a column by
Stuart Broomer

The following is a segment of the liner essay for Anthony Braxton’s Sextet (Parker) 1993, just released on New Braxton House (NBH 907), an 11-CD expansion of the two-CD set released on hat ART in 1995.

Charlie Parker in Time

Anthony Braxton: When I first heard Charlie Parker – the record was Bird on 52nd Street – that record frightened me. It frightened me, and it was the most exciting music I’d ever heard and it was also talking about partials that I could not, as a young man, understand exactly.

Graham Lock: Partials?

Braxton: Spiritual partials, vibrational particles, upper-scientific partials – different levels with respect to a given subject. Charlie Parker solidified all of the language dynamics that took place in his time period and, like Louis Armstrong before him, his language would express ... the brilliance of the era and all the people who had worked to solidify bebop ...

Graham Lock, Forces in Motion (Quartet Books: London, 1988), p.64.

Charlie Parker, alto saxophonist, composer, heroin addict, genius, born and raised in Kansas City, born on the Kansas side, raised on the Missouri side, born in 1920, schooled in his teens in the blues and swing that conjoined in the Kansas City bands, the territory bands, like those of Count Basie and Jay McShann: he thrived on the most advanced jazz of his teens – Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins – and in 1939 discovered ways of using passing tones and chordal extension to enrich the harmonic material and melodic potential of the chords underpinning the popular song and blues that made up the lingua franca of jazz. It was an essential step for the construction of the music that would come to be known as bebop – rapid-fire, dissonant, chaotic – a music worked out in New York jam sessions that would remain largely underground and unknown in a four-year recording ban during the years of the Second World War as it became a style at once manic and ecstatic, cryptic or dissonant, worthy of Jim Crow, segregation, race riots and death camps, with the velocity of a V-2 rocket and the cultural explosiveness of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man.”

Parker’s friend Dizzy Gillespie put together an anarchic sequence of atonal bits around the phrase “Salt Peanuts,” a witty nihilist’s protest song, and Parker composed “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” not, as one might think, to commemorate a tropical vacation but rather a six-month incarceration in the California State Mental Hospital. Parker’s experience spoke of despair, terror, oblivion and he found a way to transform it into lightness and swing, the minor miracle of “Relaxin’ at Camarillo.” (In 1948 Olivia de Havilland would star in The Snake Pit, which was filmed there.)

The musical ideas that had begun to percolate in Parker’s head in 1939 came to brilliant fruition in the years between 1945 and 1952, on studio recordings for Savoy, Dial and the Norgran labels (later Verve) as well as a plethora of live recordings and radio broadcasts. Along the way, his nickname would change, shortening and transforming from “Yardbird” (one confined, akin to “jailbird”) to “Bird,” one that soars. While Bird’s music and health declined, the former from a lack of stimulation and a dependency on a vast reserve of brilliant licks that lined up with the changes he worked endlessly, the latter from a pharmacopeia of heroin, amphetamines, alcohol and other things as well as associated heart disease, his music had wide influence on the harmonic vocabulary of jazz and he became a figure in American mass culture, cursed genius, mad artist, his life a cautionary tale of creativity akin to that of Vincent van Gogh (as played by Kirk Douglas).

Parker was a frustrated figure who wanted to take his music in new directions and who was trapped by a social construct of race and economics that still consigned jazz to the steerage level of American show business. According to the great modernist composer Edgard Varèse, Parker “stopped by my place a number of times ... He’d come in and exclaim, ‘Take me as you would a baby and teach me music. I only write in one voice. I want to have structure. I want to write orchestra scores.’... He spoke of being tired of the environment his work relegated him to, ‘I’m so steeped in this and can’t get out,’ he said.” (quoted by Robert Reisner, cited by Lock in Forces in Motion, p.93)

It’s testimony to Parker’s singularity that it took so long for some of the best minds of African-American musical history to emerge from the shadow of his genius and the special mindset that bop had assumed. Parker’s erratic youthful brilliance had rewritten all the codes of jazz in a manner like his predecessor Louis Armstrong, rewriting the harmonic materials of the American popular song as they were used in improvisation.

The people who would find their way through the style and out of it took over a decade to do so. Parker’s immediately successful disciples worked at simplifying his language, emphasizing and amplifying the blues element, like Sonny Stitt and Lou Donaldson, eventually taking it all the way to the organ trio. Meanwhile his most gifted successors worked to reassemble the available materials and extend them into a new language.

As different as the musics of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman were, they were all restrained by the influence of Parker’s innovations, the need to absorb them, and the special limitations placed on jazz by its place in American culture. We can gauge to some extent the influence by the proximity. There are photos of Parker and Coltrane together, Coltrane worked with Dizzy Gillespie and was certainly aware and influenced by Parker when he was still in the navy at the end of World War II. The Los Angeles-based drummer Roy Porter was on 1946 Parker recording sessions; two years later he was recording with his own big band that included a teenage Eric Dolphy. It would be the mid-50s before Coltrane began to develop an original voice, and much of his work consisted literally of harmonic exploration. It would be 1958 before Dolphy would emerge as a highly distinctive extension of Parker and Ornette Coleman would first record his radical revision of bop.

