By Jon Garelick
I’m still not sure I heard what’s revolutionary about Charlie Parker’s recordings — they’re very old news by now. But I warm to the expressions of unique genius, a beauty that in itself is radical.
Also check out Jon and other Arts Fuse jazz critics listing their favorite performances from the Bird.
That Charlie Parker (1920-1955) was a genius is a given. One of the essential creators of the modern jazz language, he’s credited not only with changing jazz but — like an earlier genius, Louis Armstrong — changing popular music itself. So vast was his knowledge and skill that a classical musician friend of mine scoffed at Parker’s reported aspiration to study with modernist composer Edgard Varese. “Charlie Parker knew more than Varese,” my friend said.
But though Parker — whose 100th birthday was on August 29 — was the beginning of a kind of music (bebop), and a way of thinking about music, he wasn’t the beginning for me. By the time I got into jazz, in the early ‘70s, Parker’s had been completely absorbed into the mainstream. In fact, the music had moved on — the “free jazz” of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Albert Ayler, the jazz-rock fusion popularized by post-bop genius Miles Davis, and post-free-jazz compositional gambits of the likes of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Air, Anthony Braxton and many more.
So what exactly was so revolutionary about Parker? In the argot of music appreciation: What made him great? I’d read all about him — his humiliation at getting “gonged” off the stage in his hometown of Kansas City in 1936 with a cymbal thrown by the great drummer Jo Jones because he got lost on a key modulation; his subsequent self-exile to the Ozarks and obsessive woodshedding and deep study of Lester Young’s solo on “Lady Be Good,” and his determination to master every tune in every key!; his prodigal return and establishment as a young alto player to watch; his time as a journeyman player in New York; and then the eureka moment, in 1939, playing Ray Noble’s big band staple “Cherokee” in Dan Wall’s Chili House in Harlem, finally finding the “something else” in the upper intervals of chords that he had been hearing in his head but couldn’t play, now breaking through to his fingertips. “I came alive,” he told DownBeat.
So, with Parker as one of its foundational geniuses (Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke Max Roach, and Thelonious Monk were all there too), bebop was born — its speed and daring, its outer explorations of harmony and rhythm. And Parker was its high priest, with his beautiful big vibrato-less tone and pearly phrasing, what the critic Marshall Stearns called “its tortured, searing, blasting beauty.” He was a monster, awed and feared, and aped by everyone, right down to his heroin addiction, which many mistakenly thought was the key to his genius.
But by the time I came to Parker, you could hear his music in all of jazz (even the avant-garde acknowledged his primacy) and certainly in every alto player. Phil Woods, Charles McPherson — didn’t they sound as good, and weren’t they much better recorded than Parker was on the seminal Savoy and Dial sessions of 1945-’48?
So weird as it is for a jazz writer to say, Charlie Parker was a kind of acquired taste. Sure, I liked Charlie Parker, what was there not to like? But I was more into Mingus and Monk, Coltrane (“Giant Steps”!) and Miles and Sonny Rollins.
It wasn’t until I caught up with director Louis Malle’s 1971 Murmur of the Heart that I heard what I wanted. The young protagonist of that film and his friends are jazz-mad adolescents in 1954 Dijon, up on all the latest gossip, like some proto indie-rock fans (talking about pianist Bud Powell, one of them says, “He’s out of the madhouse, and he’s better than ever!”). And blasting out of the movie house speakers came “Klacktoveesedstene,” which gave me what I wanted: a big, fat tone, an impossibly knotty bebop line played at high velocity, a thrill-ride of blazing virtuosity. (Not knowing the tune, I found its approximation in a later recording, from Verve, “She Rote.”)
Even so, it was hard to hear what made bebop — and Charlie Parker — so radical. Bird was beautiful, but what was it about his music that turned jazz on its head, that reportedly caused Cab Calloway to dismiss bebop as “Chinese music”?
I finally caught some of that — how Charlie Parker’s music was seen in its time — in the 1974 novel Streets of Gold, by Evan Hunter. The hero, a young, white, blind pianist in the 1940s (loosely modeled on George Shearing) is something of a classical piano prodigy who’s fallen in love with the music of jazz pianist Art Tatum. When a Black musician friend takes him to a club where he gets to sit in with a band made up of — unbeknownst to him — beboppers, he undergoes what Parker went through in 1936: he gets gonged off the stage. (No one throws a cymbal, but the band gets dragged by the Tatum-like striding bass lines in his left hand.)
The bewildered kid has a heart-to-heart with his friend Biff, who finally tells him, that if he really wants to pursue Tatum-style piano he’ll be “followin’ a coffin up Bourbon Street.” He adds “Tatum and [Tedddy] Wilson are dead and the Bird is king and jazz ain’t never gonna be the same again.”
The protagonist comes around, but it’s a hard row to hoe: “I hated the music, which I thought was simplistic, crude, mysterious, irritating, architecturally inept, and utterly without warmth or feeling.”
Punk rock! For this talented kid, “Ornithology” might as well have been “God Save the Queen.”
It was difficult for me to hear bebop as strange as this character did (after all, I was plumbing the depths of Coltrane’s “Ascension” and Mingus with Eric Dophy). But I did get a small taste of it on a writing assignment.
