The Life and Work of Charlie Parker | The New Yorker
arista records, a relatively new company helping the avant-garde, has recently purchased the priceless catalog of savoy records, and its first reissue is “charles christopher parker, jr.: bird / the savoy recordings” ( savoy sjl 2201). The album includes the original masters of all thirty sides that Parker recorded for Savoy between 1944 and 1948 (alternate takes, released in a Hopeless Stew years ago, will be deciphered for later reissues of Edges), including early discs small band that made (“tiny’s tempo”, “red cross”, “romance without finance”, “i’ll always love you just like you”), all under the name of guitarist tiny grimes, as well as the first, and still classical, numbers done under her own name (“billie’s bounce”, “now is the time”, “ko ko”, “thriving on a riff”, “heating up a riff”, and “snaking”). Later and equally enduring efforts like “Parker’s Mood,” “Donna Lee,” “Barbados,” and “Blue Bird” are also present. the rest of the material tends to be irregular. Parker plays pale tenor saxophone on several tracks, and his accompanists—usually including Miles Davis, John Lewis, or Duke Jordan, assorted bassists, and Max Roach—are sometimes leagues behind. Davis is boring, Lewis and Jordan aren’t quite together yet, and the outfits are smeared. But overall, Parker is fresh and inquisitive, and the album serves as a singular reminder that Parker, who died at the age of thirty-four in 1955, was one of the musical wonders of the 20th century. Like his godbrother Dylan Thomas, who died a year earlier, Parker was a maze. he was a tragic figure, helplessly wasting away and, at the same time, a demon who joyfully presided over the rubble of his life. he was an original and fertile musician who had reached the brink of self-parody. he was an irresistibly handsome man who bit almost every hand that fed him. He lived outside the box (probably never voted or paid income tax), but, though utterly apolitical, he heralded, in his impulses and his fierce independence, the coming of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver. and he was, though aided by a cult, largely unknown during his lifetime.
Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas, the son of a vaudeville performer, Charles Parker, and a local girl, Addie Boyley. When he was seven or eight years old, his parents moved to Kansas City, Missouri, and when he was eleven, his father, who had become a Pullman chef, disappeared from his life. Elementary school went well, but after spending three years in high school as a freshman, he dropped out, and by the time he turned sixteen, his life was already dangerously fast-paced. He had married and had a son, had become a self-taught professional alto saxophonist, was a member of the musicians’ union, was a fixed neophyte in the bustling night world of Kansas City, and had taken up drugs. . when he was eighteen, he went to chicago and then to new york, where he became a dishwasher in a harlem restaurant and fell under the influence of his pianist, art tatum. He also played in a taxi-dance-hall band and tentatively jammed around Harlem. In 1940, he joined Jay McShann’s Kansas City gang. In his biography of Parker, “The bird lives! the high life and hard times of charlie (yardbird) parker,” ross russell notes the effect mcshann’s radio broadcasts from the savoy ballroom had on john lewis, then a student at the university of new mexico: “the contralto solos on those broadcasts they opened up a whole new world of music for me. i knew jay mcshann since he used to do a storm in the southwest. . . but the alto saxophone was new and years ahead of anyone in jazz. he was into a new sound system and time. The emcee didn’t even announce his name [and] I didn’t find out he was Charlie Parker until after the war.” The effect of a McShann broadcast on the black members of Charlie Barnet’s band, backstage at a Newark theater where they were working, was no less electric. They heard someone play ten spectacular Cherokee choruses, and when their show was over they rushed to the Savoy, found out who the soloist was by asking McShann to play the tune again, and invited Parker to dinner. Parker left McShann in 1942 and, after a period of uprooting and near starvation in Harlem, he joined Earl Hines’ Big Band, a warring, wacky group made up of old-school musicians and young beboppers. he then passed briefly through the short-lived big band fronted by billy eckstine, and by 1945 he had settled into the many small bands with which he would lead and/or record until his death.
