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Charlie Parker: Why Bird Lives 100 Years On

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Charlie Parker: Why Bird Lives 100 Years On
Charlie Parker on the bandstand at Billy Berg’s CLub Hollywood Califorfnia in this 1945 AP file photograph

Meanwhile Jazz had seduced artists from all over the world. The incomparable Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, visiting the US and living in New York between 1929 and 1930 wrote about Jazz in the same vein as he did the Deep Song of Andalusia. Mr Lorca heard the deep song of piercing Flamenco saetas in the Blues of Jazz in New York. He immortalised this in some of the poetry that appeared in his seminal book Poeta en Nueva York [Poet in New York]. It is striking to remember that Mr Lorca believed that white society was ruinously appropriating Negro culture and balked at the performances of Jazz by white musicians when he was in New York. He wasn’t alone. A whole generation of musicians and artists in the US also felt this way, even as many – both black and white – believed that musicians such as Mr Parker were destroying The Music.

“I don’t care if you listen to my music or not.” This is what Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk are believed to have said as the backlash to their music came fast and furious in the 1940s. Mr Baraka said that “This attitude certainly must have mystified the speakeasy-Charleston-Cotton-Club set of white Americans, who had identified jazz only with liberation from the social responsibilities of full citizenship”. [“The Modern Scene”, Blues People, p 188, 1963] Meanwhile, as Charlie Parker had helped restore music – Black American music – to its rightful glory, and where it mattered most – in a realm where the artist dwelled, for instance – the true artist had already recognized its importance in the history of human history. For instance, Igor Stravinsky in 1916 was already opining: “I know little about American music except that of the music halls… but I consider that unrivaled. It is veritable art and I can never get enough of it to satisfy me… I am convinced of the absolute truth in the utterance of that form of American art.”

And as music critic Alex Ross writes in his book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, the admiration was mutual: “Jazz musicians sat up in their seats when Stravinsky’s music started playing: he was speaking something close to their language. When Charlie Parker came to Paris in 1949, he marked the occasion by incorporating the first notes of The Rite of Spring [from the Augurs of Spring movement] into his solo on “Salt Peanuts.” Two years later, playing Birdland in New York, the bebop master spotted Stravinsky at one of the tables and immediately incorporated a motif from The Firebird Suiteinto “Koko,” causing the composer to spill his scotch in ecstasy. Ragtime and jazz influences emerged in Stravinsky’s 1918 Faustian theatrical work, L’histoire du soldat [“The Soldier’s Tale”], as well as the 1919 Piano-Rag-Music. The composer reportedly admired the music of Art Tatum, Charlie Parker and the guitarist Charlie Christian.”

Charlie Parker not only put his stamp on music, but also left a lasting impression on a legion of great artists who lived during his time and ever after. The great Sheila Jordan, a living, legendary poster poster child for Jazz, who is now 91 years old always reminds us of the time when she first heard Charlie Parker when she was a teenager, living in Detroit: “Four notes,” she says, “He played just four notes and I said, ‘Oh my God. That’s it. That’s the music I will dedicate my life to.’” Later, she followed Parker to New York, where he became a lifelong teacher, passing on the lessons of the great Black tradition of music even as he became a big brother to her. While Sheila Jordan is one of Mr Parker’s greatest advocates, music today is full of those who continually pay homage to his legacy, from iconic ones such as Sonny Rollins who cite him as one who showed the way, to Rudresh Mahanthappa, an alto saxophonist who continues to explore Mr Parker’s complex music in his latest venture entitled Hero Trio [Whirlwind Records, 2020].

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