You won’t remember the long nights—coffee bars and black tights
And white thighs in shop windows
Where blonde assistants fully fashioned a world
Made of dummies (with no mummies or daddies to reject them).
When bombs were banned every sunday and The Shadows played F. B. I.
And tired young sax-players sold their instruments of torture
Sat in the station sharing wet dreams
Of Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, René Magritte, to name a few
Of the heroes who were too wise for their own good
Left the young brood to go on living without them.
—Ian Anderson, “From a Deadbeat to an Old Greaser”
Charlie Parker is one of the most divisive and controversial figures in jazz history, and jazz could not have survived without him.
He is divisive for several reasons. From the public perspective, he disconnected jazz from danceable rhythms, an unforgivable sin at a time when swing ruled the airwaves and jazz was virtually synonymous with dance. In doing so, he became an object of worship for the intellectual crowd, a haunting and mysterious figure whose music contained an endlessly impenetrable message with meaning available only to those who claimed the advanced aesthetic ability to understand it. The world was divided between those who dug Bird and those who thought his music ridiculously complex. Hero to beatniks, an enigma to the masses, Charlie Parker became a cult icon, having passed the ultimate litmus test of artistic credibility by croaking off before his time.
Biographies like Gary Giddins’ Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker make things worse by attempting to apply an analytical approach to the understanding of his music. Giddins’ annoying habit of always using the most arcane vocabulary when simple English would do also serves to make Parker more intimidating to the average listener. For example, he describes Parker as “autodidactic” instead of “self-taught.” Most of today’s musicians are self-taught, so they would relate to that word; only Greenwich Village snobs and English majors who never got over it would refer to Bird as an autodidact. Here’s Giddins’ description of the landmark recording of “Ko Ko,” an analysis designed to completely exclude anyone curious about Charlie Parker but unfamiliar with music theory:
Based on the chords of “Cherokee,” the specialty feature of Parker’s apprenticeship, “Ko Ko” heralded a new point of departure for jazz in the postwar era, an effect paralleling that of Armstrong’s “West End Blues” in 1928. Armstrong began with a clarion cadenza; “Ko Ko” opens with an equivalent jolt—a blistering eight-bar unison theme of daunting virtuosity, coupled with improvised eight-bar arabesques by Parker and Gillespie. Then Parker takes off for two choruses of engulfing originality, as though putting everything he knew into this single performance, imposing his will on the music and the musicians, setting forth a novel code with redoubtable nerve. Though improvised at tremendous velocity, his solo is colored with deft conceits: the clanging riff in the first eight bars, the casual reference to “High Society” at the outset of the second chorus, the chromatic arpeggios in the release.
Giddins, Gary (2013-09-01). Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (Kindle Locations 951-958). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.
Yawn. That passage makes me want to fling every Charlie Parker record I own into the Seine. It is about as inviting as a cold bath. Believe me: Charlie Parker is way, way better than that.
The reason why jazz could not have survived without Charlie Parker is because jazz was careening towards an artistic dead-end, a victim of the popularity of swing. When something gets popular, moronic fans want to hear it over and over again, and they don’t want musicians mucking with it. While Ellington took a more gradual approach to change, Charlie Parker wanted to get on with it and play the things he kept hearing in his head. If he had not come along and expanded the possibilities of jazz, its growth as an art form might have ended with World War II. Parker made Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and many other modern greats possible because he gave them permission to explore beyond the boundaries of the Saturday night dance extravaganza.
My goal in reviewing Charlie Parker is to bring him down to earth, yank him off the pedestal his worshippers have built for him with their snooty, protective arrogance, and hopefully inspire the curious to explore this fascinating artist. First, there are two things you need to understand about Charlie Parker’s music:
- Parker’s compositions are nearly always based on pre-existing material, usually standards. He borrowed the chord structures from pedestrian songs like “Honeysuckle Rose,” “I Got Rhythm” and “Embraceable You,” then essentially deconstructed them and put them back together in a different form. Think of his approach as cubist: Parker takes the original chords and melody, tosses them into the air, grabs a few licks on their way down and then creates new melodies based on the new arrangement of pieces. Because his mind worked so fast and contained a vast library of riffs and melodies, occasionally you’ll hear him quoting melodies from other popular songs in the middle of a piece. You can always find a touch of the familiar in anything Charlie Parker ever played.
