B y D a v e M c E l f r e s h
WHEN JAZZ SAXOPHONIST Charlie Parker died in 1955, the coroner wrongly guessed him to be 53 years old. He would not have reached that age until 1973, had his unbridled, wild-ass lifestyle not killed him. Actually, the musical giant was only 34 when died, appropriately in the company of royalty in the Manhattan apartment of hardcore jazz fan Baroness Koenigswarter.
This year he would have been 75, which, continuing the coroner-determined ratio of normal physical deterioration to his hedonism-driven race toward hell, means he would have looked a little short of a zillion years old in normal-people years. Growing old, though, was not an option for the intense, extremist Parker, whose life burned hot, bright and fast. So did, and does, his music--with many hating him for what they claim was an act of arson on the structure of jazz.
Parker's legacy is a misunderstood style called Bebop. In spite of other famous bebop players (Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie), he remains the primary figure of association. Bebop is considered by many (including some jazz fans) to be obnoxious, unintelligible and intimidating--terms used about Parker himself, in fact. To many it sounds like a flurry of wrong notes played at breakneck speed, and not at all like a song. Still, even those who hate bebop would generally agree something legitimate is going on, so far beyond their idea of music as to sound like a foreign language.
Parker would have liked that response.
At the end of the '30s, Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie decided they'd had enough of the sugary big band scene posing as jazz. Dozens of bands had slick-haired crooners singing simplistic, cutesy songs, the music punctuated by lame trumpet or sax solos purposely brief so as not to bore the dance audience. The big bands were diluting the music to where even the worst hacks felt justified in calling themselves jazz musicians.
In retaliation, Parker and Gillespie set out to create a style that would separate the fakers from the shakers. Bebop, a nonsense word that sounded like the playing style, became the jazz equivalent of a fraternity hazing. Popular songs like "I Got Rhythm" and "How High The Moon" were stripped of their attractive melodies and replaced with complicated new ones, turned into obstacle courses where a player had to prove himself by improvising at a 90 mph tempo over rapidly changing chord progressions, and with a new harmonic complexity boppers were just beginning to explore. As the onstage "cutting contests" proved, most of the top jazz players from the previous generation couldn't pass the test, let alone the big band wussies.
Not everyone, though, honored bebop and its stringent standards. A lot of jazz players and critics found the music so abrasively different they decided it was nothing more than noise, and began preaching how the damned stuff was steering real jazz straight into the ditch.
Charlie Parker's bizarre personality was no help in bringing a sense of dignity to the music. He was unconcerned with his habit of wearing dirty clothes and frequently being without a place to sleep. He was also a drug addict (heroin and phenobarbital), a heavy drinker (1-2 quarts a day), a womanizer (sex on an average of three times a day, preferably with different partners), and a glutton (monstrous meals ordered one after another). Biographer Ross Russell, who described Parker as having the constitution of an ox, noted most of his excesses were well established by the time Parker was 22.
His indulgences sometimes caused him to miss a club date, a problem he once attempted to rectify after a day of hedonism by showing up early and napping at that night's club site--only to sleep through his sax-less band's sets from his makeshift bed beneath the stage. But Parker in fine form, which occured much more often than the limits of physical endurance say it should have, was an amazing experience. His alto sax spit out complicated phrases, tinged equally with the blues and an air of cockiness, soaring high above the band and finding new notes that worked only at that heighth. The speed with which he mentally created his intricate improvisations is jaw-dropping; yet even at a tune's breakneck pace Parker would think out the next phrase of a solo while playing the first part, and change it in his head as many as four times before its delivery.
In spite of his detractors, Parker--unlike many jazz musicians who only later become legends--was greatly appreciated during his lifetime. Young bebop players studied his recordings and concluded his superhuman skill must have come from his heroin use. As a result, many not-yet famous jazz players became junkies trying to emulate him. Mixed with the adoring musicians were female groupies; dancers, cigarette girls, models and prostitutes who frequented or worked the clubs. Parker found time for them all.
The greatest fan, though, was Dean Benedetti. Himself a saxophonist, Benedetti's addiction was Parker himself. Showing up at a number of late '40s club dates with his disc recorder, the Parker-obsessed Benedetti recorded only the saxman's solos, uninterested in the rest of the songs. Benedetti died of a rare muscle disease at 34, the same age as Parker, and the tape collection was left to disintegrate in a trunk. The lost collection was referred to in many Parker articles over the ensuing years, and finally located in 1988--a find that has been called the jazz equivalent of discovering King Tut's tomb. The several hundred Parker solos and solo fragments, some less than ten seconds in length, were released on CD in 1990 to ravenous bebop fans. Something about Parker seems to propagate excessiveness.
The general public had been given their intro to Parker through Clint Eastwood's film bio, Bird, two years earlier. Those who knew little about jazz were impressed; and those, like Wynton Marsalis, who represent a new, image-conscious style of jazz, resented the attention given to Parker's sordid lifestyle. The story, they said, dwelt on his personal problems à la National Enquirer, and overshadowed the music. Considering the movie's impressive treatment of the music, the real issue may have been that Eastwood delved into his life at all.
After all these years, even jazz musicians like Marsalis can't come to grips with the bebop god. Like it or not, Parker's racing, frantic and creative music was merely an exteriorization of his racing, frantic, creative life--a package deal. Four decades later bebop remains no less overwhelming or irritating to fresh ears--and Parker himself no less an embarassing icon for the conservative jazz scene. As it should be. Happy 75th, Charlie.
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