Charlie Parker, jazz alto saxophonist who was a leader in creating a new playing style called bebop which matured in the 1940s, died after a scuffling and presumably largely desperate life at thirty-four in 1955, a heroin addict whose life burning bright in the choruses of the racist American night of his time, his all-consuming music a fearful symmetry, simply gave out. Especially for jazz lovers, including Igor Stravinsky and many other classical composers and players, Parker’s musical ascension is among the great artistic triumphs in the history of music. Any tune played by Parker–his confident historic improvisations coursing in a beautiful fleet and surprising logic which makes a previously unknown Aesthetic Present the be-all and the end-all–is a transporting refuge. Which is to say, it is a great gift of sublime art.
What actually was Parker’s triumph? Besides listening to Parker’s music, I’ve read much about him and it, but I’ve never heard a compelling answer to the question, either in musical, psychological or other terms. I didn’t hear it in Stanley Crouch’s estimable Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, a courageous biography (the first of a planned two volumes, this first one thirty years in the writing) which I think not well unified and far too dependent on grandiose speculation about the cultural American racial dynamic of many years going back to frontier America out of which jazz itself came parading and in which narrative by Crouch I do not think the breathing Charlie Parker himself marches (it may well be that Parker’s lonely and almost secretive quest for a liberated jazz style and the fact that much of his early life has been lost has precluded bringing him back to life in a biography, for him to be redeemed in mere words), but I did learn from Crouch much of value generically about jazz history, the cultural dynamics birthing and propelling its evolving styles, the historical constraints and catalysts of that careening, restless art, and, perhaps, something of the jazz player’s fundamental experience. Kansas City Lightning seems more of a meditation on the growing up of jazz than an exploration of Charlie Parker.
I was caught up in Crouch’s considerable gift for imaginative writing, especially in such passages as those dramatizing Parker’s travels from Kansas City to Chicago on freight trains, a neglected and unappreciated genius among the wandering hobos in the Depression, a vital lesson being to prop open your freight car door with a stick lest it be locked from outside and you starve to death on a side rail in the railroad yards of your city of destination but a few inches from a release to walk into its night club streets. But again, for me even such powerful scenes and lyrical passages as these from the talented Couch might well have been more about the Jazz Musician of the 1930s and 1940s, the archetype, rather than about Charlie Parker in particular. Crouch is engrossing in telling the story of jazz in those days and especially in Kansas City and Harlem–Moten, Henderson, McShann, Ellington, Basie, Lester Young, Buster Smith, Hot Lips Page, Walter Page, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum, Jimmie Dorsey, the Savoy, Fifty-Second Street, and the important small clubs and places of all-night jam sessions, wars where some of the fittest art survived and some of the fittest did not (at least not then and there).
Crouch is superb in saying what jazz is and is not. Perhaps the best example is the cited comment by the great Vladimir Horowitz who would visit the Onyx Club in New York when Art Tatum was playing there and once said that he could certainly play like Tatum from a transcript of a Tatum rendition of a show tune or a blues, but that he could never have played any of those tunes extemporaneously the way Tatum did. I don’t think Crouch is implying that Tatum could outplay Horowitz when it comes to Lizst, Chopin, Schumann; he is simply trying to dramatize a distinction among art forms.
In sum, Parker remains a mystery as to his development of his style, his art. But then, we face inscrutability in delving “creativity” in all the arts.
One interesting move toward an answer about Parker (and art itself) is made by Harold Bloom, the great literary critic, who has listed in no special order his choices of the most sublime American artistic works of the twentieth century:
1. Miss Lonelyhearts, by Nathanael West
2. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
3. The ending of the Marx Brothers’ movie, Duck Soup.
4. The Complete poems of Hart Crane
5. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens
6. “I Remember You,” played by Charlie Parker
7. “Parker’s Mood,” played by Charlie Parker
8. “Un Poco Loco,” played by Bud Powell (a bepop compatriot of Parker)
9. Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
Bloom wisely doesn’t elaborate much about “sublime.” (Rising to the bait [what fun it is!]: I agree with him about Miss Lonelyhearts and the two pieces by Parker, and jettison the others. I’d include from jazz Art Tatum’s “Willow Weep for Me” and John Coltrane’s “But Not or Me.” Powell’s jazz piano piece, “Un Poco Loco,” has too little improvisation for me to include it and its presence makes me feel that Bloom’s criteria may be somewhat dubious for jazz, though the Parker pieces–many would include them–restore some faith. Several Faulkner novels seem to me better than As I Lay Dying, albeit Faulkner himself called it a tour de force. The inspired slapstick ending of Duck Soup is certainly defensible. Shamefully, I’ve tried hard but never been able to finish Gravity’s Rainbow, so I refuse to answer on painful grounds.)
Shortly, I’ll link you to Parker’s masterful “I Remember You,” the beautiful Johnny Mercer song, a classic of the Great American Song Book. That is the answer to the question about Parker’s achievement. If you are interested, it is fundamental to your exploration.
Otherwise: I think these things should be said about Charlie Parker.
First, he was not interested in dance music and dancers. Much of jazz before him was so interested, even defined in part by that interest.
Second, he was a pioneer in turning jazz into a sort of New World chamber music. No more Savoy Ballroom.
Third, his aesthetic was a fleet logic, a very quick (quick in its own way even on ballads) transporting of his listener. Crouch is superb in this aspect of Parker’s art, calling the dynamic of it something on the order of cognition in a moment of emergency. Parker took years and thousands of hours of playing to find out how to play his fleet logic. It put the jazz player in the Present; he or she was in an artisic emergency, if you will. Take “emergency” in as many senses as you can, including the echo of “emergent.”
Courtesy of Wikipedia and other sources, here are some technical descriptions of Parker’s new jazz, bebop–I’ve never thought they really capture the artistic drive, the thrust, of Parker:
-Parker discovered the twelve chromatic tones can take the player melodically to any and all keys, thereby breaking the constraints of earlier jazz soloing
-Parker wanted to play as a virtuoso at very fast tempos with quicksilver improvisation
-Tone would probably need to be sacrificed to obtain rapid-fire clarity of notes
-Bebop is a revolution in ideas of harmony, showing rapid passing chords, new variants of altered chords, and chord substitutions
There are other technical descriptions, but you get the flavor.
Here are links to Nat Cole and Charlie Parker respectively performing “I Remember You.”
As a prelude:
Swing to pop: Cole, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, et al. Sadly, goodbye Duke, Count, Glenn, Tommy, Benny. Hello Billy May, Capitol Records, the Sands Hotel. In public you are polite to your audience, sing what most of them want to hear, talk about the family pets.
Swing to bebop: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk. Sadly, goodbye Duke, Count, Glenn, Tommy, Benny. Hello Gil Evans, Blue Note Records, Birdland. Who cares about the audience? They’ll have to catch up with you. You’re a hipster. Being a square is the worst.
Here are the links to Cole and Parker.