What you are reading is the first installment of a regular series of musings about music and our society in general, on the website of a record label founded for the presentation of jazz music. As such, it seems entirely appropriate to begin with a few words in celebration of the birthday of a man whose legacy still looms over the business, some 65 years after his death--a man without whom, one can easily guess, none of us would be here in our current forms.
August 29, 2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Charlie Parker, founder of the bebop genre and a patron saint of modern music. In the late 1930s and early ‘40s, Parker (1920-1955) sprang forth out of Kansas City, fabled home of Count Basie and Jay McShann, offering the most revolutionary approach to music since Arnold Schoenberg pioneered atonality in the general vicinity of 1908. Due to industry shenanigans, mainly a recording ban resulting from a musicians’ union strike, and wartime rationing of key materials, Parker’s earliest efforts went mostly unrecorded. By the time he was a known quantity outside of New York, Parker and his peers had mostly coalesced around the core sound of first-wave bop.
As such, Parker the man was consigned to a permanent secondary status behind “Bird”, or “Yardbird”, a nickname earned from his love of chicken, but one that we now associate with the majestic, soaring, quasi-intellectual qualities of the eagle (another national icon) or, to extend the metaphor even further, a bird of prey snatching would-be idolators up from the ground and carrying them God knows where--or, taking a cynical view, a scavenger bird like a vulture or a buzzard, picking clean the bones of Tin Pan Alley standards, their shopworn melodies stripped away like the necrotic flesh of a fallen traveler, leaving only the chord progressions behind, left to bake slowly in the desert sun.
Even the most savvy jazz fans of the World War II era were caught off-guard when they first heard the music Parker made for savoy Records in late 1945. These were his first sessions as a leader, and he would never really do sideman gigs again. These sessions yielded instant classics like “Billie’s Bounce” and “Now’s the Time”, but nothing jumped out in quite such imposing fashion as “Koko”, two minutes and 45 seconds of mind-melting newness, built upon the chords of Ray Noble’s 1937 hit “Cherokee”. This song provided 1) the most visceral demonstration of Parker’s approach to improvisation, and 2) the first of countless mini-masterpieces laid down by drummer Max Roach, arguably his greatest disciple. That session also featured people like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Bud Powell, all of whom would be established as first-ballot hall of farmers by the time a decade had passed.
Parker’s peak coincided with the evolution of recording technology, from stereo sound to long-playing records. Parker was able to experiment with both innovations, but died before he could truly master them. His relentless creativity spilled over, out of the grooves sold by labels like Savoy, Dial and Verve. He recorded with strings, with big bands and Latin bands, and with ad hoc units from one side of the country to another. Only in the 1990s, when CD reissues of classic records allowed the first public listen to all the outtakes and alternate takes he left stashed on shelves along the way, were we able to really see how his musical mind worked in real-time.
Parker’s passion is still felt quite strongly today, even in musicians who might have never even heard of the man. An obvious example would be Jimi Hendrix, the undisputed master of his instrument, but a man for whom such status was never enough. Anytime you see an artist clearly defined as the best at what they do, but who gleefully abandons all that he or she knows for the sake of trying something that he or she doesn’t, that is the latent influence of Charlie Parker. You can see this clearly in the artists most closely associated with him (Miles, Max, Dizzy, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, Lennie Tristano) and others to come long after, like Kanye West.
It must also be said, however, that Parker had a profoundly self-destructive streak that shortened his life, aged only 34, and that has tainted almost everything to come since. Without the negative example of Parker, it’s highly unlikely that heroin would’ve taken up such a death grip on his generation of artists, killing him and dozens of others. The list of people killed by chasing the dragon could take up all the space we have available, but it would include people like Sonny Clark, Herbie Nichols, Dick Twardzik, Emily Remler, Roy Hargrove, Janis Joplin and Billie Holiday, just to name a very small few. Countless others, including Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Art Pepper, Bill Evans, Philly Joe Jones, Anita O’Day and even Davis and Roach, barely cheated death. It’s not fair to blame any of this on Charlie Parker, but that’s the price he paid by being first. He tried to warn us, but we didn’t listen. The fact that he is the only person in the history of music to be banned from a club named after him (Birdland, which still exists) stands as the most hostile testimony available to the needle, and the damage done.
This anniversary of Charlie Parker’s birth coincided with what’s been arguably the worst year for jazz music in living memory. The viability of countless clubs has been threatened, artists have been denied the revenue from live shows that often sustains them, as we’ve lost literal tons of jazz legends, including at least four (Lee Konitz, Jimmy Cobb, Charli Persip and Jimmy Heath) who actually knew Parker personally. Is there anyone left alive who met him? Just two that I can think of: Sonny Rollins and Roy Haynes. Protect them at all costs!