She had also settled into the role of gargantuan. she, at twenty-two, had been divorced and remarried, and the new marriage was, as far as is known, the last legal marriage of the four she had. she lived in hotels and pensions. he had become a bewildering drug addict extraordinaire who, unlike most addicts, was also a glutton, an alcoholic, and a man of insatiable sexual needs. he ate twenty hamburgers in a row, drank sixteen double whiskeys in a couple of hours, and slept with two women at once. sometimes he would go crazy and throw his saxophone out of a hotel window or walk into the ocean in a new suit. his sense of humor was equally twisted. Early one morning, he took a cab to a friend’s apartment (Parker spent a good deal of his life in cabs, using them as his office, as meeting places, as places to sleep, as compact, mobile fortresses), took the friend out of bed, called for a light and went on his way. In 1946 he collapsed and spent six months in a state mental hospital in California. he had gone to the coast the year before with the first major bebop band to tour west of mississippi—also including dizzy gillespie, al haig, milt jackson, and ray brown—and russell’s book begins with a description of parker’s behavior opening night at billy berg’s house in los angeles. The first set has begun, but Parker deliberately remains in the tacky dressing room, where he methodically eats two huge Mexican dinners, washing them down with several beers. the owner of the club appears. Parker insults him and refuses to sign the form. Parker switches to gin, which he drinks by the glass, and raps with his Boswell, a strange, underground man named Dean Benedetti, who followed him across the country and secretly recorded his solos on a wire recorder. (Benedetti is dead, and though he continues a grail-like quest, the reels have never been found.) the stage, playing with all his might and to a numbing beat. During his stay at the state hospital, where his amazing recuperative powers soon became apparent, Parker was seen by a doctor who was also a fan. Russell picks up the doctor’s thoughts on Parker: “A man who lives from moment to moment. a man who lives by the principle of pleasure, music, food, sex, drugs, kicks, his personality stopped at a childish level. a man with almost no guilt and only the tiniest, stunted bulge of conscience. one of the army of psychopaths that caters to the populations of prisons and mental institutions. except for the music of him, a potential member of that population. but with charlie parker it’s the musical factor that makes the difference. that’s really the only reason we’re interested in it. . . . the reason why we are willing to stop our own lives and clean up their messes. people like charlie need someone like that.”
Amazingly, Parker’s wild excesses never seemed (at least until the end of his life) to interfere with his music. Today, jazz musicians generally agree that drugs dislocate and dilute their improvisations, but with Parker the opposite seemed to be true. the only times he couldn’t function was when he was high and needed a fix. His style had fully matured by the time he started recording for Savoy. Parker’s game did not magically arise. other musicians participated in its creation. When he was a teenager, Parker bathed night after night in the unique, rocking music of Kansas City. No matter where I went, I heard the blues: the heavy, sad, windblown blues of the hot lips page, pete johnson, big joe turner, herschel evans and buddy tate, and the light, wavy, new blues of count basie and lester young. Young became his idol, and when Parker first hit the road, he took all of Young’s records and memorized his solos. Parker has also worked with Buster Smith, a saxophonist whose style closely resembles Parker’s early playing. Parker received technical advice from a well-trained local bandleader, Tommy Douglas, and when he arrived in New York he studied Art Tatum, who unknowingly taught him how to play at lightning speeds, how to blast off sixty-four note arpeggios, and how to devise entirely new harmonies. some of his first forays into the unknown were disastrous. When he was sixteen or seventeen, he brazenly forced his way onto the bandstand during one of Kansas City’s endlessly hard-hitting jam sessions and, trying some fancy stuff in a roar of “I’ve got groove,” he lost. The drummer, Jo Jones, stopped playing, grabbed a cymbal, and tossed it to the floor at Parker’s feet: he had been “knocked” off the stand. but it is from such shameful acorns that parkers grow.
