Those musical gifts made it possible for Parker to evolve from an inept alto saxophonist, a laughingstock in his middle teens, to a virtuoso of allencompassing talent who by the age of twenty-five exhibited an unprecedented command of his instrument. His prodigious facility was used not only for exhibition or revenge, moreover, but primarily for the expression of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic inventions, at velocities that extended the intimidating relationship of thought and action that forms the mystery of improvisation in jazz. In the process, Parker defined his generation: he provided the mortar for the bricks of fresh harmony that Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie were making, he supplied linear substance and an eighth-note triplet approach to phrasing that was perfectly right for the looser style of drumming that Kenny Clarke had invented.
anomalies are endless. He performed on concert stages as part of Norman Granz's
jazz at the Philharmonic, traveling in style and benefitting from Granz's
demand that all his musicians receive the same accommodations, regardless of
race; but when he was at the helm of his own groups, Parker was usually
performing in the homemade chamber music rooms of nightclubs. "One night
I'm at Carnegie Hall," he once told the saxophonist Big Nick Nicholas,
"and the next night I'm somewhere in
You could look at Bird's life and see just how much his music was connected to the way he lived.... You just stood there with your mouth open and listened to him discuss books with somebody or philosophy or religion or science, things like that. Thorough. A little while later, you might see him over in a corner somewhere drinking wine out of a paper sack with some juicehead. Now that's what you hear when you listen to him play: he can reach the most intellectual and difficult levels of music, then he can turn around-now watch this-and play the most low down, funky blues you ever want to hear. That's a long road for somebody else, from that high intelligence all the way over to those blues, but for Charlie Parker it wasn't half a block; it was right next door... .
was not Parker's scope, however, but his wild living, and his disdain for the
rituals of the entertainment business, that made him something of a saint to
those who felt at odds with
Parker appeared at a point in American history when that bizarre image of the Negro had been part of many show business successes: minstrelsy itself, the first nationally popular stage entertainment; Birth of a Nation, the first epic film and "blockbuster"; "Amos 'n' Andy," the most popular radio program since its premiere in 1928; The Jazz Singer, where Jolson's Jacob Rabinowitz stepped from cantorial melancholy into American optimism by changing his name to Jack Robbins, changing the color of his face, and introducing the recorded voice to film; Gone With the Wind, Atlanta's plantation paradise lost; not to mention the endless bit parts in all the performing arts that gave comic relief of a usually insulting sort, or that "realistically" showed Negro women advising lovelorn white girls in their boudoirs. Parker offered an affront to that tradition of humiliation,
In fact, the jazzmen who preceded Parker had also addressed the insults of popular culture, and countered those stereotypes with the elegant deportment and the musical sophistication of the big bands. Parker turned his back on those bands, though; and not only because he preferred five-piece units. Manhandling the saxophone and Tin Pan Alley ditties, writing tunes that were swift and filled with serpentine phrases of brittle bravado, arriving late or not at all, occasionally in borrowed or stolen clothes so ill-fitting that the sleeves came midway down his forearms and the pants part way up his calves, speaking with authority on a wide variety of subjects in a booming mid-Atlantic accent, Parker nicely fit the bohemian ideal of an artist too dedicated to his art to be bought and too worldly to be condescended to. (Except, of course, when he chose himself to mock his own identity, as when he stood in front of Birdland dressed in overalls and announced to his fellow players that he was sure they must be jazz musicians because they were so well dressed.)
Historically, Parker was the third type of Afro-American artist to arrive in the idiom of jazz. Louis Armstrong had fused the earthy and the majestic, and had set the standards for improvisational virtuosity and swing; but he was also given to twisting on the jester's mask. Duke Ellington manipulated moods, melodies, harmonies, timbres, and rhythms with the grace of relaxed superiority, suavely expanding and refining the art in a manner that has no equal. Armstrong's combination of pathos, joy, and farce achieved the sort of eloquence that Chaplin sought; and Ellington commanded the implications of the Negro-derived pedal percussion that gave Astaire many of his greatest moments. But Parker was more the gangster hero, the charming anarchist that Cagney introduced in Public Enemy. The tommy gun velocity of Parker's imagination mowed down the clichés he inherited, and enlarged the language of jazz, but like Cagney's Tom Powers, he met an early death, felled by the dangers of fast living.
many ways , Parker reflected the world in which he was reared, the Wild West
Parker's father was an alcoholic drawn to the nightlife; his mother left him when the future saxophonist was about nine. Convinced that she could keep young Charlie away from the things her husband loved by giving the boy everything he wanted, she reared him as a well-dressed prince who could do no wrong. That treatment is far from unusual in the lives of Negro innovators. It gives them the feeling that they can do things differently from everyone else. But there was also a crippling side to it. As the bassist Gene Ramey, who knew the saxophonist from about 1934, remarks in the excellent oral history Goin' To Kansas City, "He couldn't fit into society, 'cause evidently his mother babied him so much, that he ... was expecting that from everybody else in the world."
