It is eerily fitting that last Saturday’s centennial of modern jazz genius Charlie Parker’s birth should have fallen in the midst of a global pandemic. To be recognized as an elite jazz musician in Parker’s day was to be a called a “cat,” yet he acquired the nickname of Bird. His troubled and truncated life lasted only a third of the century now being commemorated, yet the birds are singing as they haven’t done for decades.
The skies are still mostly clear of planes and the car traffic remains slight, though gathering momentum. Nature is emboldened, the birds especially. As if there will be no tomorrow, the jays heckle from the locust trees, the chickadees trade their five-note licks from hedge and oak, the cardinals loose their cadenzas from the honeysuckle, that fragrant, foreign invader. It is as if the clank of glasses and the hubbub of voices in one of the night clubs where bebop found refuge in the 1940s and 50s—given the metaphor now underway, the Royal Roost and Birdland seem the best ones to conjure—had suddenly been silenced so that the undisturbed magic of Parker’s horn could enrapture the ear and even reach the heavens.
In his lyrical, yet searing 1962 essay on Parker’s legend and the performance of race in America, Ralph Ellison explored other ornithological parallels. With Roger Tory Petersen’s Field Guide to Birds to hand, Ellison considered Parker’s life and art first with the goldfinch in mind, before landing alongside the mockingbird. Like that masterful neighborhood songster, the flighty alto saxophonist “usually sang at night [and] his playing was characterized by velocity, by long-continued successions of notes and phrases, by swoops, bleats, echoes, rapidly repeated bebops—I mean rebopped bebops—by mocking mimicry of other jazzmen’s styles, and by interpolations of motifs from extraneous melodies, all of which added up to a dazzling display of wit, satire, burlesque and pathos. Further, he was as expert at issuing his improvisations from the dense brush as from the extreme treetops of the harmonic landscape, and there was, without doubt, as irrepressible a mockery in his personal conduct as in his music.”
I marked Parker’s birthday and the days before and since with my gramophone—fully sustainable, off-the grid, black-out proof, and the best way of flushing Bird from the thicket of time. Real birds, too, came to listen.
On the gramophone one hears Parker as his recorded performances were heard during his lifetime. Many of the interviews played and reprinted this week recount the spell Parker cast not just on young jazz musicians but major classical figures such as Igor Stravinsky. But for those who could not catch him in New York on his tours, it was the gramophone that allowed them to hear and re-hear their idol.
Fans and admirers cranked up their machines countless times, often in succession, in order to learn the patterns and pacing of the master. One of Parker’s most ardent followers was alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, born just six years after his hero and still living. I heard Donaldson play a club in Boston in the 1980s where someone asked him to do “Parker’s Mood.” Donaldson not only played the tune, but with note-for-note perfection delivered his hero’s solo from the 1948 Savoy recording. Donaldson knew and admitted that the Bird was inimitable, but he imitated his way to his own style, as so many did. Others could not escape the anxiety of influence. As Parker’s sometime bassist Charles Mingus put it in the title of one of his compositions written a few years after the saxophonist’s death: “If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There’d Be A Whole Lot Of Dead Copycats.”
This morning alongside the Cascadilla Gorge in Ithaca, I played my copy of the same 78 (Savoy Records — 936) Donaldson had listened to so many times back in the late 1940s. A pair of hipster cardinals arrived on a nearby branch (unfortunately beyond the frame of my camera) and stayed to check this strange Bird out. A bereted pewee chimed in with a ho-say ma-re.
On the A-side of Savoy 936 is “Parker’s Mood,” which clocks in at three minutes. Another quicker blues, “Barbados” is on the B side and is thirty seconds shorter. That’s under six minutes in total. Yet the music encompasses not just the century since Parker’s birth, but far greater expanses of time, too. You wouldn’t feel cheated if this were the only recording to survive the apocalypse.
The 78’s label lists the group as The Charlie Parker All-Stars. For “Barbados” the leader is joined by twenty-two-year-old Miles Davis on trumpet, Curley Russell on bass and Max Roach on drums. (Roach’s name is misspelled with an extraneous e at the end). John Lewis—the same age as Parker, and later of Modern Jazz Quartet fame—is uncredited on piano though his feathery, tropical trills and buoyant mambo chords do so much to set the Caribbean scene along with Roach’s calypso beat, and Russell’s steal-drum bass work. Parker’s theme is a sunny, diatonic major line almost completely without blue notes. After the chorus the calypso shoves off into a full swing, sailing through waters azure and clear, not clouded and fatal. The island offers escape not enslavement: how could one be put in mind that slavery in the English empire first got going in full force on Barbados sugar plantations in the 1640s. Such is the paradoxically uplifting complexity of this piece.
Given the constraints of the 78 format, Parker has time for only two choruses: the first is affirmative, harmonically unadventurous until the concluding rapid-fire lick, one that Parker deployed often in his improvisations. Half-way through the second chorus he steps outside the flow of time, for a delayed bluesy utterance that descends to the low part of his range. The shadow of melancholy passes over the palms, but it is not unalloyed sadness, there is hope, making due, even celebration in the complaint. In the final few bars Parker darkens the palette again with the minor-third before resolving to major on his penultimate note, tracing the home-key triad as he returns to port.
Davis sits out “Parker’s Mood” so Parker be given the necessary space for his three-minute oration. Lewis again makes crucial contributions to the ambience with his shimmer of sustained chords, coloring but never obscuring Parker’s ruminations. The famed opening motto fills out a G minor chord. Even without Parker’s premature death in 1955 in mind, this sounds like a cry of anguish. But there is more to that suffering than can be accounted for by a recourse to biography. As the slow swing unfolds, Parker begins with a rosy B-flat pentatonic scale rising up than falling back down the octave. It’s a figure that generations of jazz musicians continue to quote from in their improvisations. At the end of the first four bars, Parker falls heavily on a non-diatonic flattened seventh, concluding a figure that had started with a cracked note like a painful splinter from his saxophone reed’s—one of those squawks crucial to the Parker style. After letting go of that note with the harmony change, Parker gets hung up on a bluesy pattern cutting against the grain of the beat. He cycles through the figure four times, as if the gramophone is stuck in its groove: time stops yet continues forward. Then comes a bluesy outpouring, rhythmically unbounded, wildly chromatic, paradoxically controlled in its freedoms. The emotions are many and far more complex than words can describe: Fury and pain and control and survival and beauty? In a word, improvisation? The second chorus returns at first to the major and yields another quotable snippet. There are breaths and spaces, question marks, an optimistic rising up before a humbling descent.
After John Lewis’s ethereal interlude, Parker joins back in with the suggestion of double-time syncopations that seem to recall the island idyll of the B side. Hope glimmers. There is solace in the shadows, and devastating elegance in the jaunty triumph over despair. It now seems inevitable that the “to be or not to be” motto should be reprised, a short coda from the trio provides no moral to the story. Is the motto more harrowing than before? Or more hopeful? Or both?
You change the needle and play it again, and its different. You are, too.