August 24, 2007
Chasin’ the Bird: A Field Guide to Charlie Parker
THE 15TH ANNUAL CHARLIE PARKER JAZZ FESTIVAL, featuring free outdoor concerts, takes place tomorrow and Sunday. Tomorrow at 3 p.m., Abbey Lincoln, Chico Hamilton, Marc Cary and Lezlie Harrison perform in Marcus Garvey Park, between Fifth and Madison Avenues, from 120th to 124th Streets, Harlem. Sunday at 3 p.m., Ms. Lincoln, Mr. Hamilton, Maurice Brown and Todd Williams perform in Tompkins Square Park, between Avenues A and B from 7th to 10th Streets, East Village; cityparksfoundation.org.
JAZZ WEEK IN THE MUSEUMS The National Jazz Museum in Harlem is sponsoring two events at different locations. Sunday at 2 p.m., a film screening at the Museum of the City of New York features clips that showcase Parker, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong and other musicians associated with Harlem; Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street; (212) 534-1672, Ext. 3395. Suggested admission: $9; $5 for students and 62+; free for children under 12, and for everyone from 10 a.m. to noon; $20 for families. Tuesday at 7 p.m., “Jazz for Curious Listeners,” a combined music and lecture course by the saxophonist Jimmy Heath, at the Harlem School of the Arts, 645 St. Nicholas Avenue; reservations, (212) 348-8300. Free.
Charlie Parker, Uptown and Down
By NATE CHINEN
In “Bird Alone,” one of the terse and symbolically charged songs Abbey Lincoln chose to revisit on her recent album “Abbey Sings Abbey” (Verve), there are no specific references to Charlie Parker. But any jazz fan would recognize this alto saxophonist and bebop progenitor, whose sobriquet was Bird (or Yardbird), in Ms. Lincoln’s lyrics. The airborne creature of the title is untouchable and inscrutable, “Sending mournful soulful sounds/Soaring over troubled grounds.” After gliding high and swinging low, it vanishes, leaving only a song.
That image provides an apt tribute to Parker, whose mercurial genius galvanized jazz in the 1940s and ’50s, and whose influence endures more than half a century after his death. An equally fitting homage is offered by the 15th annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, which takes place this weekend at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem and Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, places that bear some relevance to the life Parker led in New York.
Ms. Lincoln, who turned 77 this month, is scheduled to make a rare appearance — two in fact, one at each location — as is the veteran drummer Chico Hamilton, 85, who will perform a new composition for sextet inspired by Parker and commissioned by the festival.
And each of the concerts will surely entail a memorial to Max Roach, the pioneering drummer and close Parker associate who died last week at 83. Mr. Roach set an inventive percussive precedent that Mr. Hamilton adopted and personalized. Mr. Roach’s connection to Ms. Lincoln was more direct: In 1960 they worked together on his landmark album “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,” and in 1962 they were married. (They divorced in 1970.)
On a fundamental level, though, the festival pays homage to Parker and his footprint in the city. In many ways he was the quintessential New York hero: a maverick and bon vivant, a subject of notoriety and myth. He loved the city, and he toasted it outright with a tune called “Scrapple From the Apple” that was recorded in a New York studio 60 years ago this fall and almost immediately became popular with musicians. (Along with a catchy melody, it had a familiar harmonic progression, with elements of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” and George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.”)
“Charlie Parker became a New Yorker,” said the jazz historian Phil Schaap, whose Parker-fixated weekday radio program, “Bird Flight,” has been heard in its current form on WKCR (89.9 FM) since 1981. “That was important to him, and he felt great about it, and he enjoyed New York nightlife as well as he dominated it for a while.”
Like so many celebrated New Yorkers Parker came from somewhere else. He was born in Kansas City, Kan., on Aug. 29, 1920, and began his musical career across the state line in Kansas City, Mo., during the waning days of its biggest nightlife boom. The depth of that experience will be a principal subject of “Kansas City Lightning: The Life and Times of the Young Charlie Parker,” a long-gestating biography by the critic Stanley Crouch due out from Pantheon next year.
Parker made his first foray to New York in 1939, on the heels of Buster Smith, his fellow saxophonist and Kansas City mentor. While crashing at Mr. Smith’s apartment, he hit jam sessions at Harlem spots like Clark Monroe’s Uptown House on West 134th Street.
“The only place he could really meet musicians who were going to help him realize his goals would have been New York, and specifically Harlem at that time,” the saxophonist and historian Loren Schoenberg said recently by phone from the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, where he is executive director. The museum’s August programming has been pointedly Parker-centric; next Tuesday the final lecture of the month takes place at the Harlem School of the Arts.
Lore has it that Parker’s initial Harlem sojourn included toiling as a dishwasher at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, where the fearsome pianist Art Tatum held court. At another uptown spot, Dan Wall’s Chili House, Parker had what he later described as an epiphany, during one of many sessions with a guitarist named Biddy Fleet.
In an interview a decade later with Down Beat magazine, Parker recalled that he had tired of the stereotypical chord voicings then in use. “I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else,” he said. “I could hear it sometimes, but I couldn’t play it.” One night in 1939, improvising over the Ray Noble tune “Cherokee,” he brought his idea to life. “And bop was born,” Down Beat added, putting the kicker on a story so irresistible that Thomas Pynchon slipped it into his epic novel “Gravity’s Rainbow.”
But bebop was no more traceable to a solitary bolt of inspiration than Parker’s complex style was. And bebop’s infancy had to wait a while as Parker returned to Kansas City, where he resumed ties with the pianist Jay McShann. For the next couple of years he worked in the Jay McShann Orchestra, playing “Cherokee” as a solo feature.