The great swing-era trumpeters Buck Clayton and Harry “Sweets” Edison — veterans of the Count Basie band, session men on some of Billie Holiday’s greatest recordings — were coming to Harvard’s “Learning from Performers” series, brought by Harvard Bands director and Office of the Arts advisor Tom Everett.
I knew from Everett what the program would be. It would include as one of its features a performance of “Dickie’s Dream,” by Lester Young, recorded with Count Basie Kansas City Seven in 1939, with Young, Clayton, the tune’s namesake, Dickie Wells, on trombone, and the peerless swing rhythm section of the Basie on piano with guitarist Freedie Green, bassist Walter Page, and drummer Jo Jones (the “gong” man!).
I had a vinyl disc of Basie, which included three or four takes of “Dickie’s Dream.” I listened to them over and over — maybe slightly less obsessed than Parker was with “Lady Be Good.”
You can find deep theoretical analysis of “Dickie’s Dream” and Young’s use of the minor sixth chord (thanks, Loren Schoenberg!), but for me the piece is understood best as a simple Kansas City riff tune — the kind of call-and-response figure that Basie and his cohort would come up with in the late-night-early-morning jam sessions in Kansas City and turn into tunes. The “all-American rhythm section,” as it came to be called, just rocks back and forth on that simple riff figure, a gentle see-sawing motion that gets into your body. As the great composer, critic, and analyst of the swing era Gunther Schuller might have put it: Under such compelling elemental physical/rhythmic force, you have no choice but to tap your foot.
I can’t remember the details of the concert. Sweets had a solo or two, the Harvard kids acquitted themselves well. Clayton, in declining health, didn’t play, but observed from a kind of throne chair onstage.
But my takeaway from that show — besides feeling that “Dickie’s Dream” represented the height of human achievement — was a kind of seismic aftershock. After having been immersed in Kansas City swing, I started listening to bebop again, and it no longer brought the comfort of the old and familiar. It was frantic. Unsettling. Where was the beauty of swing rhythms held in beautiful balance? This truly was the beginning of the end for jazz: from dance music to concert music.
It took me a while to reacclimate. Soon my normal pan-stylistic appetite was restored. Somewhere along the line, I had read Ross Russell’s Charlie Parker biography, Bird Lives! Russell — a record store-owner-turned-label owner who recorded those seminal Dial sessions — is a terrific (if sometimes inventive) storyteller and astute analyst, and he provides his own music-theory takes on Parker. His analysis of Parker’s October 1947 Dial recording of the Gershwins’ “Embraceable You” was typical, taking us through Parker’s “new and finer” version of George Gershwin’s “pretty, sentimental original melody.”
Russell looks at Parker’s inventive navigation of harmony in the tune’s first three measures, his use of higher intervals, an example of the “phantom notes” he had heard at the chili house, concluding with “a marvelous B natural.” With that single note, “that essential B,” says Russell, Bird “invests ‘Embraceable You’ with his own magic.”
Well, I’ll be honest, I have not lately returned to that “essential B” (an amateur musician, I could probably follow Russell’s transcription). But I have listened to Charlie Parker’s “Embraceable You,” and marveled at its self-contained beauty, the alternating passages of straight-tempo and double time, tenderness and unalloyed joy, the feints and sighs in the phrasing, music that feels invented whole on the spot, inevitable but full of surprise at every turn. Magic indeed.
Maybe it was that session with Buck and Sweets at Harvard, but sometime after that performance I relaxed into Charlie Parker. It was no longer speed and power that was the draw — I now had new appreciation for ballad inventions like “Embraceable You” and the definitive Parker blues “Parker’s Mood.”
I had read in Russell’s book about Parker’s self-commitment, after a physical and mental breakdown, to Camarillo State Hospital in 1946 to kick drugs and alcohol. After six months of hospitalization, he began recording for Dial again, including an original 12-bar blues “Relaxin’ at Camarillo.”
Annotators had referred to renewed authority of Bird on this track (Russell refers to his “take-charge” comportment in the studio and “note-perfect” first take). I never analyzed the tune. “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” was one fine performance among many. But one day I was playing the Dial sessions, not bothering to check titles, and at one point a tune started, Parker entered, and I thought, “Wow, he sounds so relaxed!”
Now, with the marking of Charlie Parker’s 100th birthday, I’m listening to a lot of his recordings anew, or for the first time (had I really never listened to the Carnegie Hall concert?). I’m a bit more discerning. Some albums I’ve downloaded online (with no annotation — thanks Internet!) feature familiar Parker tunes taken at too-fast tempos. Bird was a genius, but some Bird is better than others.
I’m still not sure I heard what’s revolutionary about these recordings — they’re very old news by now. But I warm to the expressions of unique genius, a beauty that in itself is radical. And I’m happy with Bird’s own formulation: “It’s just music. It’s playing clean and looking for the pretty notes.”
Jon Garelick is a member of the Boston Globe editorial board. A former arts editor at the Boston Phoenix, he writes frequently about jazz for the Globe, Arts Fuse, and other publications.