When most people think about creative musical geniuses who shone bright, lived fast, and died young, they most often think of rock music icons like Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain or Keith Moon. But the trend began LONG before the rock era. The classic film Amadeus highlighted the fast life and early death of Mozart, and there were many other influential composers and musicians of the pre-recorded music era such as Franz Schubert and Frederick Chopin who died while in the midst of amassing a library of great music that would influence musicians and composers centuries later.
In the 20th century the great composer George Gershwin, who aside from composing great musicals and songs is the man largely responsible for the standard song form in popular music used to this day on hits you hear every day on the radio … he died of a brain tumor at 38.
This weekend marked what would have been the 90th birthday of one of the greatest figures in the history of jazz, and one of the greatest instrumentalists of all time — Charlie Parker. Yet at the same time we recently passed the 55th anniversary of Parker’s death at the young age of 34 from a cause of pneumonia that was really more a matter of a young man whose brilliance and creativity were coupled with a restless workaholic spirit that allowed him to forever change music and a reckless and self-destructive penchant that resulted in a body that simply gave out on him in the end.
Here he is in a video from 1951, having already transformed modern music through the development of bebop, changing the rhythmic structure to the point that swing musicians couldn’t fathom the changes, and extending the harmonic vocabulary to the point where as great a musician as Cab Calloway referred to the new music as sounding like ‘Chinese music’.
As noted in this film short ‘The Death of Charlie Parker’, the coroner estimated Parker to be between 55 and 60 years old, when in fact he was only 34 years old.
Looking at the images above:
- The top image is from 1945 and shows Parker with a 19 year old Miles Davis and up-and-coming tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon (he was 22, whereas the ‘jazz elder’ Parker was 25). Although Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, known as ‘Bird & Diz’, were the creators of bebop, it was the recordings of Bird and Miles from 1945 that form the popular introduction of the music to the general public.
- The second one features the two main architects of bebop – Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie – at the club Birdland, named for Parker. It was only 1951 but Parker’s legend and legacy were already tremendous … even if the general public couldn’t ‘get’ much of what he was doing. To the right is a 25-year-old John Coltrane was playing occasionally with Dizzy’s group, but it would be more than 4 years before he joined Miles Davis and became a major figure in jazz.
As I mentioned, it was the 1945 Bird & Miles recordings that are noted as the real classics of bebop. Why is this? Two reasons: first off, unlike current efforts, World War II impacted every corner of American life and the need for rubber for the military meant that there was none available to make the thick 78RPM disks. Second, from early 1942 to late 1944 a contract clash between record labels and the American Federation of Musicians meant no recordings were made during that time.
So the 1945 Bird & Miles recordings aren’t the first, but they captured the music in a fully developed form with tremendous musicianship on all fronts and with wonderful compositions from both Parker and Davis. The CD is one that I bought more than 25 years ago and remains on my iPod as it is a true enduring classic with decent sound quality. A related release is available at Amazon. Since things were not recorded and released as ‘albums’ until the 1950’s it is terribly difficult to gather up comprehensive collections of music from the 40’s or earlier.
It is always fashionable – and perhaps inevitable – to ask ‘what if?’ What would this person have done if they lived longer? What would the music of today be like? But unlike someone like Buddy Holly who died tragically of an event outside of their control (plane crash), Charlie Parker is part of the all-too-large community of self-destructive individuals whose choices and behavior certainly destroyed them, but might also have been tied directly to what drove them to be the creative geniuses they were.
So on Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker’s 90’s birthday, certainly let’s all hope that the creative people in the world find better ways to deal with their inner demons than heroin and handguns, but let us also celebrate the impact that their greatness had on the larger world, and the way their music has touched our own lives.
Here are a few more live videos:
First, Bird & Diz in a monster jam session!
Next, Parker with swing-era legend Coleman Hawkins – note the difference in attitude and approach between the two men:
Next, a 1943 live (audio only) recording of Bird & Diz playing Sweet Georgia Brown. The two horn players were playing full-on bebop, but the bassist & drummer were struggling between swing and bebop. Most swing musicians never really made the harmonic and rhythmic leap.
Finally, back in 1988 Clint Eastwood produced and directed a movie called ‘Bird’ that starred Forest Whitaker as Charlie Parker and looked at his life in a series of vignettes, Whitaker was wonderful as Parker, but the film earned controversy in part due to re-recording the rhythm sections to all of Parker’s classics.