Among the earliest known recordings of Parker is a broadcast of the McShann band’s debut at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem on Feb. 13, 1942. The engagement, effectively Parker’s first big splash in New York City, attracted the notice of many local musicians, including a few, like the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who were invited to sit in.
Later that year, after erratic behavior earned him an unceremonious dismissal, Parker set himself up in New York, eventually joining Gillespie in the ranks of a band led by the pianist Earl Hines. Because of a recording ban imposed by the musicians’ union at the time, there is little documentation of this group. Nor is there much recorded evidence of Parker and Gillespie’s occasional forays to Minton’s Playhouse, the so-called laboratory of bebop. Or of Parker’s work at Monroe’s, where he enlisted a whip-smart Max Roach, still in his teens.
The innovations of this period happened in spite of Parker’s rapacious vices, including a heroin addiction that began in Kansas City. His peers in the Hines and McShann bands would later recall his penchant for nodding off onstage. He spent the first few months of 1944 back in Kansas City, missing bebop’s first incursion onto swing-centered 52nd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues: a Gillespie-spearheaded engagement at the Onyx Club.
But when Gillespie headlined another serious run on 52nd Street — at the Three Deuces, beginning in March 1945 — Parker joined him. By then most insiders knew about his characteristic unreliability. When the Gillespie-Parker quintet appeared at Town Hall that June, the radio host Symphony Sid Torin began his broadcast with what may have been a reflexive disclaimer: “I don’t know whether Charlie has come in yet.”
The fearless brilliance of the music Parker was making — at the Town Hall concert, a recording of which was issued two years ago, and contemporaneous studio sessions, especially the one that yielded “Koko,” his masterpiece elaboration on “Cherokee” — may explain why so many musicians copied his excesses, and so many loved ones put up with his manipulative abuses.
Probably no one endured more than the two women who were pulled into his orbit. Doris Sydnor, who had an apartment on Manhattan Avenue near 117th Street, became Parker’s third wife. Chan Richardson, who was living in an apartment with her mother on 52nd Street, came to be considered his wife even though they never married. Both women happened to be working as nightclub checkroom attendants in 1945. A decade later both grieved as widows, competing for the claim.
A harbinger of Parker’s death came in 1946, during a visit to California: He was arrested and committed to a state hospital. After six grueling months he gratefully returned to New York, moving with Doris into the Dewey Square Hotel in Harlem. He had kicked heroin, but only momentarily, and he had started drinking heavily.
“At this time, 1947, bop was going like mad all over America,” Jack Kerouac later wrote in “On the Road,” invoking Parker. But the madness was most acute in Kerouac’s New York City, where fanatical followers began cataloging Parker’s solos and a downtown bohemian subculture claimed him as its existential hero.
“Charlie Parker was really the only person who could unite in his experience the downtown avant-garde scene, with painters and self-conscious artists, and the Harlem jazz scene, which has always been more in harmony with the functional roots of the music,” Mr. Schoenberg of the Jazz Museum said. That partly explains the duality of the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, which attracts a different audience for each of its free afternoon concerts.
It also jibes with the recollection of the great drummer Roy Haynes, 82, who in a phone conversation last week described not only working uptown with Parker in the 1950s but also visiting the apartment on Avenue B where Parker was then living with Chan.
“We opened Birdland together,” Mr. Haynes added, referring to the defunct nightclub on Broadway near 52nd Street, rather than the current club of the same name on West 44th Street. “Bird was very excited about that. I remember on opening night there were lines of people outside, waiting in bad weather.”
Parker did not own Birdland — that distinction belonged mainly to the infamous music-business operator Morris Levy — but the club’s name confirmed the height of his celebrity. “In 1946,” Mr. Schaap said, “Parker was under arrest, he was institutionalized, he was depressed, relatively few people knew him, his future was in grave doubt, even his life expectancy was in grave doubt. Three years later, arguably the best-known nightclub in New York City history is named for him using his nickname alone, in the diminutive.”
More recognition followed. By the 1950s Parker was finally winning jazz polls, and he had some popular success with “Just Friends” (from his sessions with strings) and “My Little Suede Shoes” (from a Latin-themed date that included Mr. Haynes). According to Mr. Schaap, Parker was enjoying the amenities of the city, from taxicabs to municipal swimming pools.
But when, in the summer of 1951, Parker’s state-issued cabaret license was revoked, he was barred from working in New York. As his condition deteriorated and the jazz world grew crowded with his imitators, he was forced to seek work on the road. And in 1954, when Chan sent word that their 2-year-old daughter, Pree, had died of pneumonia, the shock sent Parker into a tailspin.
His final descent was brutal: botched engagements, a suicide attempt, confinement at Bellevue, lurid tabloid speculation. Days after a ruinous last stand at Birdland, Parker stopped at the Hotel Stanhope, home of the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, a jazz patron with aristocratic pedigree. He stayed a few days, under some supervision by her doctor, and died there on March 12, 1955. The technical cause was pneumonia, but his 34-year-old body was so thoroughly ravaged that the doctor estimated his age as 53.
In seemingly no time the defiant inscription “Bird Lives!” began appearing on otherwise unmarked subway station walls. The poet Ted Joans eventually owned up to starting the trend, but he could hardly account for its proliferation. This weekend’s festivities convey precisely the same message, and it will still feel more or less true, perhaps because both the music and the city have conspired to keep it that way.