'Bird Lives!" read the graffiti that appeared in New York City the day after Charlie Parker, contemporary jazz's most vital figure, died on March 12, 1955.
"Bird Lives!" Uptown, downtown, from Harlem to Greenwich Village.
Charlie--"Yardbird" or, more succinctly, "Bird"--Parker was gone. The primary force behind the emergence of be-bop as the dominant jazz style of the 20th Century, had died, suddenly, if not unexpectedly, of lobar pneumonia at the age of 34.
When Parker's worn and overweight body arrived at Bellevue Hospital he was identified, perhaps understandably given the ravages of two decades of heroin use, as a man in his early 50s.
But the idealized image remained: a round, smooth-skinned face, darkly mysterious, yet amiable and inviting when he cracked his gold-toothed smile. His was a face that had experienced the thousand humiliations endemic to being an African American artist in mid-20th-Century America.
Like all black jazz musicians in the '40s and '50s, Parker lived and worked in a world still rife with segregation and racism, even in the hip environs of Manhattan.
It was hardly surprising that in 1954, at the peak of Parker's influence, the cover of a Time magazine issue surveying the new jazz of the decade featured pianist Dave Brubeck--a talented but safe white player who was becoming a burgeoning star on the college circuit. (No doubt Brubeck, who always has acknowledged the saxophonist's mastery, was as startled by the honor as Bird, who was no doubt disappointed by the implicit dismissal.)
Nor was it surprising that when Parker died, a minority of New York City newspapers acknowledged his passing with obituaries. Worse, while he was alive, he was constantly confronted by the sight and sound of the literally thousands of imitators who--without obligation to pay residuals or royalties--copied his every note.
As Charles Mingus once put it: "If Charlie Parker were a gunslinger, there's be a whole lot of dead copycats."
But how could he not have been copied? Parker played like one who had been touched by the gods of music. He was without doubt the source of inspiration to hundreds of players.
In performance, he was the master of all he surveyed, a confident, slightly corpulent figure, gazing Buddha-like over the shimmering neck of his alto saxophone, his eyes peering through to some strange, distant land as he spontaneously poured out a legacy of jazz that would last beyond the millennium.
"When he died," notes Village Voice jazz critic Garry Giddins in "Celebrating Bird," his excellent Parker biography, "Charlie Parker was arguably the most influential musician in the country. His ideas became fodder for movie and television scores, as well as arrangements for pop and rock-and-roll shows."
Far-reaching and long-lasting as his influence may be, however, Parker's 75th birthday, on Tuesday, will receive strikingly little attention: a few radio shows with musical retrospectives, a small number of reissue albums and dedicatory efforts, and several notices in the print media.
Late last month, three nights of star-studded concerts at Carnegie Hall celebrated the achievements of Frank Sinatra, as the singer approaches his 80th birthday in December. Yet, although it is arguable that the revival of Sinatra's career in the '50s was energized by bop-tinged arrangements by Billy May, bop-influenced soloists and modern rhythm sections deeply affected by Parker's music, there will be no similar festivities for Bird's birthday. No Carnegie Hall celebrations, no Music Center tributes, no major reissues of Parker recorded collections, no TV movie of the week or PBS documentary (not even a rerun of Clint Eastwood's dramatically controversial but musically gripping 1986 feature film "Bird")--none of the commemorative events one usually associates with the 75th anniversary of an eminent artist.
This, despite the fact that jazz in the '90s has been invigorated by a growing generation of emerging players whose first encounters with Parker had decidedly revelatory effects.
"I first heard a Charlie Parker record when I was 15," recalls saxophonist David Sanchez. "It's hard to describe my reaction. I didn't know he could do those things on the saxophone, how he could just let the spirit and the feelings come through. I couldn't believe that improvising could be so perfect. That's how strong my reaction to Parker was. That's how I realized that jazz was something I really wanted to do."
Many young players reveal a surprising awareness, not only of Parker's artistic influence on their own playing, but also of the lack of affirmation that his music received while he was alive.
"Some people say there's a definite influence from Charlie Parker in my playing," says James Carter, one of the most heralded young saxophonists of the decade. "And I understand that. But I just think it's too bad Bird couldn't have been recognized better while he was still in existence."
