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September 17, 2008

Bird II: "Loverman" and "Summertime"

By: Bernard Chazelle

One day, Bird was walking on Broadway with 50 cents in his pocket, his entire fortune. He bumped into a blind beggar playing the accordion. "Can you play 'All the Things You Are'?" The accordionist said yes and obliged. Bird turned to his friend and say "Whoa, he can play the chords!" He dropped 25 cents into the man's bowl and walked on. Half-an-hour later, Bird walked back and heard the same music again: he dropped his last 25 cents.

Nat Hentoff likes to tell this anecdote. Once, at a bar, Bird insisted on playing country music on the jukebox. He had no patience with the jibes of other jazzmen present that these were the corniest of sounds. "No," Bird insisted, "they're telling stories that are real to them. I want to hear what they're saying. I want to hear their stories."

He heard the stories. And he told them, too. Bird always thought of his music as story telling.

Charlie Parker felt deeply about racism and the exploitation of his music that went with it. When Babs Gonzales tried to get him off drugs, he snapped:

"Wait until everybody gets rich off your style and you don't have any bread, then lecture me about drugs."

Yet he did all he could to keep Red Rodney, a Jewish white trumpeter from Philly, off heroin. He failed. When he toured in the South with Rodney, a true friend, he had him pass off as a black albino to get around the ban on mixed-race bands. He'd boss him around on stage ostentatiously, "Come on, boy, get me my horn," clearly enjoying the reverse racial stereotype. When Bird moved to California, he was met with incomprehension: "They all hate my music." He ended up in a mental institution.

Bird's music is like Mozart played in fast-forward. Bird's ability to say so much in so little time is unmatched. In a one-minute solo, he gives you enough musical ideas to build the foundation of a whole symphony. But Bird won't come to you. You have to come to him. But once you do, I guarantee you, you won't let go.

Bird's tone is fabulous, and very unique. He's one of the easiest jazz instrumentalists to recognize. The man really was a tenor sax player who happened to play alto. He used an unplayable reed (much like Stevie Ray Vaughn set his guitar to be virtually unplayable by anyone unwilling to bleed for it). Perhaps only the trumpeter Clifford Brown could match his intense warmth. Bird was first and foremost a bluesman. Unlike, say, John Coltrane, who could outblues anyone but was not a blues musician at heart, Bird's bebop's innovations were all rooted in the Kansas-City blues of his youth.

I included two pieces that Bird aficionados love to hate.

On Lover Man, Bird can barely play, so devastating is his withdrawal from heroin. He misses his intro and barely makes it through. That same night he set fire to his hotel room and ended up spending 6 months at Camarillo State Hospital's psychiatric ward. Bird never forgave his producer for releasing this session. But I agree with Charles Mingus that it is one the most poignant pieces of music ever recorded.

Summertime is part of the "Charlie Parker with Strings" recordings that the producer Norman Granz agreed to put together to commercialize Bird's music. It's the sort of sell-out music that snobs and purists despise. I love it, partly for an anecdotal reason. Bird kept referring to this session as one of the happiest moments of his life. His dream was to be Wynton Marsalis. While he had to endure the "You boys" and enter hotels through the kitchen door, Bird craved respectability. His secret ambition was to go to Paris to study composition. His ultimate fantasy was to have dinner with Stravinsky and Picasso. Playing "With Strings" was the closest he ever got to it. Some of the tunes were recorded at Carnegie Hall. Some of the musicians included members of the Boston Symphony. The whole gig was his idea, not Granz's. It gave Bird his fondest musical memories.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at September 17, 2008 06:58 PM

Bernard, I love Bird and I love reading what you say about him, but I would caution you about romanticizing his drug addiction. Fans forgive their heroes too much in this regard, believing that great talent confers great license, but this does NOT help the hero or honor the work. It only enables the hero's self-destruction, which is not the same thing as his/her talent.

(I'm working on a book about John Lennon, so this dynamic is very alive in my mind. Forgive me if this seems overly "hot." Your post just joggled me, and Bird's one of my faves, too.)

Getting ripped off is part and parcel of the creative field--and I speak as one who's been directly bilked out of over $100,000 in royalties, and whose style helped launch a gold rush that I (mostly) didn't participate in. You learn to shrug it off, especially if the work is what interests you, which it certainly was for Bird. That answer he gave Babs is bullshit, and Bird knew it. A friend of mine knew Bird, and he always talks about how smart Bird was; smart enough to rationalize; smart enough to work his fans and camp-followers; smart enough to get what he wanted, even if it was exactly what he didn't need.