Parker had a unique tone; no other saxophonist has achieved such a human sound. he could be nervous, and even sharp. (he used the toughest and most technically difficult rod). he could be soft and big and dark. could be soft and husky. Unlike most saxophonists of his day, who followed Coleman Hawkins’ example, he used almost no vibrato; when he did, it was just a flutter, a murmur. the blues lived in every room of his style, and he was one of the most amazing and moving blues improvisers we’ve ever had. his slow blues had a preachy, admonishing quality (“parker’s mood,” “barbados,” and “blue bird”). he would start a solo with a four or five note announcement by deliberately stuttering, pause for effect, repeat the phrase, doubling his last note to silence, turn the phrase backwards and abruptly slip into double time, zigzag upwards in the scale, it rotated in circles. around at the top and plummet, the notes falling somewhere between silence and sound. (Parker was a master of dynamics and the dramatic use of silence). another pause, and he would begin his second chorus with a dreamy three-note figure, each note playing into the next, each one held long, like a hymn. fashion. he would break this brief spell by inserting two or three short, disconnected, interrupted arpeggios, then float into a lazy half-time and launch into another double-time run of climbing and falling, in which he would be in and out. of nearby keys. he would pause and then close the chorus with a figure of amen that resembled his opening announcement. Parker’s mid-tempo blues had a brilliant, monolithic quality, and his fast blues were multiplications of his slow blues. they all contained an extraordinary variety of emotions. he cajoled, attacked, cried, sang, laughed, cursed. perhaps his dependence on drugs and alcohol was an instinctive attempt to replenish his creative well, as each solo was a wonderfully articulate and free delivery of himself.
but there was another parker quite different: the parker who played slow ballads, like “embraceable you” and “don’t blame me” and “white christmas”. here he went several steps beyond what he did with the blues. literally dismantled a composer’s song and put together a ten times more complex structure. new chords and harmonies appeared, along with new melodic lines that moved well above the soundless original. (However, she always injected bits of the melody as cues to the listener.) She could do what she wanted with the beat, and in his ballads she lagged behind the beat, easily floated above it, or jumped ahead of it; he did things with time that no one had yet thought of and no one has yet surpassed. his ballads were dense visions, glimpses of an unknown musical dimension. although they were perfectly structured, they seemed to have no beginning or end; each one was simply another of the visions that stirred and maddened his mind. thus his 1947 version of “embraceable you”, which, so brief, so intense, so beautiful, continues to be one of the monuments of music. (There is only one such Parker ballad on the Savoy reissue, “Meandering”, and it is incomplete.) Parker’s fast thirty-two-bar melodies were meteoric (“ko ko,” “constellation”). he used a multitude of notes but never a superfluous one. His runs exploded like light spilling through an open door. his rhythms had a muscular, chattering density. he crackled and poured and roared.
Parker changed the world of jazz and the effects are still being felt. one hears it in the work of saxophonists like charles mcpherson and phil woods and sonny stitt and sonny criss, and less overtly in the playing of sonny rollins and john coltrane and ornette coleman. one hears it in almost every guitarist, pianist, trumpeter, bassist, drummer, and trombonist over the age of forty, and it’s still audible in today’s generation of instrumentalists, even if most of them don’t know it. But Parker’s legion of admirers have, by and large, missed his main point. he pushed the boundaries of improvising time and harmony and melody, but he didn’t reject what had come before, because at heart he was a conservative who found new ways to express what king oliver, louis armstrong and sidney bechet had said before . The admirers of him donned the form of him and ignored the content of him. countless musicians appeared who used a thousand notes in each chorus, who had hard, intelligent tones, and who indulged in elegant rhythmic patterns. Yet they dodged the emotions that governed everything Parker touched. the ironic results were the hard-boppers of the late 1950s and the street avant-garde of the early 1960s. Fortunately, most of this happened after his death, and he did not suffer the horrors that Lester Young endured for the last decade of his life: the musical claustrophobia of hearing himself over and over again in the work of almost every young man. saxophonists and knowing, at the same time, that your own powers have diminished to the point where the new men are more like you than yourself.
