From Jazz Collector:
‘Bird’: The Biggest Bopper of All
By Al Perlman
April 13, 1975
It was the only word that fit.
The band had been on stage for more than an hour without its leader, without the man the throng had come to see and hear – Charles Christopher Parker Jr. He was backstage stuffing his face with tacos, tamales, enchiladas, tortillas, beer and Gordon’s Gin, but then he was ready. He put the food down and grabbed his alto sax. The band was playing “Cherokee.” The tempo was fast and powerful, like a pneumatic drill ripping apart concrete.
The fans could hear him as he moved from backstage to the center of the club, playing all the way. “The Bird” was in flight. Notes poured from his horn like sparks from an erupting volcano. The speed at which they flowed was incomprehensible to the young black man in the tweed suit and horn-rimmed glasses, as were the melodies they formed, each one stemming from, yet more beautiful than, the one before it.
The young listener could take no more. He climbed atop a table and shouted the only word that fit, the only word he knew to describe Charlie Parker.
He was right. Unfortunately, too many took too long to realize it.
During his lifetime, Parker, who died poverty-stricken at the age of 34 in 1955, received adulation only from fellow musicians and a select group of “hipsters.” By the time most critics and fans recognized his genius, Parker was mentally and physically wasted from, among other things, heroin addiction, alcoholism and artistic frustration. Critical acclaim was, by then, of no use to him.
The Parker story parallels the stories of Dylan Thomas and Lenny Bruce – two other remarkable talents who appeared well before the general public was ready to accept them. Each man had immense talent. Each died young. Each had a twist in his personality, caused by addiction to alcohol, dope or both. Each had a love-hate relationship with friends and family. And each, in his own way, was at the vanguard of an artistic and social revolution. Parker had one added burden. He was black.
He did not begin to achieve recognition outside his native Kansas City until 1941, when he was 21. By then, he had spent a lot of time woodshedding, jamming and playing with Kansas City bands. Although he had no formal training, he had begun to develop the musical style with which he would be identified for the rest of his life.
He had already developed the personal style that would also remain with him. He was in his fifth year of heroin addition. He had already been married, a father and separated from his wife and son. He had long since finished high school where he spent three years and wound up in the ninth grade. He had, since the age of 11, cultivated a taste of the nightlife, a taste he would never lose, and he had picked up the nickname “Yardbird,” later shortened to “Bird,” probably given to him as a result of his fondness for friend chicken.
The year 1939 was Parker’s turning point. It was during a jam session at an all-night chili joint in Harlem that Bird, as he said later, “came alive.” The story of him working over the changes of “Cherokee” and “discovering” that he could use the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line to get a new sound and a new feel is, by now, legend.
From there he moved straight to the forefront of the “bebop revolution.” Along with a number of other young musicians, Parker overturned everything that had been taught about jazz. The boppers changed the rhythms, played at never-before-dreamed-of tempi, played in small groups rather than big bands, played on chord changes that seemed to have no logical flow and did whatever else they wanted, as long as it hadn’t been done before.
The also berated older musicians, calling them Uncle Toms, turned their backs on audiences, hid behind berets, goatees and dark glasses and developed an exclusive “bop language” only the hip could understand, let alone speak.
They alienated older musicians and critics (one critic said, “Bebop sounds to me like a hardware store in an earthquake”) but knowledgeable jazz fans and younger musicians created enough interest in the new music that, by 1945, a good bop musician could make a living in New York City. And there was no better bopper than Charlie Parker.
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