Is the Charlie Parker of “Bird” the true Charlie Parker?
While the Clint Eastwood-directed-and-produced film about the great jazz alto saxophonist has received mostly glowing reviews, several musicians who knew or played with Parker are decidedly mixed in their reactions to the picture.
“It was a very hip movie. I’m gassed by it,” said saxophonist Med Flory--leader of Supersax, the local band that plays classic Parker material--who often saw Parker in New York in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.
“It was all down , down , down , a very dark movie, " said Stan Levey, who played drums with Parker from 1944-46.
Almost every aspect of the film generated controversy among the musicians contacted by The Times.
Levey and saxophonist Jackie McLean, who was one of Parker’s proteges in the late ‘40s, thought Joel Oliansky’s screenplay accented the darker side of the saxophonist’s personality.
“It seemed to be more about a black man who was a womanizer and a drug addict who also played the saxophone than about a great musical giant,” said McLean. “That’s what any black kid will think. It wasn’t about the Charlie Parker I knew.”
“The guy was humorous,” Levey said, “and that side of him was missing. He could be a con man, almost like some guy at a carnival. I don’t think his interests were really looked after.”
Conte Candoli--the “Tonight Show” Orchestra and Supersax trumpeter who first met Parker in Chicago in 1942--thought the film was an accurate portrayal of Parker. “That was the way he was,” said Candoli, referring to Parker’s notorious drug, alcohol and sexual excesses.
Bassist Red Callender--who recorded in Los Angeles with Parker in 1947--agreed. “I didn’t know Bird as well as a lot of people,” Callender said, “but I did know him and the essentials were there. And it seemed to me (that in the film) he had a lot of fun. He was screwed up and he knew it, but he also tried to help a lot of people.”
The fact that Parker was undeniably a genius who revolutionized modern music was not made clear by the film, McLean said. “I mean a genius like Ellington or Stravinsky. Every day we hear his genius in our music. We don’t experience Beethoven every day. Charlie Parker was the most recent genius of our time, and his contribution was of such a magnitude that you have to get that across.”
“It didn’t really make it seem that he was like a demi-god,” Flory said.
And while Candoli wondered whether the public at large is going to understand Parker’s extraordinary ability, he felt that if Parker had just been a so-so musician, “they wouldn’t have made a movie about him.”
Forest Whitaker’s depiction of Parker drew its share of “yeas” and “nays.”
“His portrayal was dead on, superb,” Levey said. “Forest looked like him, moved like him, and he mimicked Bird’s big, uproarious laugh, though his voice was pitched higher than Bird’s. Still, he caught the real essence of the guy.”
“At the beginning, Forest was rough, but soon he began to move like Bird, captured Bird’s special smile,” said reedman Buddy Collette, who was a friend of Parker’s when he resided in Los Angeles in 1946-47. “After a while, I began to feel he was Bird. He got into this part. It may have to grow on certain people, but it didn’t take that long for me.”
McLean and Flory, both alto players like Parker, were upset with what they felt were Whitaker’s overly animated movements when he was depicting Parker playing the saxophone.
"(Whitaker) didn’t remind me of Bird playing with his back straight, head held high,” said McLean. “Bird didn’t approach the saxophone with all that body movement. He didn’t have his shoulders constantly in motion. It was more like a show-biz Bird instead of a genius Bird. Maybe I’m too close (to the subject to be objective).”
“It jarred me a little as to why they had him play so animatedly,” Flory said. “Maybe it’d make it more visual. When Bird played, he stood there like a rock.”
But Candoli didn’t mind that Whitaker moved a lot. “I thought Forest did a fabulous job,” he said. “He’s not even a musician. You have to show a little animation to help sell the movie.”
The sound track, which featured some previously unreleased Parker solos re-recorded with new rhythm sections, delighted Candoli and Collette. “The best thing (about the film) is that they used Bird playing,” Candoli said. “The music was very honest. The re-recording got the rhythm sections to sound a little better (than on the original sessions).”
“Musically, it had a a very special, emotional feeling,” Collette said.
Both Levey and composer/bandleader Bill Holman, who wrote an arrangement of “Cherokee” that Parker played while on a special tour with Stan Kenton in 1954, disagreed. “The music was buried,” Levey said. “I’m still waiting to hear it. It was 12 bars here and a little bit over there.”
“I enjoyed hearing the new solos we’d never heard,” said Holman, “though I didn’t think that the players sounded like they were in the same room.”
Some of musicians regretted that many seminal Parker associates--trumpeters Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, pianists Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, drummer Max Roach--weren’t depicted in the 160-minute film. (Calendar contacted Roach and other players who had recorded with Parker, but none had seen the film.)
Reservations aside, the musicians gave Eastwood credit for making the picture and said they would probably go see it again. “I commend Clint Eastwood,” Candoli said. “Now a lot of people will be introduced to Bird, and if it weren’t for Clint, it wouldn’t have been possible.”
“This may really do something for jazz,” Flory said.
“I can see the movie a thousand times, because it was about Charlie Parker,” McLean said. “There was that great sound coming off the screen.”