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Bird Lives! The Life Of Jazz Pioneer Charlie Parker

Bird Lives! The Life Of Jazz Pioneer Charlie Parker image Bird Lives! The Life Of Jazz Pioneer Charlie Parker image
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Bird Lives! by Ross Russell; Charterhouse Books Inc. 405 pages, $8. 95 hardcover. At the height of the "British Invasión". say 1965, 1 can remember digging "Over. Under, Sideways, Down", 'Tm a Man" and other tunes by the Yardbirds. A similarly enthused friend of mine agreed that they were "cool" and he had even come up with the information somehow, somewhere, that the group was "named after some old jazz guy called The Yardbird". I suppose I nodded dumbly at this intelligente and pretty well forgot about this ■'Yardbird" character until 1 myself began to _á cover the joys of jazz :. about three years Ê later. After a while the ex tent-of my "knowledge'j of the man was that Ê Charlie i "Yardbird" Parker, or just plain "Bird" was an incredible alto saxophone player who'd just about single-handedly invented Be-Bop and that he'd been a heroin addict who'd gotten Miles Davis hooked when Miles'd played in his band. The image of Bird fixed in my mind was a wildly romantic one, more or less, shared to tliis day, nearly twenty years since his death, by anyone more than passingly interested in his music who naturally goes looking for the man behind the musician and finds nothing but garish scraps, half-truths and distortions. Bird Live:!, the first large-scale phy of Charlie Parker, published a year ago to a great deal ot critical brouk haha, is primarily a work intent on de-mythologizing. Not that author Ross Russell, a jazz critic and impresario of de cades standing, has any ax to grind. He clearly has an abiding reverence for the incomparable musical genius of his subject and went so far as to found and manage Dial I Records back in 1945 solelv to record the man he quickly recog nized as the major in novator of the (then) new music. It was during' the course of his dealings with Bird that Russell discovered that he (Parker) could be other than disarmingly boyish and charming. That he could be and was the man of a thousand faces, some authentically horrible, which he changed at will. But I think that that 's the particular success of Russell's book -- he manages to present a quite whole, uncensored picture of Charlie that's firmly rooted in the peculiar social and economie milieu of America in the Forties and Fifties that bore and fïnally destroyed him. Part of the Parker legend is that he sprang fully-formed, a "natural-born genius" , from out of nowhere, blowing unearthly music twenty years ahead of his time. Russell spends the first 100 pages of the book meticulously, lovingly, re-creating the early years of Bird's life, through age sixteen or so, mainly to establish that his music "was in the main line of the jazz tradition" even though some years later, when the bop revolution was really brewing in Harlem, there were many musicians who "didn't even think of it as jazz at all but rather as some kind of 'Chinese music' as Cab Calloway scornfully called the new style". Charlie grew up in Kansas City where by 1935, during his formative years, the Southwestern jazz style had reached its highest level. KC had become the saxophone player's town and musicians the stature of Ben Webster of the Clouds of Joy. Lester Young and Herschei Evans of - - __ Count Basie's band, and JJJH--. Coleman ins nigntiy jammea in the numerous clubs that flourished in the city's "Negro district". Russell does an exciting job of.describing that steamy, fertile scène at the Reno Club where the raw, virtually untrained Bird would try, unsuccessfully at first, to sit in with the great bands of the day and make it after hours. He describes the thousands of hours Bird spent practicing alone at home, the time spent learning in eccentric, conservatory-trained Tommy Douglas' orchestra the principies of proper embrouchure and harmonies, the woodshedding in the Ozarks, and Charlie's triumphant return to KC in the fall of 1937 when he played his first acceptable solo. During this period Charlie also began his first experiments with drugs - at the time nutmeg, marijuana, and once cocaine. As Russell puts it, "There was no end of adventure for a young man growing up in the district". Parker had advanced astonishingly and by the age of eighteen characteristically thought himself the world's best saxophone player. Unfortunately, no one had ears for him in The Apple, where lie'd moved, and he had to go to work playing at a dime-a-dance place on Broadway to keep from starving. It was there that he acquired an extensive vocabulary of the popular song in America for the previous 40 years. And uptown, one motning in Harlem, he "was jamming with a rhythm section led by guitarist Biddy Fleet. They were working "Cherokee". Charlie had been over the changes countless times, and the tune was beginning to sound stale. Charlie got to thinking. 