I'm not blaming Parker or any other addict for their disease; nor am I saying that I would've been able to hold up any better under the pressures and sorrows of the man's life. But we do them no credit to romantically intertwine their addictions with their talent. And we impoverish our future, because future generations absorb this notion of drug-use-as-crucifixion. A friend of mine who knew John Belushi told me that he had a life's plan of dying young, rooted in his love of Jimi Hendrix.

It's a terrible shame that Bird didn't realize the dreams you mention, but the person who kept Bird from them was Bird. Anybody who loves Bird's music (or Hendrix's, or Lennon's, or Belushi's comedy, or Lenny Bruce's) should hate their addictions, not attempt to lessen them because we like them so much. Our liking them so much is, perhaps, part of the problem.

Anyway, just some food for thought. Sorry to name-drop, but I thought it might add some interesting texture to my opinion.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at September 17, 2008 08:20 PM

Thanks for the comment, Mike. I completely agree with you and I am sorry if I romanticized the drug use. I didn't mean to. That quotation has an undeniable bullshit tone, you're right. But I think beyond the drugs he's expressing the frustration of someone who can't get a break. He was ripped off blind in ways Belushi and Hendrix never were.

Also, it is a fact that when you asked Bird "What do you do in life?" his first answer was "My mission in life is to keep people off drugs." Maybe that was his idea of a joke but I don't think so. He was genuinely upset when Rodney fell into that trap. Life is full of paradoxes.

Last comment. The emphasis on drugs is actually what annoyed me in Clint Eastwood's movie. (Unlike Ken Burns's, Eastwood's passion for jazz is deep and genuine, and it shows.) But it becomes so damn depressing. There's been millions of drug junkies and 1 Bird. So I don't think drug has much to do with what his fans ought to be really after.
And certainly romanticizing that particularly aspect is both a distraction and a nuisance.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at September 17, 2008 08:54 PM

Your mention of Stravinsky couldn't help but remind me of this anecdote (from Alex Ross' "The Rest is Noise"):

"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 the first notes of the Rite into his solo on "Salt Peanuts." Two years later, paying Birdland in New York, the bebop master spotted Stravinsky at one of the tables and immediately incorporated a motif from Firbird into "Koko," causing the composer to spill his scotch in ecstasy."

Posted by: Joel at September 17, 2008 10:01 PM

I love Charlie Parker with strings. You can really hear how much fun he's having with the music, the arrangement. A groundbreaking album.

Posted by: tripsy at September 17, 2008 11:39 PM

Thanks once again for a great post on Parker Bernard. I’m impressed with your knowledge of music as well as Parker. I also really enjoy Mike of Angle’s input on this, very thoughtful.

The story goes that Parker became addicted after a serious injury in an auto accident and became addicted to the morphine given him during his recovery which led to his heroin addiction. I have always taken that with a grain of salt as heroin addiction was fairly common among Jazz musicians though that is not to say that all Jazz musicians had a habit. My own belief is that Parker would have been that much better of a musician without the drugs and booze. I have believed for a long time now that Jazz is over romanticized and there is an awful lot of myth surrounding the life and times of Charlie Parker. While I enjoyed Russell’s biography “Bird Lives” I think he took, shall we say, a certain amount of liberties with his book. If anyone is interested I believe the book by Carl Woideck was a much more honest attempt in filtering out the myth from the facts.

The first part of Woideck’s book is a biography and the second half consists of an analysis of Parker’s music. I don’t agree with Woidecks’ analysis in every detail particularly his claim that Parker’s music was made up of a myriad of small motifs. But to be fair there is more than one way to analyze and think about music so people will have to judge for themselves. While it is true that Jazz musicians use certain devices to make the music more interesting I believe it is a mistake to conflate that with motifs. But that is just my opinion and I am sure many would disagree.

That’s an interesting choice of tunes you picked. I completely disagree with people who say Parker sold out with his albums “with strings.” One of the musicians who played the violin during the recording said something along the lines “Parker picked up his horn and proceeded to play like a god,” an exaggeration perhaps but not that far from the truth. I think I would have chosen “Just Friends” which supposedly was Parker’s favorite. It was not one of his most musically challenging solos yet it was undeniably one of his most beautiful and inspired solos. The story goes Parker was in his turn very impressed by the classical musicians for their accuracy in playing and their superb sense of time which I find interesting as Jazz musicians like to play slightly behind the beat, or some do at any rate. I’m a bit puzzled by your choice of “Lover Man.” Woideck describes what happened during the recording session which was painful in the extreme to read about. I also believe that Parker was furious that they released that recording.

