Thursday, March 12, 2015

This Day in Jazz History (‘Bird’ Parker Loses Velocity)

March 12, 1955—The drug-related death of alto saxophonist Charlie Parker at age 34 did more than just highlight how many in the postwar jazz community were victimized by substance abuse. It also cut short the life of an extraordinary figure who, by rights, should have gone on influencing musicians of all kinds for at least another generation.

Parker’s friend and patron, Nica de Koenigswarter, discovered his body slumped over in an easy chair in front of the TV set in her New York City home. What stunned me when I first heard about it—and, I bet, anyone else with no firsthand knowledge of drugs—was that the coroner had originally believed the deceased to be at least two decades older than his real age.

One not surprised was biographer Stanley Crouch, who, in profiling Parker decades after his death in Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz (2006), noted that his musical gifts were “laid low by his inability to stop fatally polluting and tampering with the flesh and blood source of his energy, with his own body.”

It was an all-too-common phenomenon in the jazz world of the Forties and Fifties. In a blog post for the British Psychological Society, Christian Jarrett cites a 1957 survey by critic Nat Hentoff which found that, among more than 400 New York City jazz musicians, more than half had tried heroin, with 16 percent admitting to regular use. The list here of those whose lives would be terribly disrupted by drugs, such as Parker, is long and, I would have to say, incomplete: not just Parker but also his protégé, Miles Davis (whom I wrote about in a prior post), Billie Holliday, Stan Getz, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Chet Baker, and Anita O’Day.

Crouch used another word, “velocity,” to describe the life-altering events crammed into Parker’s life between ages 16 and 20. But that term applies equally well to the creativity of the musician. “Bird” was a most appropriate nickname for him, because of the manner in which his imagination took flight.

I just spoke of my surprise over how rapidly his body aged, but I am perhaps even more astounded by how quickly he matured in mastering his instrument—from a teenager who was often laughed at or pitied as he first fumbled around, to a musician who, a mere decade later, set the standard in helping to pioneer the bebop movement. Cootie Williams of Duke Ellington's band once said, "Every instrument in the band tried to copy Charlie Parker, and in the history of jazz there had never been one man who influenced all the instruments."

Critic Gary Giddins may have summed up the towering achievement of Parker’s life better than anyone in his anthology, Visions of Jazz: The First Century (1998): “Parker altered the rhythmic and harmonic currents of music, and he produced a body of melodies—or more to the point, a way of melodic thinking—that became closely identified with the idea of jazz as a per­sonal and intellectual modern music.”

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