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Charlie Parker piece excerpt

Friday 7/3/20

Need a breather. This Charlie Parker cover story is something else. I am getting close to finished with it. I should have finished a couple days ago. I need to do better. But one is not going to write better. A few paragraphs here. Who the hell writes like that? Man that is the stuff.


Charlie Parker will be able to lay claim to a number of those “Best such and such” designations we enjoy extolling, and what will occur on this afternoon, besides establishing a ne plus ultra superlative unto itself—America’s single greatest recording session—will put many more in motion, eventually. There will be the string session dates of 1949, the jazz “Dream Team” gig from Toronto’s Massey Hall in 1953, and Parker himself, commencing right here, right now, will become to the alto sax as Babe Ruth is to the home run, Louis Armstrong to the trumpet, Jackson Pollock to the drip canvas, Hitchcock to the suspense picture.

But there is also no session regarding which we can be more equivocal in terms of what it wrought, that is also enwrapped in such mystery. The debates regarding the events of this Monday of jazz lore is traceable to the mid-1950s, when our date in question was released as a stand-alone LP called The Charlie Parker Story.

It numbered among the first jazz records I had ever heard, and though I was sonically reared on electricity—loud guitars, stacks of amps—I was not prepared for what was really a redefining of the very meaning of the word “electricity.” That you could have electricity—kinetically, if not literally—with no one plugging into anything, changed my perceptions of what is possible for certain musical artists. Make no mistake, though, each Parker solo—even those that would not make the grade of the finished masters for the Savoy label—possessed an electric element that would have snapped Ben Franklin to attention on a story afternoon.

The title of that LP was telling: Here was the essence of Parker, encapsulated in the more or less real-time events of a day in the studio. The Beatles reached their apogee with an account of a day in a life, while Parker’s own seemingly quotidian “plain day”—a simple recording session after an imposed hiatus—also possesses a regular, workmanlike element. Punch the clock, chop the wood, whatever term one wishes to use. But what an elision to the transcendent we are about to witness, from what was initially earmarked as the mere making of wares that are once again legally sellable. Cut the wood, pop out the emerald.

Parker was someone like a Keats, “older” than his years without being old, or the young man version of an older person. With Parker you get the vim of a Mozart, an energy that feels forever retainable, despite when health fails and tragedy mounts. Parker’s development, right from the jump, was hastened. Something, or someone, put him on a swift curve. At all of sixteen, he leaves home in Kansas City, Kansas, takes to the road with bands. There will be a bus accident that damages his spine, requires painkillers, hooks the man known as Bird on opioids, which will play a large role in his death at the age of thirty-four, less than ten years after the November 26, 1945 session that invents bebop, so far as the listening public was concerned.

The advent of this new music had been occurring under cover of darkness, often literally, in afterhours clubs. Parker and his acolytes workshopped in front of each other—vulnerable, brave, in love with risk, chance, willing to fail, willing to try again. The music is complicated, moves at rates no music yet had in the States, but under that smoky veil of darkness, and in untold hours in private, Sisyphus is going to be able to send the boulder shooting off the top of the hill, as if to suggest there was nothing the best of the bebop generation couldn’t do.

The dismissive old timers—who weren’t really old at all—were branded as “moldy figs.” The beboppers themselves would have swung if their music favored the pace of the generation before, but it was far too cometary—Parker always sounded like he had other planets to get to before the day was out. The likes of Coleman Hawkins—a member of the moldy fig generation but never a moldy fig himself—heard what Parker was doing, and decided the time was right to get the hell out of the swing era. The old dawn was fading, Bird’s new day arising.

We know that Powell is not in attendance on November 26, so we can cross his name off the date just as scholars eventually determined that Johnny Cash had little to do with the Million Dollar Quartet. Curly Russell will play bass, a green Mile Davis is ready to go on trumpet, Gillespie will indeed play piano—along, it seems, with Sadik Hakim—and of course we have Max Roach on drums. Roach is the key contributor after Parker. Like Eric Dolphy with the New Thing, Roach had a knack for being present at those moments when we can pinpoint the history of music changing.

There has never been a shortage of arguments over who who is present and accounted for, and who plays what. Everyone and their cousin has claimed to have been the pianist. In one regard, I have always thought, does it matter? The mystery is enticing—a lover or a reader can tell you a little goes a long way, and it’s the same for music fans—but there is no mystery about whom we are here for, the artist doing the delivering of heretofore unheard, unimagined gifts. The Bird is going to be the word, and yes, when we think of that lyric in this context, it has something fundamentally Biblical about it—the truth, the light, the word. The full-stop beginning.


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