I agree with you absolutely about Parker’s sound being recognizable and in fact for sax players their “sound” is a very personal thing and not something taken lightly. A person’s sound actually starts with the size and shape of your body especially the shape of your throat and mouth. Then of course the mouthpiece you use is all important and mouthpieces come in a huge variety described as “open” “closed” “bright” and “dark” but that is a topic one could write a book about. However I am very, very, skeptical about Parker playing on an unplayable reed. If it was unplayable how could he play it? The set-up of a saxophone is a personal thing and the difficulty comes from the amount of back pressure. The more back pressure the greater the endurance a musician needs have. I am just skimming over this but the more back pressure the harder it is to articulate and control the horn. The idea behind a stiffer reed is that it supposedly produces a louder sound though the dynamic range can be reduced by using too stiff a reed. Also the ease of getting around your horn (an important aspect of Be-bop which requires excellent technique) can be greatly affected by the stiffness of the reed. But remember that the mouthpiece and the horn itself can affect your sound to a great degree. A stiff reed can be fairly easy to play on closed mouthpiece but impossible to play on an open mouthpiece (close and open basically refers to the distance between the tip of the reed and the tip of the mouthpiece). Then of course there is the “table”, the curve of the mouthpiece, and the style of chamber which all comes into play. But who knows perhaps Parker did play on a very difficult set-up though among players of that era it was common to play on an open mouthpiece with a medium or soft reed.

Great post Bernard, thanks again for taking the time to write it. I can’t wait for your posts on Coltrane (hint, hint).

Posted by: Rob Payne at September 18, 2008 12:27 AM

Thanks for the comments and link, Rob. I think I got the "unplayable reed" story from Russell (he tries it himself, and can't get a sound out). But as you say Russell's book has been criticized for accuracy (though it's such a great read (reed?))

Re. pick of music, I guess I could upload some of my CDs but I am always hoping to find videos on youtube. Re. bebop the pickings are still so meager.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at September 18, 2008 10:39 AM

As always it's great to read your musings on jazz, especially as it always gets such interesting responses from Mike and Rob.

Your recent posts on Charlie Parker are well-timed for me. A friend and I have been spending the summer practicing about a dozen of his tunes-- trying to practice our grammar, as it were. I don't consider myself a great connoisseur of the man's music yet, but there is definitely something there that can suck you in if you're not careful. You can chase the Bird, but you can't catch him.

Coltrane was praised for his "sheets of sound" technique, playing patterned lines so quickly as to be not immediately comprehensible to the casual listener, so that it was more of a kind of musical impressionism. But I think Charlie Parker got there first. I recently listened to "Jazz at Massey Hall" for the first time (I'm ashamed it took me song). That's the one where Bird is playing with Diz, Mingus, Max Roach and Bud Powell... on a plastic alto sax that they scrounged up for him last minute because he had pawned off his own for drug money. Talk about sheets of sound-- I felt like I just kind of had to let it roll over me and hope for the best, like a hurricane.

I tried listening to the cut of Lover Man just now with an empty mind, but it was too late-- I'd already gone and polluted it with what you wrote about it, and it gave me the chills. I wonder if it would have done that if I'd just listened to it without reading. It's always so hard to separate the "pure" experience of art from the stories surrounding it, isn't it.

Posted by: Quin at September 18, 2008 02:39 PM

I have always enjoyed the Ella Fitzgerld/Louis Armstrong version of 'Summertime' VERY MUCH.

After hearing Charlie Parker's version once, I listened to it again and again with my eyes closed ( which is what I do, always, to concentrate on the music ). It is BEAUTIFUL. Thank you for posting it.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at September 18, 2008 03:51 PM

Great music, great post, great comments. Thanks

Posted by: waldo at September 19, 2008 05:28 AM

I read a Gary Larson cartoon today titled " Charlie Parker's private hell." Charlie Parker, in shirt and tie, sweating,is behind a glass panel with a devil dj playing new age music over the pa.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at September 20, 2008 06:09 PM

Mike Meyer : This is real weird! I saw the same cartoon last night in a book called "The Unnatural Selections"!--a book of cartoons by Gary Larson, A FAR SIDE COLLECTION. Unbelievable!

Posted by: Rupa Shah at September 22, 2008 09:38 AM