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TV Reviews : ‘Celebrating Bird’ Offers Glimpse at Genius of Parker

For those who saw Clint Eastwood’s “Bird” and felt it left unanswered a lot of questions about alto great Charlie Parker’s life, times and musical genius, “Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker” (at 9 tonight on Channels 28 and 15) may clear up some of those obfuscations.

The film tells at least part of the story of one of the finest creative artists of the 20th Century, whose harmonic and melodic innovations forever changed the course of modern jazz, and, some say, pop music as well.

Co-directed and edited by Kendrick Simmons, and co-directed and written by Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins--and based on Giddins’ book of the same name--the hourlong program is made up of spoken text, interviews--with Jay McShann, Dizzy Gillespie, et al.--stills, film footage and musical examples.

The skillful mixture of these elements, underscored by excerpts from such classic Parker tunes as “Moose the Mooche,” “Cool Blues,” “Scrapple From the Apple” and “Bird of Paradise,” give “Celebrating Bird” the smooth flow typical of an improvised solo by its subject.

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The film begins with slow-motion, silent footage of Parker, horn in hand, first just smiling, then playing; the film makers use a sensuous piece, “Ballade,” as background. This clip--one of only a few known film clips of the altoist--is a metaphor for Parker’s musical life: He’s all grace and poetry while he’s playing. But his non-musical existence was often one of turmoil: He was addicted to heroin and alcohol for most of his adult life, and eventually died of severe medical complications in 1955 at the age of 34.

All the important events in Parker’s life are touched upon, from his early career in his hometown of Kansas City, Mo., and his first meetings with Gillespie in New York, to the disastrous late-1945 trip to Los Angeles and his conquests of Europe in the early ‘50s.

Though there are no clear-cut technical reasons given for the breadth and importance of Parker’s artistic gifts, the effect they had on others is attested to time and again. In “Bird,” unless the viewer understood Parker’s genius going in, the film did little to explain his musical prowess and attendant reputation as a peerless soloist.

“Bird,” on the other hand, through Forrest Whitaker’s excellent lead role performance--which, according to people who knew the altoist, accurately captured his laugh, movement, manner of speaking and dark side--gave us insight into the emotional makeup of the artist. “Celebrating Bird” is skimpy in this area.

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Screening a cassette of “Bird” immediately after watching “Celebrating Bird” would certainly result in a fuller picture of Parker, the man and musician, than either provides by itself.

Still, the interviews in “Celebrating Bird” do shed a little light on Parker’s character. His first wife, Rebecca Parker Davis, whom he married when he was 15 (she was 19), tells that after an accident in 1936, Parker “became different,” and soon was having her watch him shoot heroin. McShann, with whom Parker made his record debut, laughingly recalls bandleader Earl Hines, who had hired Bird away from McShann, telling him: “This is the worst guy in the world. He owes everybody in town money, he owes everybody in the band money and I don’t know where his horn is.”

Jazz critic Leonard Feather recalls a trip to Coney Island with Parker that was remarkable for its uneventfulness. “I went with my family, and Bird and the rest of us just sat on the beach, relaxing and talking. He could be just like a next-door neighbor, there was that side to him.” And Gillespie adds, “He was very caring.”

“Celebrating Bird,” which includes the Parker-Gillespie performance of “Hot House” on Earl Wilson’s New York City-based TV show in its entirety, serves as an excellent introduction into the genius that was Charlie Parker, and will no doubt inspire some to investigate his recordings, a magnificent oeuvre, indeed.

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