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Looking for the Pretty Notes

April 2024
6min read

There appears to be no limit to our interest in the private lives of unhappy artists. As I write, a compelling best seller details the swift rise and interminable disintegration of Truman Capote, and a cockeyed one makes more of Picasso’s misogyny than of his painting; two new books chronicle the sour, sad life of Dorothy Parker; and in another, friends and enemies bicker over every one of Ernest Hemingway’s battle scars.

Although our interest in drunks and neurotics and egomaniacs like these was at least initially piqued by their work, biographers customarily slight their art in the interest of their eccentricities. Complacent envy helps fuel our fascination with artistic gossip; just think, we smile as we turn the page, how much better we would have done if we’d been given such gifts. So does the secret hope that in the course of reading about the supremely talented we will somehow discover the trick that separates them from us.

There is no trick, of course—genius defies analysis and is nontransferable—and the danger is that in such books the art gets lost among the aberrations that lesser talents like to imitate.

The alto saxophone player Charlie Parker, for example, is still remembered as much for his gargantuan appetites and the relentless pace with which he wrecked himself as for having forever altered American music, influencing every performer who came after him, no matter what instrument he or she played. It was once fashionable to blame all of Parker’s troubles on racial prejudice and the indifference he met from a public made uneasy by innovation. But that is too simple. As the jazz critic and historian Gary Giddins points out, “Racist and philistine societies are alike; every artist is unique,” and it is Giddins’s special achievement that the reader finishes his elegant biographical essay Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (Beech Tree Books, New York) with a fresh appreciation of Parker’s demanding music as well as a greater understanding of the troubled individual who made it.


Charles Parker, Jr., was born in 1920 in Kansas City, Kansas, and raised just across the Kaw River in Kansas City, Missouri. His father was a tap dancer turned Pullman chef who drank too much and deserted his wife and son before the boy was eleven. His mother spoiled her only child while demanding much of him.

Abandoned by his father, smothered by his mother, “Charlie was always old,” the first of his wives recalled. As a child he had few friends, kept his own counsel. Then, at thirteen, he found an emotional outlet in music, and his mother bought him his first saxophone. Barely an adolescent, he began to haunt the bars and bordellos that flourished just a few blocks from his home under the benevolent eye of Boss Tom Pendergast, steeping himself in the pulsing, blues-laced Kansas City jazz of which Count Basic became the most celebrated exponent. (It is a nice question whether history will ultimately give more credit to Pendergast for having helped produce Harry Truman or Charlie Parker.) No matter how esoteric and intricate Parker’s playing became, he never lost his link with that joyous music. Jay McShann, the bandleader who gave him his first important job, remembers that Parker always “loved to see people patting their foot, loved to see the people moving.” He got the nickname Bird, short for Yardbird, while still a growing boy in McShann’s band, when he insisted that the car in which he was riding pull over after hitting a stray chicken—a yardbird—so that he could have it fried up by his landlady.

He also married at sixteen and began to drink heavily and to use drugs—marijuana at first, then the Benzedrine inhalers dissolved in cups of black coffee that allowed him to play without sleep, night after night. At seventeen he was permanently hooked on heroin.

At twenty-one he stormed into New York, where his mesmerizing technique, enthusiasm for complex and frantic tempos, fondness for dissonance, and ability to create fresh melodies out of the chord structure of familiar tunes baffled older musicians. But to musicians of his own generation, already experimenting tentatively along the same lines, he seemed something like a prophet, pointing the way the music should go. Soon, one remembered, “There was everybody else and there was Charlie.”

Parker abhorred the word bebop applied by others to what he played. “It’s just music,” he said. “It’s trying to play clean and looking for the pretty notes.” Nothing musical was alien to him. He memorized the work of avantgarde composers, but a friend also remembered leaving him transfixed in a Manhattan snowstorm late one night, unable to tear himself away from the thump and blare of a Salvation Army band.

But when he was not playing, Parker once said, he was “always on a panic.” He borrowed money constantly, left a succession of wives and mistresses, nodded off on the bandstand, quarreled with colleagues, failed to turn up for work, or refused to play, once crying, “They just came out . . . to see the world’s most famous junkie.” He was barred from Birdland, the New York nightclub named in his honor.

