I came alive. I could fly

2010-09-04 14:01

There’s probably no more tragic and paradoxical ­figure in the history of jazz than the messianic saxophonist Charles “Yardbird” Parker. While he was irrevocably altering the course of musical ­history with his remarkable ­genius, Parker also risked and ­suffered immense personal harm in the service of his ­uncontrollable ­addictions and ­experimentations.

But he couldn’t help it. Yardbird or simply “Bird”, as he was affectionately called by his admirers, was a man possessed by destiny.

In the aftermath of the Great Depression, at a time when the dominant sound was the swing music of a generation drunk with the urge to dance, Parker came to free music from the tyranny of popular taste.

He was part of a select group of musicians dedicated to finding new ways to express themselves – drummer Kenny Clarke had ­created a new way of using ­accents, and pianist Thelonious Monk along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie had already asked the musical questions that led to a new way of playing chords.

But this was not enough. These guys had the music but lacked the “pyrotechnics”. Then Parker came along and transformed it all with his immaculate phrasing.

Gillespie, Parker’s ­lifelong ­creative partner and friend, said: “We heard him and knew the ­music had to go his way.”

Parker had discovered, during his tenure with Jay McShann’s ­orchestra, that the 12 tones of the chromatic scale can lead ­melodically to any key.

However, it was only in 1939 during a jam session at Dan Wall’s Chilli House that ­Parker made his grand discovery.

He was playing a Charlie ­Barnet number called Cherokee with guitarist William “Biddy” Fleet when he found a new ­method for developing his solos.
It involved building on the chords’ extended intervals such as ninths, ­elevenths, and thirteenths.

Parker could finally play what he had been hearing in his head for some time.

He is quoted as having said: “I came alive. I could fly.”

The new thing would be known as bebop, a brand of jazz ­characterised by virtuoso playing and machine-fast tempos that ­bewildered most listeners.

This devotion to speed in his approach to music mirrored his personal life. Parker was given his first saxophone by his mother, Addie Parker, when he turned 13.

At age 15 he dropped out of school, at 16 he married and by the time he became a professional musician at 17, he was already ­addicted to heroin.

Parker fathered his first child at 18. By the time he died, he had ­married four times.

He passed away on March 12 1955. The physician who examined him ­estimated his age at between 50 and 60 but he was only 34. He died of lobar pneumonia ­complicated by cirrhosis of the liver.

Parker’s alcohol and drug ­demons were perhaps at their height in the mid-1940s when he toured the West Coast with Gillespie and others.

At the end of that engagement, Parker stayed behind, spending a number of months in Los ­Angeles. This is when he worked with gifted trumpeter Miles Davis.

In July 1946, while suffering from malnutrition and alcoholism, he recorded the now-famous ­Lover Man.

During this recording session, legend has it that Parker was so drunk the producer had to hold him up while he played.

Parker’s compulsion to find ­intense ecstasy in everything he did is part of his gift to the world. It has created the quest for efficacy that jazz in its present state ­affords its lovers.

Jazz, since Parker touched it, is perhaps the music that ­offers the greatest opportunities for experimentation.

Bird came to personify the idea of the jazz ­musician as an ­uncompromising artist and ­intellectual, and not a mere ­popular entertainer.

Charles “Yardbird” Parker Jr was born on August 29 1920 in Kansas City, Kansas. His father, Charles Sr, earned a living as a singer and dancer before he found work as a chef.

Parker comes from a rich ­Kansas blues tradition and that’s part of his strength.

He takes after Coleman Hawkins, Don Byrs and Lester Young who played with great ­harmonic panache and touched many other saxophonists.

But Parker trumped them too and was imitated by all ­instrumentalists in jazz – even ­vocalists wanted to sound like him.

Perhaps Parker’s greatest gift to us, as critic Gary Giddings said, is “the uncorrupted humanity of his music”.

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