- Parker’s big discovery was that the twelve notes of the chromatic scale can lead melodically to any key. In the key of C, the twelve notes are all the letters and their sharps or flats: C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B in ascending order; C, B, Bb, A, Ab, G, Gb, F, E, Eb, D, Db. In other words, all the notes from C to C. This is important because tradition organizes Western music into either the major or minor keys, and the paradigm dictated to jazz soloists that they had to stick to the notes permitted by the key. Charlie Parker realized that as long as you resolved a melody to the root, you could pretty much go anywhere. That discovery multiplied possibilities by a millionfold, and even more when you add the blue notes between the notes. Curiously, metal musicians have used the chromatic scale more than other rock musicians, primarily because of the dissonance the chromatic scale can create.
It’s also important not to forget that while a musician may be theoretically brilliant and intellectually daring, if the guy sounds like shit, knowledge of all the complex possibilities of the chromatic scale won’t mean dick. Charlie Parker was much more than a theoretical genius: he was an amazing alto sax player. The sound of Charlie Parker’s sax is like no other, due to his generally vibrato-free approach, his tonal richness and his complete command of all those funny little keys on a saxophone. Forget the complexity: Bird kicks ass! The Best of the Complete Savoy & Dial Sessions is a fabulous introduction to a great saxophone player, a man grounded in the blues and a witty improvisational artist.
The compilation opens with Bird as sideman on a Tiny Grimes’ session in a tune appropriately called “Tiny’s Tempo.” Orrin Keepnews, who compiled the collection, made a superb choice here, for this is probably the most accessible entrance to Charlie Parker’s music. It’s a basic uptempo blues number with a finger-snapping beat that would make for a great tune to accompany your entrance into the nightclub when you’re dressed to the nines and sashaying across the floor to join your half-drunken friends at a table near the stage. Parker’s solo comes first and it’s a stunner—his tone is marvelous, his phrasing scattered over the rhythms, his deep feel for the blues obvious to even the novice listener. Both Clyde Hart (piano) and Tiny Grimes (guitar) have nifty solos themselves, but I think they should have saved Bird for last—his solo is where the record peaks.
Now things really get interesting. Parker had been playing a song called “Cherokee” almost since arriving in New York in 1939. It had pretty much become his signature song, and he was sick to death of it. However, it was while playing “Cherokee” that he made his discovery of chromatic possibilities, having learned how to play the song in all 12 keys. During those early years in New York, Parker worked as a sideman while jamming after hours with guys like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Charlie Christian in Harlem spots like Minton’s Playhouse. There they created the new anti-swing form of music which became known as be-bop. Unfortunately, hardly anyone heard it. Due to a combination of a strike by the American Federation of Musicians and that little inconvenience called World War II, very few recordings were made in the United States during the period when be-bop was born. When Parker finally got the opportunity to lead a combo in a recording session in November 1945, he reconstructed “Cherokee” to produce “Ko-Ko,” considered the first official be-bop recording ever made.
“Ko-Ko” flies at 300 beats per minute, almost twice as fast as most punk music. The thirty-two-bar introduction is over in about twenty-four seconds, but that introduction is itself a call to revolution. On the first eight bars, Parker and Gillespie play together in unison at breakneck speed, a brief demonstration of the necessity for tight collaboration in this new form of music. Bird then gets two extended solos, flying all over the scale, improvising licks and stealing at least one from an older tune called “High Society.” Max Roach comes in for a booming drum solo, then we zip back to Bird and Dizzy for the finish. I could bore you with even more technical gibberish but the real question is, “How does it sound?” It sounds frigging fabulous, like Charlie Parker has flung open the prison door and the music is free again. His command of the saxophone is out of this world, and I’ve found that once you accustom yourself to the speed of be-bop, some of his other recordings seem positively dull in comparison. I love moments of liberation, and “Ko-Ko” is one of the most exciting.
