Sixty years on, the legacy of Charlie ParkerMar 16, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 26 • By TED GIOIA
Charlie Parker never achieved stardom, at least not by the standards of the music business. He never had a gold record to hang on the wall or enjoyed a significant radio hit. He never had a contract with a major record label. His face didn’t appear, even in a bit role, in a Hollywood film. If you measure a musician’s worth at the cash register—the ultimate arbiter of talent nowadays, or so it seems—Parker can only be called a minor figure, operating at the fringes of the entertainment industry.
But within the subculture of modern jazz, Parker was more than a star. He was a legend. Even before his death at age 34, 60 years ago this month, Parker had assumed the status of a demigod among those who followed the most progressive currents in jazz—as well as among hipsters, beatniks, and various practitioners of what passed for “alternative lifestyles” during the Eisenhower era. And even now, with 60 years of perspective since his untimely passing, we still struggle to separate the man from the myth.
Charlie Parker came of age in Kansas City at a time when the city enjoyed a scandalous renown for jazz, uninhibited nightlife, and easy access to illegal intoxicants. The Parker mythos was built on the same ingredients: His nickname, Bird, perhaps referred to his free-flying alto saxophone lines, which darted and flowed with a mesmerizing unpredictability. But his life was similarly unconstrained, almost in free-fall.
The two sides of Parker, virtuoso musician and haunted victim of personal demons, often seemed to go hand in hand. I still encounter musicians who tell me that Bird’s visionary music was inspired, at least in part, by heroin. Back in the 1940s and ’50s, this view was even more prevalent, and Parker’s example had too many followers who could justify their self-destruction by pointing to his rare artistry.
They could call attention to the amazing 18-month run leading up to Parker’s July 1946 arrest and subsequent institutionalization at Camarillo State Hospital in California. Parker was clearly in a state of dissolution and chemical dependency during this period, yet it was when he made many of his most influential recordings—pathbreaking tracks such as “Ornithology,” “Night in Tunisia,” “Ko-Ko,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Hot House,” “Yardbird Suite,” and “Billie’s Bounce.” These recordings invented the bebop vocabulary and defined the course of modern jazz for years to come.
When I was a teenager, I studied this music as if it were holy writ, a source of arcane wisdom for those desiring initiation into the inner sanctum of jazz improvisation. Parker had died before I was born, but he was ever-present in my own coming-of-age as a musician. I listened over and over again to everything Parker recorded during the mid-1940s—even the alternate takes and false starts. I studied transcriptions of Parker’s solos and made marks in the margins to call attention to especially striking licks and phrases. And around the time of my 20th birthday, I bought a turntable that allowed me to play records at half-speed. I delighted in my ability to hear in slow-motion Bird songs that previously had flown by at breakneck pace.
This is the side of Charlie Parker that I cherish, analytical and almost mathematical in its purity. It’s not as sensational as the tales of the desperate addict, pawning his sax to get a fix. It isn’t suitable for a made-for-TV biopic. It’s not tawdry or glamorous. But the secret to Bird’s ability to swoop and soar resides here, in his manifold ways of combining the 12 notes of our tempered scale.
So forgive me if I wax rhapsodic over Parker’s bold use of chromaticism—which went far beyond anything done previously in jazz. The same goes for his placement of rhythmic accents and subdivisions of the beat. I simply can’t talk about Charlie Parker without acknowledging these remarkable achievements. I learned as much about melody construction from Bird as I did from Bach and Beethoven, and I still apply his teachings every time I sit down at the piano and improvise. Parker never wrote a textbook, but he really didn’t need to—his records present the results of a long process of synthesis and codification, available to anyone with open ears and a willingness to put them to the test.
6:12 PM, Jan 27, 2015 • By DANIEL HALPER
It's worth re-reading Fred Baumann on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was born 259 years ago today:
IN BEYOND Good and Evil, Nietzsche rejoices that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, "the last chord of a centuries-old great European taste . . . still speaks to us" and warns that "alas, some day all this will be gone."
1:02 PM, Feb 14, 2014 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
Millions of people get their music through Pandora and this being the age when no data is left unmined, the preferences of this vast audience will soon be used for political purposes.
7:49 AM, Jan 31, 2014 • By JERYL BIER
The State Department is presenting a global webcast on February 4, titled "From the Street to Mainstream: The Evolution of Rap/Hip Hop Music." The host of the webcast, rapper and State Department Music Ambassador Toni Blackman, will be joined by Pras Michel, a founding member of the hip hop group the Fugees, to discuss "how rap and hip hop have increased social awareness of the African-American experience — and raised even broader issues in contemporary society." Some of Michel's more inflammatory comments in the past raise questions about the appropriateness of his appearance with the U.S.'s music ambassador on a government-sponsored webcast representing America to the world.
3:43 PM, Dec 9, 2013 • By JERYL BIER
In the East Room of the White House Sunday night, President Obama hosted the Kennedy Center Honors Reception to recognize five American artists: Martina Arroyo, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Shirley MacLaine, and Billy Joel. The president gave a brief synopsis of each artist's career, including making light of the drug-induced hallucinations of Carlos Santana as he was introduced to the music world at the 1969 Woodstock music festival:
3:03 PM, Nov 13, 2013 • By JEFFREY GEDMIN
There's a black and white photo, a little grainy and slightly out of focus, of Igor Stravinsky greeting Mstislav Rostropovich at the Royal Academy of Music, London, in June 1964. Standing in the background in the upper left hand corner is a tall lanky figure, a 20-year-old music student named John Tavener. Also in the photo, just to the right, is John's brother Roger who was friendly with Ringo Starr.
Lou Reed went down and found a song that will survive.1:03 PM, Oct 28, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
Lou Reed died yesterday in Amagansett, N.Y., thus ending his life on the same island, Long Island, where it began more than 71 years ago in Kings County, better known as Brooklyn.
Joseph Bottum on the guy who knew Jim Morrison
Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
I met him once. Well, met in the loosest sense: I was introduced to Ray Manzarek at a Los Angeles restaurant in the 1980s and got to shake his hand. No more than that, but even at the time it felt like an encounter with passing greatness, a brush with the fading mythology of the age, and down through the years, I’ve never forgotten it.
12:36 PM, Apr 30, 2013 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
Willie Nelson turns 80 today. As Kelly Phillips Erb writes in Forbes, it has been an interesting, prolific, and unusual career:
Will White House release guest list?7:34 AM, Apr 9, 2013 • By DANIEL HALPER
On Barack and Michelle Obama's schedule for today, this event is listed:
8:14 AM, Feb 13, 2013 • By DANIEL HALPER
This morning, the State Department announced, "Hip Hop Group Audiopharmacy to Tour Southeast Asia and the Pacific with American Music Abroad."
How music and commerce combine to make America.Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By TED GIOIA
Could Mozart write jingles? “Are you kidding,” responds the ad copy for a 1990s music marketing production house. “A Little Night Music had ‘beer commercial’ written all over it.”
A second opinion on Mozart’s final days.
Oct 22, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 06 • By JOHN CHECK
Discussions of what would prove to be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s last years tend to fixate on his death. Much talk there is—for Christoph Wolff, too much talk—of Mozart’s decline or fall, of the quality of resignation that supposedly crept into his music, even of the “autumnal world” that his late work is said to inhabit.