But when Parker, who was known for his laziness, became interested in music in the thirties, he quickly discovered that the gladiatorial arena of the jam session made no allowances for handsome brats in tailor-made J. B. Simpson suits at the height of the Depression. He was thrown off many a stage. It was then that he decided to become the best. As Parker told fellow alto player Paul Desmond in 1953, "I put quite a bit of study into the horn, that's true. In fact, the neighbors threatened to ask my mother to move once when I was living out West. They said I was driving them crazy with the horn. I used to put in at least eleven to fifteen hours a day. I did that for over a period of three or four years."
practiced incessantly, and was in the streets, listening to the great local
players. He was drawn especially to Buster Smith and Lester Young, though he
told the younger saxophonist Junior Williams that it was when he heard Chu
was essential to Parker's life. Everything happened fast. On the night that Joe
Louis lost to Max Schmeling in 1936, fifteen year-old Charlie Parker proposed
to Rebecca Ruffin and married her a week later. He was a morphine addict by the
summer of 1937, which suggests that he may have mixed in an upper-class circle,
since there was no heavy drug trade in
It was during Parker's three years with McShann that the intellectually ambitious personality began to take shape. Parker was interested in politics, mechanics, history, mathematics, philosophy, religion, languages,, and race relations. He loved to mimic actors like Charles Laughton, was a prankster and a comic. His problems with dissipation became obvious, too; he told his wife Doris that he had never been able to stop, and recalled that his mother would have to come and get him from a hotel where he was using Benzedrine, staying up nights and going over music. These appetites made him unreliable, and McShann had to send him home for rest often, working with his mother to try and help him handle his addiction.
Parker was also, in fine modernist fashion, a man of masks. Gene Ramey, a member of the McShann band, recalled:
He shouldn't have been nicknamed Yardbird or Bird Parker; he should have been called Chameleon Parker. Man, could that guy change directions and presentations on you! But he also had a gift for fitting in-if he wanted to. That applied to his music most of all. Bird would sit in anywhere we went-Bob Wills, Lawrence Welk, wherever the local jam session was, anybody that was playing.... We used to practice together often, just saxophone and bass, We would take "Cherokee," and he would ask me to tell him when he repeated something so he could meet the challenge of staying fresh and fluent. Bird liked to take one tune and play it for a couple of hours. Then he would know every nook and cranny of the melody and the chords. He was very scientific about those things.... Now he might not talk about it, but don't let that fool you into believing he wasn't thinking about it.
But beneath the masks, beneath the obsession with music, the mimicry, and the involvement in the sweep of life, there was a need. McShann says that Parker had a crying soul that always came out in his playing; and his first wife, Rebecca, observed it when he was in his early teens:
It seemed to me like he needed.... He wasn't loved, he was just given. Addie Parker wasn't that type of woman. She always let him have his way, but she didn't show what I call affection. It was strange. She was proud of him and everything. Worked herself for him and all, but somehow I never saw her heart touch him. It was odd. It seemed like to me he needed. He just had this need. It really touched me to my soul.
The refinement of Parker's rhythm and the devil-may-care complexity of his phrases came to early distinction during those barnstorming years with McShann, in his next job with Earl Hines, and in the laboratory for the new vernacular that was Billy Eckstine's big band. On "Swingmatism" and "Hootie Blues," recorded with McShann in 1941, Parker had already put together the things that separated him from the alto order of the day. His sound is lighter; he uses almost no vibrato; the songful quality of his lines have a fresh harmonic pungence; and his rhythms, however unpredictable, link up with an inevitability that seems somehow to back its way forward through the beat.
McShann brought his band to
importance of Parker's jamming with Gillespie, Monk, and the others has often
been noted; but the importance of his big band experience cannot be
overemphasized. In those bands Parker learned not only how to blend with other
musicians and how to lead a section, he also became a master of setting riffs,
those spontaneous motifs that were repeated as chants. Riffs were what gave
By casting aside vibrato, Parker introduced a sound many considered harsh at the time. But the ballad performances on Warner Bros.' The Yery Best of Bird (the famous Dial sessions of 1946-47) establish that the hardness of his sound was modified by a charming skill for elucidating the riches of romantic fancy in a way that made his music both spiritual and erotic; this was the romantic talent that drew many women to this disordered but beguiling man from whom a high-minded sense of grandeur was delivered with imperial determination. That imperial aspect was also a part of his music's attraction: awesome virtuosity of the sort heard in "Warmin''Up a Riff" or "Ko-Ko" is always a protest against limitations. (Both performances are available on Savoy Original Master Takes.)
The small, curved brass instrument with cane reed and pearl buttons was throttled and twisted, until it allowed him to express a barely stifled cry that was ever near the edge of consuming rage, the pain of consciousness elevated to extraordinary musical articulation. Bird often sounds like a man torn from the womb of safety too soon. He resented the exposure that music demands, and yet he loved it, because there was no other way he could project himself. But this was no primal scream: the fearful force of Parker's music is always counterpointed by a sense of combative joy and a surprising maturity, by the authority of the deeply gifted. Parker brought the violent rage of the primitive blues (of Robert Johnson, for example) to the citadels of art inhabited by the music's greatest improvisers. For Parker, swing and lyricism were some sort of morale, the bars behind which the beast of hysteria was confined.
in sum, was important to the art of Charlie Parker. He was, after all, a heroin
addict. Those who know little about intoxication often fail to realize that the
repetition of the condition is what the addicted love most. They seek a
consistency that will hold off the arbitrary world. If a few glasses of
whiskey, or a marijuana cigarette, or an injection of heroin will guarantee a
particular state, the addict has something to rely on. As Parker told
Charlie Parker's early fall resulted more from his way of making "a good day" than it did from race, the economic system, or the topsy-turvy world of his art. It was a tragedy played out along a dangerously complex front of culture and politics, something far more intricate than the crude hipster mythology of [Clint] Eastwood's [movie] Bird. It was a fully American story of remarkable triumphs, stubborn misconceptions, and squandered resources which tells us as much about the identity of this country as it does about the powers of jazz.