Hitting A Rising Ball: 50 Years Later, Bird Still Lives

Hitting A Rising Ball
50 Years Later, Bird Still Lives

by Mike Zwerin

copyright © 2005 Mike Zwerin

Listening to Charlie Parker, who died 50 years ago on March 12, the first thing you thought about was freedom. Still is.

The late tennis legend Don Budge, who was also a legendary jazz fan, built his style on hitting the ball hard while it was still on the rise. "I guess Charlie Parker played like he was hitting a rising ball," Budge said. "The cats must have spent a lot of time trying to figure that one out." A variety of very different people had being turned around by Bird in common: Budge, Jack Kerouac, Clint Eastwood, Louis Malle, Astor Piazzolla, Boris Vian, Freddie Heineken, Donald Fagen, Alan Greenspan, Donald Justice, and former French prime minister Jacques Delors, for example. In his memoir Chronicles, Volume 1, Bob Dylan wrote that during his early years in Greenwich Village he'd met a lot of people who acted as though "Bird had transmitted some secret essence of life to them."

The nickname either came from Yardbird, a southern word for chicken (Bird liked chicken), or from the way he flew over the fast-moving, modulating chords of Ray Noble's "Cherokee." Take your pick. He could fly. Parker's music was a door-opening combination of courage, sophistication, physical strength and street smarts. He told the critic Nat Hentoff that he wanted to make a recording with six woodwinds, a harp, and a vocal chorale, using Paul Hindemith's "Kleine Kammermusik" as a model. He quoted phrases from Prokofiev's "Scythian Suite" and Bizet's "Carmen" in his solos. "I had the pleasure of meeting Edgar Varese," he once said on Boston radio: "The French composer. He was very nice to me. He's willing to teach me. He wants to compose something for me."

After he met Jean-Paul Sartre, Sartre was asked what they had talked about. "Parker told me about his wish to study harmony at the Paris Conservatoire," he replied. "We talked about modern music." It has been said that Parker could converse with rocket scientists, brain surgeons, chess players, gourmet chefs and so on, and that he liked to shoot the breeze with neighborhood white folks. But insisting on his wide-ranging spirit — which was, in fact, remarkable — has become something of a condescension. Thanks to a great degree to Parker, it is no longer newsworthy when a jazz musician listens to Hindemith. That he would feel the need to brag about a serious composer being seriously interested in him is kind of sad. He was so much more than the wasted, uneducated black man named Charlie playing bebop in gin joints most Americans took him for. He was making the serious music of his time. Think of the alienation. It is not surprising that heroin was central to his huddle.

The newly released CD, Inglewood Jam: Bird and Chet Live at The Trade Winds (Fresh Sounds) captures a jam session in a Polynesian restaurant in Inglewood, California, on June 16, 1952. 'Jam session' is a euphemism for playing for free. An unpaid Tuesday night in the 1950s in an obscure club in the suburbs of Los Angeles with about 20 people in the room must have been a downer. You can practically hear the gloom, the opiates, the flash of color in a black-and-white world. Imagine the paranoia. It was not one of Bird's best nights, the 22-year old Chet Baker was floundering on trumpet, and the piano was out of tune and tinny.

Bebop expanded the accepted ear. Basically, the name is a nonsense sound; like dada. Over the years, an army of beboppers co-opted Bird's licks until they began to sound like Woody Woodpecker. He once thanked the young altoman Lee Konitz for "not playing like me." When Django Reinhardt heard Bird and Dizzy Gillespie for the first time after the war, he said: "They play so fast. I don't know if I can keep up with them." Bebop was perceived as a threat. Louis Armstrong sang about those "poor little boppers who lost their way."

By the time of his death at the age of 35, Parker had become a sick, burnt-out junkie and alcoholic. Mostly, though, as his fellow bebopper Thelonious Monk once put it, he was "tired of trying to please them." Passing an evening with his friend Baroness Nica de Koenigswater, a Rothschild heiress, in her apartment in the Stanhope Hotel on Fifth Avenue, he began to feel poorly. She called her doctor, who, guessing he was 60, asked him if he drank alcohol. "Sometimes I take a sherry before dinner," Bird replied. He broke into uncontrollable laughter as he and the baroness watched some jugglers on Tommy Dorsey's variety television show. He liked Tommy Dorsey. Then he began to cough, throw up, wretch and, spookily synchronized with a loud clap of thunder over Central Park, he passed away.

Music students still analyze Parker's improvisations on compositions with names like "Ornithology," "Klactoveedsedstene," and "Little Willie Leaps." Half a century after Parker's death, 11-1/2-year-old Cooper Copetas, who lives in Paris and has been playing the alto saxophone for three-and-a-half years, says: "He plays really fast. I like that. And he plays a good soft tune. Bird's music keeps going."

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