Jazz is full of shooting stars, great talents that dazzled briefly and burned themselves out too young. None burned so intensely as Charlie Parker, the great saxophonist and composer, who died 60 years ago (on March 12, 1955) from health problems brought on by a life-time of drink and drugs. In a career of barely 20 years he redefined the art of jazz, creating alongside a few other pioneers that hard, driving, feverishly exciting sound known as bebop.
That’s a great achievement, but it might appear to lock Parker, who died at the age of 34, firmly into the past. After all, we’re now well into the era of ‘post-bop’, that conveniently vague phrase that draws a veil over jazz’s current stylistic confusion. And yet Parker, of all the beboppers, is the one who seems most vividly alive. His nickname “Bird” testifies to the intoxicating freedom of his melodies, and the darting, soaring quality of his mind. Everywhere one looks in jazz, one sees his legacy being re-interpreted, often by musicians who were born decades after Bird died.
That reinterpretation takes many forms, but one thing these younger musicians agree on is that pious recreation just won’t do. They want to honour him at a deeper level, and that means emulating the other things that made Parker great. His sheer hard work, for one. One of the many musicians who’ve produced Parker-based albums in recent years is Gilad Atzmon, the fiery Israel-born saxophonist. He paid homage to the controversial recording Parker made late in his career called Bird with Strings, where the sharp, clean sound of the saxophonist is cushioned by string arrangements.
Atzmon discovered Parker’s music when he was 17. “I used to listen to all the usual stuff, when I was a teenager – Pink Floyd, Saturday Night Fever. We had a jazz programme late at night, I used to listen to it, because it was boring enough to let me fall asleep.” Then one day along came a number from Bird with Strings. “Well, that just knocked me down. I got completely fascinated with his music, and I decided to transcribe some pieces. I remember Night in Tunisia was the first. I had been given a cassette-recorder for my bar mitzvah, and I played the cassette of the piece over and over. It took me about eight hours, and at the end there was this funny smell. I realised the cassette had melted.”
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Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away in Beckenham, a teenage saxophonist named Django Bates had been bitten by the same bug. “Charlie Parker’s music is like my mother tongue," he says, “my Dad played his records all the time at home. I remember me and a friend transcribing the solos from a bunch of 78s. We would pick up the needle, put it down, pick it up, put it down. We did damage to the records, and I’m sure we did damage to our brains too.” The damage couldn’t have been great. Bates has now become one of Britain’s leading jaz pianists, band-leaders and composers, and his versions of Parker classics on his recent album Belovèd Bird are marvels of imaginative recreation.
The obsession Parker’s music engendered in two such different musicians testifies to its enticing mystery, the sense it gives of something wonderful lying just out of reach. Ask these musicians what the essence of that thing is and they point to surprisingly different things. “It’s the twists and turns, the humour, the surprising intervals. They were infinitely inspiring to me, and still are,” says Bates.
Charlie Parker MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVE
Gilad Atzmon, with typical pugnaciousness, points to a different quality of Parker’s music, one that’s become unmentionable in today’s culture, which is so squeamish about "gendered" traits in the arts. “For me bebop was the most libidinal music. It’s absolutely filled with testosterone, it’s very manly. Thinking about the whole bebop movement, it’s strikes me there was not a single woman in that generation. Just to acquire the command of that language was extraordinarily tough, it was like putting yourself in a military regime. And the reason was that the speed and complication of the music was unbelievable, it was right at the edge of what was possible.”
That going to extremes engenders a joy (the joyful quality of Bird’s music is one thing everybody agrees on). But it has a melancholy aftertaste, for a reason Bates makes clear. “There a wonderful film of Parker and Coleman Hawkins miming to playback, which shows two styles together. You can see that when Bird begins he’s playing two notes for every one of Hawkins’s. It’s the speed of thought and execution that’s amazing, but it’s a problem when he plays in a dance hall, as he does on Bird is Free. It’s verging on being music without pulse, and that shows the parting of the ways, when jazz stopped being entertainment and became art. You can imagine the crowd saying “Hang on, we can’t dance to this any more.”
Bird's obsessive refining of his art, his determination to find something he could "hear in his head but not yet play," might remind us of other tormented avant-gardistes like Jackson Pollock. But that overlooks the other side of Parker, the one that revered tradition. That’s the side that appeals to Joe Lovano, the great American saxophonist who recently produced a Parker-based album entitled Bird Songs with his US Five quintet. “I learned to play saxophone with my Dad, and he and all the players around him were Parker freaks. When I started to play professionally it was Parker’s tunes I began with. Some of the younger cats like to say, 'I just want to play my music’, but I say you can do that better if you know what all the previous generations did. And some people want to live in that library and try to tell someone else’s story, but you have to tell your own story. With the players I love there’s that special deep sound, which isn’t just a tone on the instrument, it’s a whole approach which comes out of deep study joined with a desire to be creative and free.”
It’s the classic quality of Parker that makes him appealing to many other jazz musicians. Rudresh Mahanthappa, an American saxophonist of Indian parentage, is about to release a Parker-inspired album entitled Bird Calls. This embeds fragments of Parker numbers in his own very distinctive language, which is strongly influenced by South Indian music. He too experienced a moment of revelation as a teenager. “The first Charlie Parker number I heard was called Blue Bird. I was blown away by the propulsion, the charisma, and the joyful spirit of it. Also the stellar saxophone playing, which technically is on the highest level.
"There was a completeness to it, which I’ve spent my whole life trying to emulate – which is nothing to do with imitation, because my style is very different. It has the balanced quality of all the great art that I really love. It’s as much intellectual as it is soulful, it speaks to sorrow and it speaks to joy, with a undertone of compassionate humour. There’s something so human about what Charlie Parker does.”
Django Bates’s Beloved Bird is released on Lost Marble. Joe Lovano’s Bird Songs is released on Blue Note. Gilad Atzmon’s In Loving Memory of America is released on Enja. Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls is released on ACT.