Jazz Institute of Chicago

The greatness of Bird

The greatness of Bird
by Robert Bregman, PhD

"Thou wast not born for death immortal Bird" —Keats

Aug. 29, 2001, the 81th anniversary of the birth of Charlie Parker; on the cusp of a new millennium. The previous century saw the development of the mostly improvised significant American music, universally referred to as Jazz. Pianist and Jazz guru Lennie Tristano, who played with Bird, considered his music to be pure in the sense that Bach's was pure. He also believed that every great composer was also a great improviser; and that as an improviser Charlie Parker was second to none.

Furthermore, Parker was the major innovator in his idiom. He changed music: The way it was conceived. The way it was played. The time and the line in Jazz were never the same again. Bird was the catalyst of Jazz's major transformation; the preeminent visionary of modern Jazz.

Those who have heard the invaluable live tape recorded 1942 "Cherokee," blown at Minton's, and/or the 1943 Bob Redcross tapes of Bird and Diz, recorded in a Chicago hotel room when they were both in the Earl Hines orchestra, are compelled to accept the evidence that despite Gillespie's superior harmonic knowledge, Parker had put the "puzzle" together first.

Certainly, by '42–'43 (perhaps earlier) Bird was already playing the modern music that would become known as Be-Bop when it hit the scene like an Atomic explosion in 1945. Indeed, when I played a 1943/44 private studio cut of "Cherokee" for Alto master Charles McPherson, he remarked that even if Bird had stopped playing immediately after that solo, we would still have to consider him the greatest and most advanced Swing musician ever.

According to his own well-known account, Parker's musical transformation took place at the end of 1939 in a Harlem Chili house, while he was playing on the chords of "Cherokee". He started to actually play music he had intuited, but was unable to realize until now. This was the moment of an incipient musical revolution. With Parker's enlightenment, Jazz would be set free—liberated from the harmonic, rhythmic and melodic constraints of Swing, into the open ended possibilities of modern jazz. Just as Beethoven revolutionized Viennese Classicism and heralded a new era after Mozart, so also, after Louis Armstrong's (and others) foundational works, Parker instilled the music with a dynamism not heretofore heard in Jazz.

Bird combined intellect and feeling with great success. They always came together. Parker's music was tonal, not "atonal" or "abstract". He was always melodic, and in fact the disguised lines, written over the chord changes of standard tunes, are not really difficult to discern after a certain amount of educated listening. An excellent example of this is Dizzy Gillespie's music lesson—the 1950s big band arrangement of "Groovin' High," written on the chords of the old soft shoe "Whispering," in which one section plays the Bop line, while another plays the old standard. The listener will hear, with a little concentration, that they fit together perfectly.

Difficult or not, the new jazz was no longer primarily dance music; it was art music. Those who listen to modern composers like Bartok, Stravinsky, Hindemith & company, have to make an effort to adjust to new tonal conceptions. The same is true for the other modern arts. But jazz had been the defining form of popular Swing-era culture: it moved with the vagaries of popular taste. Thus, Charlie Parker did not become a household name.

For each tune he played, Bird had a specific thematic approach suggested by the melody and the harmonic rhythm of the specific piece; the idea of each tune in his head like a blueprint. To hear this, listen to alternate takes of a given tune recorded in the studio for Savoy, Dial & Verve.

Altoist Lee Konitz suggested that Bird was a very brilliant man, who composed instantaneously—before he played a note—thus his perfect choruses. Each time he played a tune it was a different composition though close to his archetype for that tune. He also heard, in a systematic way, his archetype for a given tune, fitting it to his general systemic approach, or his "general archetype". The rules of which, as it were, can be yielded upon the analysis of a few of his choruses.

Lennie Tristano compared his tonal system to a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces of which go together differently on each try to form a somewhat different picture. Another metaphorical description might envision a kaleidoscope, whose flexible patterns can make a somewhat different sequenced picture on each take.

Bird's emotional range runs the gamut from "classical" improvisation, as in the 1940 "Honeysuckle Rose" from a Jay McShann band Wichita air check, or the elegant 1946 "Yardbird Suite," to harder edged solos like the 1947 "Crazeology" or "Klactoveedsedstene"; the hard cooking "Move" and "Ornithology," on the 1950 Live from Birdland with Fats Navarro, Bud Powell and Art Blakey. Bird also liked standard tunes and ballads. His work on the latter, with or without strings, qualifies him as a 'romantic'. Always melodic and tonal, during the Be-Bop era his at times ecstatic but lonely feel appealed to the "hipster," alienated from the "square dumb band" groove of increasingly conformist post-war American society.

Young musicians all played Bird-influenced music. Arrangers for pop vocalists took Bird into consideration, lest they sound old fashioned. By around 1950 most musicians either played a modern style or a Bird-influenced modernized Swing style. In 1949 bandleader Stan Kenton publicly stated that Charlie Parker was the greatest and the most influential musician in America. At the end of that year Birdland opened and it soon became collegiate-hip to go down to "the Jazz corner of the world," to hear Bird, Dizzy and other Bop modernists.

Dizzy Gillespie lived roughly twice as long as Charlie Parker, 35 odd years longer. Times changed: Gillespie had been lauded for decades. He received a front page NY Times obit. A far cry from the 1955 tabloid headline that related Bird's death at Nica's Park Ave. pad: "BOP KING DIES IN HEIRESS APT."

The late Argentine writer( and Tenor player) Julio Cortazar wrote "The Pursuers," a short story about the last days of a sax player in Paris, Johnny Carter—a fictional Bird. The story is prefaced: "Be thou faithful unto death" (Revelation). In memoriam, Ch.P." There is a section where Carter, riding on the Metro, thinks about time: compressing a subjectively long time into an objectively short time; time represented by what he could think and where he could go mentally in a few Metro stops. Controlling time by going to a "higher level," as if riding in an elevator.

This suggests that 1) Bird had a new perspective in relation to the flow of the time/line in Jazz. 2) He could at will play very fast by perhaps making an uncanny internal adjustment, which enabled him to experience time at a slower rate, thereby to control what to the average listener goes by at up-tempo speed. Cortazar's story offers some real analysis, fictionalized, of the scuffling and mental and physical problems of Bird's final days.

Nevertheless, to keep things in perspective, it should also be remembered that Bird enjoyed himself and he knew how great he was. He certainly lived very fast (too fast) and very intensely. He was by no means, however, always unhappy. As well as being one of the great figures of American music, he had an inquiring mind and many interests. On this anniversary, then, let us acknowledge that you get a Bird only once in a century.

©July '01 Robert Bregman Ph.D., registered Writers Guild of Canada.
Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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