Another noted young saxophonist, Javon Jackson, remembers that listening to Parker, Monk and Gillespie was an everyday thing in his household because his parents were serious jazz fans:
"My peers weren't interested in what I was hearing when I was growing up, because they were into Grover Washington . . . so I was kind of unusual. But it's all come back. And now, even though a lot of us are playing well today, we're still playing Bird's vocabulary, which is incredible. He was a pure, 100% genius, a real true prodigy, and he's numero uno for me."
Jackson makes an engaging point. Although Parker and be-bop were never really out of favor with most young jazz players, the '60s and '70s saw some distinctly different musical forms--pop-jazz, fusion and jazz-rock--come to the fore.
In the '60s, Miles Davis' interest in modal improvising, instrumental electronics and the fusion of a variety of rhythmic styles attracted many musicians. John Coltrane's expansive improvisational approach appealed to others.
More distractions surfaced in the '70s, and the call of Parker's alto saxophone--a warm, rich tone placed at the service of a remarkably rapid, blues-based virtuosity--was heard less and less. Replacing it was a centered, timbrally pinched sound and rapid-fire technique that represented David Sanborn's interpretation of Hank Crawford and David (Fathead) Newman. Parker's complex, harmonically driven improvisations gave way to stretched-out, fast-fingered soloing lacking the swing, the fire and the sheer drive of bop.
The arrival of Wynton Marsalis in the early '80s signaled a growing revival of interest in Parker and in bop-era methods. By mid-decade, Bird's music had again taken flight in the playing of such diverse young saxophone talents as Sanchez, Branford Marsalis, Antonio Hart, Vincent Herring, Joshua Redman, Kenny Garrett and numerous others.
"Be-bop, especially Charlie Parker's music," bassist Christian McBride says, "is the root of the jazz you mainly hear today."
So it's difficult to understand the perfunctory anniversary treatment of an artist who had such a powerful effect upon the music we hear. But it is consistent with a social and cultural view that continues to deny the role of jazz as America's most rewarding art music.
It has been jazz, not contemporary classical music, that has been the creative voice of American music for the second half of the 20th Century. And, if the music of Mozart could be neglected during much of the Romantic 19th Century, it's probably not surprising that the work of Parker could be minimized at the close of this century.
After all, to some Parker was just a be-bopper, identified in a 1949 Carnegie Hall concert poster, in fact, as "The King of Bop."
And even though bop (or be-bop, or re-bop, an onomatopoeic label tracing to the clipped note ends of phrases in many bop tunes)--a new and startling jazz dialect in the post-World War II years--has been the foundational grammar for jazz for nearly five decades, it still calls up images from the '40s that had little to do with the music.
Dizzy Gillespie, as much a media delight as he was a creative genius, had a hand in some of the gimmickry: the wearing of berets, zoot suits, the growing of be-bop goatees, scat singing based on syllables such as oop , bop , shoop , bam , etc., hipster talk and the general perception of bop as a kind of colorful but not notably serious form of jazz.
In fact, despite all the media distortions, bop in the Parker years was very serious business, and few of its major participants were especially fond of the name that came to be attached to it.
What was so unique about Parker's music?
The short answer is simply that he changed jazz as no one--with the possible exception of Louis Armstrong--had ever done.
Parker came on the scene at a time when popular music and jazz were passing through a watershed period. As the big bands died out, the small groups favored by Parker, Gillespie and others, with their expanded opportunities for extended soloing, became the musical venue of choice for young players.
But it was as a jazz improviser that Parker had his greatest impact, bringing momentous changes to every area of the art. Although numerous predecessors--Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas and others--had begun to move away from improvisation as a form of melodic enhancement to improvisations built upon harmonies, it was Parker who made the concept a force for creative liberation.
In an often-quoted commentary, he described the moment when he made his harmonic breakthrough:
"I remember one night . . . I was jamming in a chili house on 7th Avenue . . . in New York City. It was December, 1939. Now I'd been getting bored with the stereotyped [chord] changes that were being used . . . , and I kept thinking there's bound to be something else. I could hear it sometimes, but I couldn't play it. Well, that night I was working over 'Cherokee,' and as I did I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I'd been hearing. I came alive."