We now shift to Los Angeles, where Charlie Parker is going to find himself in a world of trouble and wind up in a state mental hospital for six months. At this point, Parker’s heroin addiction was well-established, and because the heroin supply in California was less than fluid, he resorted to daily doses of full quarts of whisky to ward off the shakes. How he managed to make some of the greatest recordings in jazz history during this period is a testament to the greatness inside him; it only makes you wonder what he might have accomplished if he had ever managed to completely free himself from the drug.
Recording sessions were arranged with Dial Records, and Parker formed a septet that included a very young and not-quite-sure-of-himself Miles Davis. The first cut from the Dial sessions is “Moose the Mooche,” a be-bop tribute to his drug dealer. Whenever I listen to this track on this particular compilation, it sounds positively draggy compared to “Ko-Ko,” even though it clocks in at 224 beats per minute—still quite a bit faster than punk. Once I adjust my heart rate accordingly, I find an unusually jolly, melodic and free-flowing number, though I find Roy Porter’s heaviness on the drums a constant distraction that interferes with my enjoyment of Parker’s solo (and Lucky Thompson’s hot and growly work on tenor sax). It’s followed by “Yardbird Suite,” one of my favorite listening experiences in be-bop. Vic McMillan (a last-minute replacement) provides a strong and steady foundation on the bass for the soloists, and the soloists seem much more relaxed and confident as a result. The motif is pleasant to the ear, but I just love how Parker dodges around it, spices it up and enhances the rhythm with unexpected pauses and starts.
“Ornithology” comes next, a co-creation of Parker and trumpeter Benny Harris (who does not appear on the record). The chord pattern is borrowed from “How High the Moon,” but you’d never recognize it once Charlie Parker is finished with it. The distinctive phrase that unites the song sounds like a bird fluttering its wings and ending the flutter with a question as if the phrase is the musical equivalent of “Where now?” The tightness of the combo is remarkable, and the various themes and soloists wind in and out in a brilliant display of compositional variety and unity. It’s followed by the Dizzy Gillespie/Frank Paparelli “Night in Tunisia,” another jazz classic driven by half-step movements (Eb7 to Dm6) and a Latin bass line; the disappointment on this recording is with the trumpet: Dizzy Gillespie had headed back to New York, and Miles Davis still had a long way to go. Still, it’s a pretty sexy and exotic piece that kindles my desire to take up nude belly dancing someday.
After six months in the Camarillo State Mental Hospital (where Olivia de Havilland would film the movie The Snake Pit a couple of years later), Parker went into the studio with a trio that included Erroll Garner on piano, Red Callender on bass and Doc West on drums. The only recording from that session to make the cut for this compilation is “Cool Blues,” performed at a tempo more comfortable for Garner than be-bop speed. I think Garner does fine on his solos, but his support on the comps sounds clunky to me, especially in comparison to the smoothness of Parker’s solos. At the next session, Bird paid tribute to his temporary lodgings with “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” recorded with a new supporting cast. The song is positively breezy, with a much more fluid piano from Dodo Marmarosa (what a marvelous name!). Parker’s solo here is playful, melodic and full of rhythmic surprises; it’s another one I would recommend to first-time listeners. The tune hardly calls up images of a mental institution; I think it would make a great backdrop to the scene on Les Grands Boulevards de Paris on a sunny afternoon when the sidewalks are packed with happy shoppers and diners.
