Artists who innovate have a glorious tendency to shock when we first enter their remit. The show is not for show, let us say, and it has a high pleasure quotient—the pleasure of not only discovery, but discovery imbued with greater risk, richer reward. We feel like those artists are taking chances on our behalf, and already we know—often within mere seconds—that those chances are paying out. One is not only knocked headlong upon catching an eyeful of Buster Keaton in The General, reading the first few pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses, or experiencing the full force of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK,” but also altered in the very conception of what is possible.
Louis Armstrong was an early jazz version of this form of expectation-scrambler and loop-knocker, but there were ways to get prepped for Louis, as with the recordings of King Oliver. Charlie Parker, though, emerged not just as a comet, but as if representing what it was like for the first people witnessing that streak of light against obsidian sky. He is the jazz analogue of newly discovered fire.
A century after his birth, on August 29, 1920, Charlie Parker remains the Mozart of the jazz medium. He was a firebrand, an imp, a rebel, possessed of a virtuosity that converted what would have been impossible scalar excursions for others into mere sonic finger painting for him. There was, as with Mozart, rascality and fun, but the giving over of a life to art. In an old-fashioned cutting contest, Parker could cut anyone; but you also had the feeling he would have cut his own limbs off if that better enabled him to pour all that he was into his medium.
Parker built up the possibilities of bebop under the cover of darkness, meaning during the time of the recording ban from 1943-45, when shellac was in short supply. He unsheathed his various grooves and chordal superimpositions in afterhours clubs with buddies, rivals, acolytes, wood-shopping in public, but not in front of an audience, a useful distinction for the young man from Kanas City who first lit out with bands at age sixteen.
Like Keats, Parker grew up faster than his peers, one of those people who was just older from the jump, far along the advanced curve of genius learning. The ban lifts, Parker hightails it to the studio for the Savoy label, and America was introduced to bop, which went faster than anyone believed music had the right—or possibility—to go. Even a Parker bop ballad could be pure gas, the pedal not only flat up against metal, but passing through it to a road of endless possibilities.
Parker’s career, truncated as it was, breaks down into three categories: the cometary work for Savoy and Dial of the mid-1940s with their walloping brace of Modernism; the turn of the decade dalliance with strings, as Parker channeled his inner Stravinsky while somehow seeming to sound even more like himself than before; and the dates for Verve in the 1950s, high on mastery, but with less outright envelope-pushing, and the coterie of live recordings that ranged from the legend-steeped “Dream Team” gig at Massey Hall in Toronto 1953—with Parker joined by Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Charles Mingus on bass, Bud Powell on piano, and Max Roach on drums—to any of a number of club gigs on which, in a given night—and what would have been an ordinary, “didn’t think twice about it” evening for Parker—you could have heard the best music ever performed in front of your person.
One such Parker gig—and one I return to with regularity, encapsulating as it does so much about this artist—occurred in the spring of 1950 at the New York City club Birdland, thus named for the man who regularly roosted there. Two factors to keep in mind at this stage of Parker’s journey: He’s deep in a life of struggle, for one. An early tour bus accident had compromised his spine, which meant painkillers, which meant early opioid addiction. Russian hockey players would be dogged by drink and deaths stemming therefrom; for jazz musicians, heroin was the all-too-common albatross. He’s had a nervous breakdown, is viewed as unreliable, though never less than mercurial. Secondly, he’s taped a lot. There are far more concert recordings of Charlie Parker from the decade of the 1950s than any other jazz musician. Record labels made them, fans made them—fans with a lot of zealotry in their bloodstreams for the alto sax titan. Many of the tapes will sound scrappy, bootlegs before a Grateful Dead existed for anyone to follow around.
Some tapers sought out Parker’s permission to record, so that recording devices did not have to remain in overcoat pockets. You could amass a healthy love for Parker on these tapes alone, and I’d argue that with our finest artists, there is never a moment when they break character, if you will. That is, the “official,” go-to, canonized works of great art—the Sgt. Pepper, the Jupiter Symphony, Parker’s own early Savoy and Dial sides—are no more revealing of what that artist is about than the offhand demo, the radio airshot, the “ordinary” club gig on a random Wednesday. Not for someone at this level. A Delacroix can give you just as much in a journal entry as he could in Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. These artists don’t have moments as much as they are themselves art incarnate; what they create in what we think of as the gaps is where you’re going to locate the stuff they are most about, the proof of the idea that there is never an instance where anything shuts off. One cannot shut off, when one is something—one merely is it, and we watch. Or, in the case of when Charlie Parker was joined by a doomed Fats Navarro at Birdland in spring 1950, we listen.