His rhythmic approach, a fleet, soaring style that dipped in and out of the metric flow--sometimes soaring freely above the rhythm section, sometimes diving into the drive of the rhythm section itself--was so ingenious that players often had difficulty keeping up. One of the consequences of that approach was best described by Miles Davis in a mid-'50s interview with Nat Hentoff:
"I remember how at times he used to turn the rhythm section around when he and I, Max Roach and Duke Jordan were playing together. . . . It sounded as if the rhythm section was [accenting beats] one and three instead of [accenting the more familiar beats of] two and four. Every time that would happen, Max would scream at Duke not to follow Bird, but to stay where he was in the rhythm. Then eventually, it came around as Bird had it planned and we were together again."
The effect of Parker's playing, both upon his contemporaries and upon younger players, was astounding.
"Charlie Parker," Dizzy Gillespie once said, "was a Pied Piper."
Even a brief list of Bird's saxophonist "children" who came to prominence since the '50s would have to include Sonny Stitt, Phil Woods, Sonny Criss, Jackie McLean, Lou Donaldson, Ernie Henry, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Cannonball Adderley, Frank Morgan, Charles McPherson, Charlie Mariano, Frank Strozier, Ira Sullivan and Richie Cole.
Add just a few of the best-known players of other instruments whose view of jazz was strongly affected by Parker--J.J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, James Moody, Ornette Coleman, Booker Ervin, Kenny Dorham, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown--and the list begins to become nearly endless.
And Parker did it all in just 34 1/2 years. He was born in Kansas City, Kan., on Aug. 29, 1920, and came to music early, playing piano in elementary school and baritone horn and tuba in high school before turning to the alto saxophone.
His singular, and universally recognized, nickname allegedly came about, according to the Village Voice's Giddins, when, during a band tour of Nebraska with the Jay McShann orchestra, Parker's car killed some chickens. Insisting that the driver stop while he picked up the "yardbirds," Parker then turned them over to the lady who ran the boardinghouse where the band was staying, asking that they be cooked for dinner. The name "Yardbird" was immediately applied, to survive for a while as "Yard" and, eventually, as just "Bird."
By 1941 Parker's playing was receiving serious attention, and in 1945 his partnership with Gillespie turned the jazz world around. From 1947 until his death, Parker played with astonishing brilliance, pouring out a cornucopia of solos that are unrivaled for the timeless qualities of their creativity.
And he did so while at the mercy of a seemingly unshakable drug habit. Parker's first exposure to heroin took place while he was in his mid-teens. Once he was in its grip, nothing seemed capable of releasing him, including a six-month, court-mandated rehabilitation at Camarillo State Hospital in California.
But not everyone remembers him as a stone junkie.
"I was just a kid, still in college, in 1951 when I went down to the Tiffany club in Los Angeles to get some pictures of Bird and Chet Baker," recalls William Claxton, the noted jazz photographer. "But after the gig, I got to talking with Bird, and he said he wanted to get something to eat. By that point, everything was closed. But my parents were out of town, so I just invited him over to the house, along with a bunch of other friends."
The image is a fascinating one, especially in the context of early '50s, still-largely-segregated America--a black jazz musician hanging out with a bunch of white kids in upper-middle-class Pasadena.
"Bird said, 'Solid,' " Claxton continues, "and he wound up staying most of the weekend, hanging out by the pool, eating--man, what an appetite he had--and just generally dispensing this kind of primal wisdom he had. It was an amazing experience, and maybe even more so because it was so different from the stories we'd been hearing about Bird's addictive habits. But he was so much more than that."
If Parker were alive today, at 75, he would be 13 years younger than the still-vital Benny Carter. How would Bird have fared if he had managed to shake off the addiction that destroyed his health and ultimately led to his death?
It's difficult to say, but one thing is for sure. Parker constantly expressed a fascination with such 20th-Century composers as Hindemith, Stravinsky and Bartok. He was immensely proud of his recordings with a string section and occasionally noted that he might consider turning to classical music performance. Given good health and a clear mind, he may well have had an impact that reached far beyond the milieu of jazz.
Such speculation aside, the Parker legacy is secure. As long as there are young musicians discovering and rediscovering his music, Bird will be with us, with or without big celebrations.
It is those two words that first appeared all over New York, from subway walls to tenement halls, that still provide the most direct testimony anyone can offer to the persistent relevance and vitality of Parker's music, 75 (or even 150) years after his passing.
ALBUM REVIEW: Three talented young jazzmen essay some Bird classics. Page 66.