Much of what had taken place in jazz in the preceding decade was at the formal level: the increasing complexity of the chordal underpinnings of hard bop, institutionalizing what Parker and Bud Powell had done on the fly to the changes of standards; the investigation of larger forms in the “third stream” music of John Lewis, Gunther Schuller, Charles Mingus and Jimmy Giuffre; the modal theories (and applications) of George Russell.

The fleetness of Charlie Parker’s line had effectively disembodied jazz. The movement from early jazz to Charlie Parker: it is possible to think of early jazz as an experience of a sound or a collection of unique sounds, a parallel to the complementary reality that you have to hear early jazz contrapuntally, all at once. Even handicapped by inferior recording and brief duration, early jazz is in part a miracle of sounds – as great as their lines were, one can hear Coleman Hawkins, Barney Bigard and Johnny Hodges, even Louis Armstrong and Lester Young, as essentially a quality of individual tone, a stable thing, a phenomenon in which time hypothetically stands still, sounds you can put on a pedestal, walk around and admire. If time is there as a quality of vibration, it’s different with Parker, whose line seemed too fleet to be reduced to single notes, it’s a sound that is simply the edge of a line. It is, in part, one of the elements of post-Parker jazz to embody Bird – the substantive honk of Rollins, the low-end blast that anchors a Dolphy line or contrasts with a squeal in the extreme upper register: How much weight does a sound need to fill out the nano-second of Bird-mind?

How odd that Dolphy and Cannonball Adderley both felt at once an allegiance to Parker and the broad, rich tone of Duke Ellington’s partner in sound, Johnny Hodges, or that Ornette both loosened the Bird line and tethered its sound to a narrative vocal grit akin to that of Charley Patton or Lightnin’ Hopkins. Everyone paid homage in different ways: There was Mingus’s “Bird Calls” (which opened with sounds imitative of literal birds), Coltrane’s “Lazy Bird,” Coleman’s “Bird Food” (the only standard he ever recorded was “Embraceable You,” once subject of a classic Parker rendition). Even Albert Ayler recorded Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce” on his first record, whether answering a question on an exam or making an act of supplication. On December 21, 1960, in one of the greatest days in the history of jazz recording, Eric Dolphy spent the afternoon making Free Jazz with Ornette Coleman, a record of immeasurable significance to everything that has happened in creative music since, then went to New Jersey to record his own LP Far Cry, which began with three tributes to Charlie Parker: pianist Jaki Byard’s “Mrs. Parker of K.C. (Bird’s Mother)” and “Ode to Charlie Parker” and Dolphy’s own “Far Cry.” It was as if Dolphy had just passed through something.

Parker has also been anchored by very different kinds of ballast, by the drive to convention and by the myth-marketing of Bird as genius and goof in traditional media. Consider the band Supersax, active in the early ‘70s, transcribing Parker improvisations and arranging them for a big band-style five-member saxophone section. The band made numerous LPs, even winning a Grammy for best performance by a jazz group. It puts the “thud” in orthodoxy and establishes the atomic weight of bombast, as if the actual cry of a desert mystic might be captured on psychic tape and arranged for a 1,000-voice choir in a cathedral of tomorrow (Warne Marsh – a brilliantly original saxophonist and a key Braxton influence – played in Supersax but was never given solo space on the band’s recordings).

That “thud” of course gets louder in the earnest orthodoxy of the revival of the 1980s, the recreationist devotion to fixed rhythms, chord changes and an increasingly narrow sense of variation, a nostalgia for an art without an art of its own, the Marsalis captivity. In 1988, Clint Eastwood produced and directed Bird, a feature film that emphasized the doomed creator. In 2015, the oddly-titled chamber opera Charlie Parker’s Yardbird – a variant on the traditional theme of “I saw my life flash before my eyes” – debuted in Philadelphia, with a score by Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder and librettist Bridgette A. Wimberly as a vehicle for the American tenor Lawrence Brownlee.

Very different investigations of Parker and his music, however, have their own creative dimension. In 1978 the German arranger Heiner Stadler created a brilliant contrapuntal study of the bop masters’ themes in Tribute to Bird and Monk, employing a multi-generational band that included trombonist George Lewis and trumpeter Thad Jones. In 1979 Lewis presented his own Homage to Charles Parker at the Moers Festival, a richly textured work of profound mystery and imagination constructed of acoustic and electronic sound. Butch Morris created a piece in tribute to Parker at New York’s Charlie Parker Festival. Called Ornithology, Conduction No.44; the piece featured Arthur Blythe soloing on alto saxophone to the accompaniment of massed flutes and Christian Marclay’s turntables.

Anthony Braxton’s treatment of Parker’s “Donna Lee” on a contra-bass clarinet in 1974 maintains the speed of the line while anchoring it at the lowest possible frequency, thus rendering the line substantial. It’s an act of genius that makes the original Parker line almost sculptural in its mass. So again, the great historical movement of jazz (which is also the conceptual movement of America) is from Yardbird to Bird, the nickname moving from a specific and degrading confinement to a symbol of freedom, whether from gravity to a liberty without household or memory (Bird, come home), in which the line liberated must be grounded to assume new meanings and spread.

Stuart Broomer © 2018

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