Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

Happy Birthday, Bird. Had he not died while watching television at the New York apartment of his friend and patron, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, at the age of only 34, Charlie Parker would have been 83 today. That's not so ancient, really, especially when one considers that the likes of Clark Terry, only four months younger than Bird, are still performing. But because he died so young, Parker is fixed in that time, his career terminated by his demons and excesses, and he seems a figure from history in a way that his contemporaries don't: though Powell, Mingus, Gillespie and Monk are all dead as well, they lived long enough to be well documented by the ever-advancing recording industries.

You can listen to these musicians on good, crisp albums with the quality of reproduction that became available from the Fifties onwards, many of which, such as Mingus's Ah Um or Tijuana Moods, were landmarks in themselves. You can see footage of them playing or relaxing in unexpected company, such as Dizzy linking arms with Fidel Castro. Their presences could be experienced by a greater number, and then commemorated in the minds of those lucky enough to have seen Monk using his elbow on the keyboard or Gillespie's cheeks puff out while he blew through his trademark trumpet, its bell sticking out 45 degrees upward.

Bird, however, is ill-served by recordings, of which too many are scratchy affairs where the brilliance of his alto saxophone can only be enjoyed over a rhythm section rendered din-like through poor mic-ing. It's ironic that a better film was made about Powell's life, Bertrand Tavernier's Round Midnight, than Parker's, Clint Eastwood's Bird was dull and slow in comparison (the latter being quite a feat, as Round Midnight is hardly the paciest of movies).

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why, though Parker is considered one of the major figures in the lineage, to modern jazz musicians possibly the major figure, he is neglected. Despite the occasional revisionist proposition, Parker is generally credited with being the most important developer of the bebop idiom in the post-war years. Popular appeal is discarded, jazz becomes an art form appreciated by a much smaller audience and modern jazz, the New Testament, begins. But how often do you hear his music played? It's actually a surprise when "Ornithology" or "Yardbird Suite" are on the set-list, whereas standards by other beboppers, "A Night in Tunisia" or "Well You Needn't", crop up regularly, and tunes by Trane and Davis, his musical heirs, are commonplace.

It's almost as though Parker was John the Baptist to Davis's Messiah, even though the former's lifespan and relatively brief period of revelation are a more obvious parallel to that of the carpenter from Nazareth. Moreover, Davis enjoyed long dominion over the world and all the trappings of success. Parker, on the other hand, knew what it was like to be the prophet not honoured in his own country, as shown by the celebrated incident when Jo Jones unscrewed a cymbal and threw it at the saxophonist's feet in scorn at his playing.

Ultimately, I think it's because Parker's music is still difficult, frenetic and complex compared with the more stripped-down harmony of hard bop. Although more complicated music came again later, there's one big difference. Parker said he always tried to find the pretty notes. That's not something the avant-garde ever seemed to try very hard to do, but recapturing the beauty of Bird's music remains an awesome challenge. Maybe it's in the nature of divinity that you can never get too close to the gods.