'There's . got to be something more, some new way "- -- go.' Then an idea struck BB - - him: if he playea the top notes ot the choras instead of the middle or lower notes, he would have a new line. It was worth trying. Asking Fleet to continue, Charlie played through another chorus. The notes sounded strange, but it worked. He was using the upper intervals, ninths, elevenths, thirteenths, skimming along on the very tops of the chords. Nobody knew where he was getting the new line. It had never been done in jazz before. He could find no one to collaborate on these experiments. The rest of the musicians were sleeping on him. He feit he had stumbled on to something. Hawkins, Lester Young, none of those players had ever used a similar line. It was his." Russell paints an engrossing portrait of "the Be-Bop Laboratory", Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, where beginning in the fall of 1941, Parker and the key men of the brewing musical revolution including Kenny Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie, and a young Thelonius Monk began earnestly distilling their style. It was during this period of high creativity that Charlie, living a hopelessly disorganized life, began the serious involvement with heroin that would last and finally destroy his life. Russell speculates that heroin allayéd the pressure he suffered from lack of steady work and public indifference to his music, screened off the greasy spoon restaurants and cheap rooming houses and incidentally kept him out of the draft. "The monkey on his back kept the outside world offit." There's a fine chapter on the 52nd St. scène which was as intense as the one in KC ten years eaiiier. The Swing Era was dead. On 52nd St. the fïrst "band of the future" was organized: Trumpet. sax, piano, .bass, and drums -- with musicians the __ caliber of Parker and Gillespie, - .____ everylhing the big bands had been able to do was implied by the two horns, and a great deal more besides. The Parker-Gillespie sets were explosions of pure musical energy. Of course, the critics hated it, called it "anti-jazz", but the boppers just laughed. And musicians from all over, especially the younger cats, heard the new music as a revelation and regarded it's practitioners as prophets. Indeed, many were the sax players, in particular, who heard Bird play once and put their horns away forever. It was at this point, late 1944, that the hipsters began to elévate him to mythic status. Unlike Dizzy, who was verbal, witty, sunny, and accessible to anyone, Bird was cryptic, oblique, unpredictable, and unmistakable "heavy." His lifestyle was hardening - "A place to sleep, alcohol, drugs, sexual outlets, food -- these were his material needs. These and a place to play amounted to the total fulfillment of his life." In 1945 Bird took a band to the West Coast and ended up staying and eventually getting very sick from a combination of malnutrition. alcoholist!) and heroin witlidrawal. His mental condition had likewise deteriorated and after he allegedly set fire to his hotel room he was jailed and then sent to Camarillo State Hospital, a mental institution. Russell goes into a relevant discussion at this and several other points in the book to question "the counters of the psychiatry game" that iudged Bird at various times "psvchotic". „i "psychopathic", and "hostile". He points out that the "psychiatrie community" has a predoniinantly white, male. middle class bias and that that bias doen t take into account the pressures 1 that a racist society put on a black man, i ally an innovative black artist and that the methods tbr survival in that society would necess:nily depend upon guile. the piu-on, changing, ind hopefully the magie of his playing. Anyway, after 16 months in California. - -- _____ Bird returned to New York in -- -- __ the spring of 1947, dried-out and in the pink. He set up his new quintet with Max Roach, drums; Tommy Potter, bass; Duke J Jordán, piano; and Miles Davis, trumpet and proceeded to play and record the most fiery, imaginative music of his life. Russell helpfully describes the recording sessions that survived what many critics think was Bird's most fertile period and also provides a "Running Disco graphy of Prin ei pal Parker Performances On Record" , in the ap pendix that I'm sure á every read er of this continued on J page 21 Jj Charlie Parker continued from page 17 book will use 't o learn of and eagerly cop the still-available, audible evidence of Bird's artistry. By 1948 Charlie was beginning to be widely embraced by the urban black people of his generation as a genuine culture hero. At the time títere was no Martin . Luther King, no Malcolm X, and the revolutionary nature of his music was explicit. Implicit in his lifestyle was defiance of the white establishment. While Bird was completely non-political, his highiy publicized acts of outrage or despair, no matter how ineffectual or cltildish, were seen as blows struck against the forces of oppression. Charlie Parker was the first angy black man in m'usic and he bore the burdens of loneliness and frustration that being ahead of one's time bring. It would take the post-Parker generation of jazzmen -- Davis, Coltrane, Shepp, Ayler -- to articúlate the politics of repression and the desire for liberation. Bird would pay the final price for his complete spontaneity and oblivious genius. The final eight pages of Bird Lives! cover the last five years of his life and hts terrible decline. It is saddening beyond words. Russell gives us all of Charlie Parker - the myth and the man behind the myth. Written American history is the richer for Bird Uves!