for a time after he was released from the hospital in california, parker cooled off. But the pace of his life picked up again, and by the early 1950s he had gone completely out of control. he collapsed in the street, got into horrendous fights, attempted suicide. he slept, when he slept, on the floor or in bathtubs or in friends’ beds. he ordered drinks and begged. his trunk used to be in the hock and he would miss concerts. and at last his playing faltered; he began to imitate himself. one reason was physical; he no longer had the energy to sustain his extraordinary flights. the other was more subtle. Like Jackson Pollock, he felt that he had reached the end of his explorations. the blues and the thirty-two-bar song were no longer challenges. he had discovered, he thought, every chord change, every rhythmic twist, every adventurous harmony. he talked about writing great orchestral works and considered studying with composers stefan wolpe and edgard varèse. But there were glaring exceptions to his dithering, and one of them was a concert given in May 1953 at the Massey Music Hall in Toronto. (Prestige has reissued a recording of the entire evening as “the greatest jazz concert of all time”). Along with Parker, who arrived without a horn and had to borrow one, were Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max. cockroach. Parker had long had ambivalent feelings about Gillespie. he admired him as a musician, but resented gillespie’s fame, the living story of gillespie and bebop, in which parker wasn’t even mentioned; gillespie’s profile written for this magazine by richard o. drover. In addition to being a savvy businessman, Gillespie is a friendly and approachable man. for a long time he has had life in focus. Parker was the opposite: a closed, secretive, stormy and misshapen figure who continually entrenched himself behind the charade. (Using his deepest voice, he announces on the record that Gillespie’s “salted peanuts” are from “my worthy constituent”). Gillespie was a challenge that night, and so was the rhythm section, which he played with ferocity and precision. Parker responded, and on “wee,” “hot house” and “night in tunisia” he soloed with a fire and brilliance to match any previous work.
Parker’s death was an inevitable mix of camp, irony, and melodrama. He had befriended Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a wealthy and intelligent eccentric who lived at the Stanhope Hotel and drove to jazz clubs in a silver Rolls-Royce. her apartment had been converted into a hall for musicians. In March 1955, Parker landed a gig at George Wein’s Storyville, Boston, and on his way out of New York he stopped by Stanhope to say hello. The Baroness offered Parker a drink. to her astonishment, he refused and asked for ice water. his ulcer was acting up, and cold water, he said, would put out his fire. he suddenly he began to vomit blood. the baroness’s doctor examined him and said he would have to go to a hospital immediately. he refused, so they put him to bed in his apartment and gave him antibiotics. Several days passed and he seemed to improve. On a Saturday night, he was allowed to sit in the living room and watch Tommy Dorsey’s television show. he was in a good mood. During a brick juggling act, which he remembered seeing in Kansas City when he was a child, he laughed, choked, and collapsed in his chair. he died a minute or two later. At that moment, according to the Baroness, he heard a single huge clap of thunder. the official cause of death was lobar pneumonia, but parker had simply worn himself out.
tenor saxophonist buddy tate had met parker not long before. “I first met him in Kansas City in the 1930s, when I was with Andy Kirk,” he said a while ago. “He still hadn’t recovered, but he admired Buster Smith, who always played in the Kansas City style. when he first came to new york, we hung out together for a while. he didn’t have a job and no one knew who he was yet, but every night he woke up at clark monroe’s house uptown. he would take it home, and my wife would put on a pot, but he never ate. At that time I tried to get him into Basie’s band, but Basie didn’t want it, and he never forgot it. but he was always nice and kind and soft around me. I never saw him angry with anyone.
“one morning, a week before his death, he was walking down 42nd street towards grand central. it was about ten o’clock, and I had been at some kind of big band record date, just playing the clarinet. I saw this man on the sidewalk and he was a bird. he was hard to miss, with those old-fashioned ill-fitting suits and those big old wide suspenders he always wore. when I got closer, I saw that it was all swollen. He knew that he had been very ill and in the mental ward of Bellevue.
“He said, ‘I’m so glad to see you. how have you been?’
“I told him I was fine, and he said: ‘try me.’
“We went to a bar and I thought he would sit down for a few, but he only had two drinks. I heard that he was so nervous that he had been sleeping in the birdland booth and they had to fire him and that he owed $2,500 to the string section that had been backing him, and he didn’t. I haven’t talked for an hour. He said that he wanted people to call him for recording dates like the one he had just been to, and I told him that they probably wouldn’t because they thought he would want a thousand for some forty-two bucks. he quotes, and he said no, he’d do it for free, just to sit in a section again and play with the other guys. of course, he rarely had his own horn from him. he’d play anyone’s roe deer work, as long as he had a mouthpiece and reed. i told him he was working in the savoy and he said “oh i heard about you and i’m going over there to listen”. bird had played with jay mcshann at the savoy one of the first times he came to new york. but he never came uptown, and I never saw him again. ♦