“Chasin’ the Byrd” reunites Parker with Miles Davis and Max Roach, adding Tommy Potter on bass with the marvelous Bud Powell on the keyboard. The first thing you notice is that instead of playing the intro in unison, he and Miles perform a counterpoint duet. The established norm of playing be-bop in unison gave the music a stunning, in-your-face power; the counterpoint by contrast adds more depth and complexity. Parker’s tone on his solos is sweeter, less intense but still characterized by his ability to float over the base rhythm and establish his own directions. Miles is getting better, too, sounding more confident and willing to take more risks. Recorded at the same session, “Cheryl” is a Parker blues composition that Bill Kirchner called “one of Parker’s greatest lines . . . it avoids any hint of melodic repetition.” I think to say that he avoids any hint of repetition is too extreme, but it is a very diverse exploration of melody that would be better pictured as a convergence of flowing streams rather than through conventional staff notation. The Miles Davis composition “Milestones” follows, with John Lewis now on piano, Miles taking the leadership role and Charlie Parker on tenor sax. Keepnews theorizes that the switch had to do with Miles’ preference for the tenor, which manifested itself in the lineups of his golden period. Bird isn’t as nimble on the unfamiliar instrument, but his tone is nice and fat and he fits in nicely with the combo.
We now return to the Big Apple with Parker leading the Charlie Parker Quintet. As in punk, there were very few slow songs in early be-bop, so Parker’s rendition of the Gershwin classic “Embraceable You” is something of an anomaly. All I know is that Charlie Parker takes a song that had been done and done again and turns it into one of the most beautiful and sultry pieces of music I have ever heard. Parker’s ability to explore the areas beyond the written melody is on full display here, and while he makes some significant departures from the script, he never departs from the intent to create a thing of beauty. His instrumental voice and spontaneous phrasing capture the tension of desire and the complexities of an intimate relationship. The original Gershwin lyrics could have been written for Charlie Parker, given his nomadic sex life (“Dozens of girls would storm up/I had to lock my door/somehow I couldn’t warm up/to one before”), and Parker expresses his yearning for “the one” in a way that sounds heartfelt and sincere, even if accompanied by sounds of internal struggle. With Miles following Charlie’s lead in terms of tone and delivery, “Embraceable You” is nothing less than one of the most beautiful and seductive jazz pieces on record.
In “Scrapple from the Apple” Parker molds “Honeysuckle Rose” and “I Got Rhythm” into one of his more memorable saxophone melodies; the piece is also a rhythmic delight that makes you want to stand up and sing scat. In the same session, he recorded another ballad, “Out of Nowhere,” demonstrating once again that melodic complexity does not necessarily translate into cacophony. This is a stunning number, perfect for close dancing as you let the depth and diversity of his melodic lines bathe you in simmering tenderness. The curiously titled “Quasimodo” takes off on the structure of “Embraceable You,” speeds up the tempo and produces a starkly original melodic line. “Crazeology” gets us back to high-speed bop, furiously played. It’s as if Parker’s had enough of slow tempos and ballads and wants to shoot every drop of libido from his system. “Bluebird” is somewhere in between but very intriguing: it has the unison features of be-bop, albeit at a lower temperature, then eases into a series of solos where Parker clearly stands out. Miles doesn’t do too bad either, taking the first solo and making some wonderful explorations of his own, tempering the heat with a touch of the cool.
We’re now in the autumn of 1948 for Parker’s last sessions with Savoy. “Au-Leu-Cha” sticks with the “Honeysuckle Rose”/”I Got Rhythm” structure but what happens within the structure is quite different from “Scrapple from the Apple.” The counterpoint dominates, making for a more complex and interesting experience. As Keepnews noted, the solos flow more naturally, and there is a spontaneous playfulness about the music that is delightful to the ear. Still, I prefer Miles Davis’ version of this tune on ‘Round About Midnight. The more laid-back “Parker’s Mood” could be Charlie Parker’s ultimate slow blues number. His rhythmic variations sound particularly stunning here, probably because blues solos in general have become rather pedestrian over the years and when you hear the unexpected in a tried-and-true formula, it’s always exciting and energizing. This exceptional collection wraps up with the speedy “Merry Go Round,” where Parker plays with the dizzying speed and intensity that defined him for many listeners, for good or for ill.
We should remove the shroud of mystery and the cloak of impenetrability from Charlie Parker’s shoulders. He was a musical genius who changed jazz forever and for the better, but at the core, he made compelling, exciting, clever and often beautiful music. While Parker’s life was tragically short, it would be even a greater tragedy to leave his music to the musicologists. Charlie Parker was as human as human gets, and his brilliance reflects the best of the human spirit.