wonder that the ambitious and adventurous Parker first left his K.C. employer Jay McShann to explore New York on his own, as early as his 19th year. This was when he first discovered he really needed sympathetic musical colleagues, finding few of them except Biddy Fleet, and on returning home he put his all into McShann’s new big-band with whom he made his first brief recordings.

It was when the band went together to New York in 1942, and scored a hit with fellow players, that Charlie was really on his way. Gillespie was one of the few allowed to sit in with the band at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, and his rapport with Charlie (built on the fact that they had similar interests but slightly different talents) was pursued through jam-sessions, touring with Earl Hines’s and Billy Eckstine’s bands, and Dizzy’s early small-groups on New York’s 52nd Street and in Los Angeles. Before they parted company there in 1946, Charlie appeared on key recordings with Gillespie and made his own ‘Now’s The Time’ session (for which Dizzy played more piano than trumpet, even on the amazing ‘Ko Ko’). Parker’s choice of trumpeter showed his interest in encouraging young talent and a concern for contrast – the 19-year-old Miles Davis could hardly have been more different from Charlie in his tone quality or his apparent energy levels. The partnership was highly effective but, for Miles, a musical hurdle and a huge psychological challenge.

Parker’s is very much a story of two halves and, by the time he was making his most effective impact in the famous 1947-48 quintet that included Miles and Max Roach, he was no longer trusted by fellow musicians, let alone promoters and producers. As early as his first stint with McShann, he was considered an occasional liability and, during the second, successful band, he was briefly arrested along with singer Walter Brown. He also accidentally set fire to a hotel room and, finally, had to be left behind to recover from a bad trip. Concerned members of Hines’s band, and later of Gillespie’s quintet, tried to make him mend his ways, pointing out that he was letting down the group, the bebop scene generally, and indeed ‘the race’ (as Africans Americans referred to themselves in those times). All to no avail.


“An addict can function musically on heroin in a way that’s not so easy with a huge alcohol intake”


He not only let down but exploited others, and that included musicians and the partners in his four long-term relationships. Those with Rebecca (a high-school sweetheart) and with Gerri (a night-club dancer) were relatively brief – his first wife survived about two years of domesticity, the second probably less than a year. They were both black, but there may be several reasons why first Doris and then Chan Parker (both white in a period when inter-marriage was still highly unusual) each stuck around for about five years. Each of them certainly suffered, but each maintained – in quite separate testimony – that Charlie was at his best musically during their own relationship with him. More significant in supporting the notion that he wanted to go straight, each of them also spoke of his ability to quit heroin repeatedly. Unfortunately, he changed his mind repeatedly, and also developed a fearsome appetite for liquor as a substitute. As Gillespie and others pointed out, an addict can function musically on heroin in a way that’s not so easy with a huge alcohol intake.

As early as 1950, Parker’s career (as opposed to his playing) was starting to slide. Producer Norman Granz continued to record him in a variety of formats such as the ensemble with strings, that became a commercial attraction for a while, but didn’t use him any longer on the lucrative Jazz At The Philharmonic tours, because he was unreliable. Charlie became extremely ambivalent about the success of the strings group because of its stiff and absolutely fixed arrangements, while his quintet with Roy Haynes and Red Rodney foundered because of Rodney’s unavailability (firstly through serious illness, then imprisonment, both brought on by the usual reasons). Charlie lost his New York ‘cabaret card’ – as did others including non-jazzers, because of the authorities prohibiting the employment of those with a criminal record – and appeared around the country with accompanists varying wildly in quality. Sometimes he seems strong and impervious to their deficiencies, occasionally he’s so far from his own high standards that it’s pathetic – in the sense of evoking pity. A lot of it is on disc.

The actual availability of Parker’s music is complicated. Briefly, there’s a lot out there that shouldn’t be, except with a health warning, and a lot of the good stuff can be had in so many different guises that even experienced observers shrug and sigh. The complexity is to do with legalities of one sort or another, plus the fact that all but a couple of Bird’s last sessions were done before vinyl LPs became the norm, and jazz was released on singles. His ascendancy also coincided with the popularisation of portable recording gear, so at times it seems every note he ever played was captured by someone or other – often someone who, like the legendary Dean Benedetti, would switch off their equipment as soon as Parker’s solo was finished.

The plus side is that we have a fuller picture of his professional life, and the variety of circumstances in which he appeared, than with anyone else. Amazing discoveries continue to be made, some of them demanding a certain tolerance of inferior reproduction, as in the 1942 broadcast of the McShann band at the Savoy Ballroom, which took nearly 50 years to surface. Then there was the excellent 1952 airshot with Mingus and local Boston musicians including Dick Twardzik (who died aged 24) and a historic and previously unsuspected set of Gillespie’s 1945 quintet with Parker and Max Roach. But when you see the two surviving fragments of video, showing his total absorption in the music and total absence of any showmanship, you realise why it had to be the intense sound that got to people.

You also realise why bebop’s intensity made it less than popular, and the preserve of a hip elite. And why Gillespie rediscovered showmanship and the power of Latin rhythms, and survived as a result. By the autumn of 1954, Parker was not only attempting suicide (apparently for real) but camping out with friends and often playing for free. Even as jazz was consolidating its bebop revolution (Blakey at Birdland) and becoming safe for college kids (Mulligan and Baker), it’s not Bird but Stan Kenton who’s the favourite of Blackboard Jungle’s fictional teacher in that idealised, racially integrated school. And it’s not Bird but Brubeck who appears on the cover of the non-fictional Time magazine. Time is what Parker needed more of, but now’s the time to rejoice, and weep, for the time he spent among us.

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