He was never satisfied with his own work and was put off by the mythology that already threatened to engulf him before he was twenty-five. The acolytes who followed him from bandstand to bandstand, lugging wire recorders, which they turned on whenever he stepped forward to solo and clicked off the moment he finished, embarrassed him, and he was apalled by the worshipful musicians who emulated even his addiction in the hope that by sharing his habit, they could somehow share his genius too. He was helpless to stop them, though in his lucid moments he tried. “He kept drugs away from me,” a younger saxophone player remembered, “but after we’d spent a lot of time together, he injected himself in my presence and said, ‘This is something that i have to do. It’s terrible, but I’m stuck with it.’ It was terrifying to watch my hero do that. He made it as revolting as possible, as though it were a lecture on what not to do.”

In California, where he found himself playing in 1946 to audiences still more bewildered by his music than they had first been in New York, Parker’s descent accelerated. He turned up for one recording session without having made his connection, and on “Lover Man,” recorded that day, Giddins writes, an uncharacteristically tremulous Parker played “as though the shore were always one stroke beyond his grasp.” (Although Parker himself said the recording should have been “stomped into the ground,” record producers released it anyway.) That night he twice wandered into the lobby of his hotel naked, then fell asleep while smoking, setting his bed ablaze. He was hospitalized, remained clean for a while, then resumed his steady self-destruction.

By 1950 Parker was being hailed abroad as an important artist but was still largely ignored by the American press in favor of his great collaborator John Birks (“Dizzy”) Gillespie. a born showman as well as a trumpet player of astonishingly inventive virtuosity.

In 1952 the two innovators appeared together on a television variety show called “Stage Entrance.” The kinescope made that evening is all that we have of Parker in action, and the Downbeat awards ceremony that precedes it provides an excruciating example of the kind of condescension often displayed toward jazz even by those who believe themselves its boosters. The critic Leonard Feather delivers a stiff little speech about brotherhood, then hands the host, the Broadway gossip columnist Earl Wilson, wooden plaques to present to Parker and Gillespie. Wilson greets the musicians, offers up the plaques—making fun of Gillespie’s nickname as he does so —and then asks, “You boys have anything to say?”

Parker was appalled by musicians who emulated his addiction in the hope that by sharing his habit they could share his genius too.

For once Gillespie is speechless. Parker, his face without expression, his voice low and icily polite, replies, “They say music speaks louder than words, so we’d rather voice our opinion that way.”

During that voicing—a version of the bop anthem “Hot House”—Parker’s face remains impassive, his fierce eyes and the movement of his big fingers on the keys the only outward signs of the effort required to yield such brilliant, jagged cascades of sound.

When Parker died in New York on March 12, 1955, he was just thirty-four years old. The official cause was pneumonia, but he had simply worn himself out; the coroner estimated his age at between fifty-five and sixty.

When he got the news on a California bandstand, the alto saxophone player Frank Morgan remembers, he announced it to the audience, then took an extra-long break: “We proceeded to celebrate Bird’s death by doing the thing that had killed him . . . [used] some junk. I think it would have been better if we’d realized that ... it was the time to stop.”

You hear [Parker’s music] perhaps unexpectedly,” Giddins writes, “when you walk into a friend’s house, or on the car radio, or worked into a film score, and you are struck by the relentless energy, the uncorrupted humanity of his music. It is never without direction. This most restive, capricious of men is unequivocal in his art.”

It is Parker’s unequivocal art, not his equivocal life, that finally matters, and as if to ensure that we keep that fact in mind, Giddins has produced along with his book a videocassette adaptation of it (Sony Video Software), filled with interviews and the still astonishing sound of Parker’s saxophone. This is the first of what will be a series of similar multimedia packages called “Masters of American Music.” The next is to be devoted to Louis Armstrong, the only other instrumentalist to have altered the way all subsequent musicians played, and if it is anywhere near as good as the first one, I can hardly wait to read and see and hear it.

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