By Devon Wendell
When listening to “Dizzy Atmosphere” recorded live on September 29th, 1947, with Dizzy Gillespie at Carnegie Hall, it’s hard to believe that tomorrow, March 12th, Bird will have been dead 59 years. In that solo alone, Bird captured the future, present, and the entire history of jazz in a frenetically beautiful but blatantly violent and brutal manner.
It’s those kinds of contrasts that made Bird so great. And it can be found at any point of his career.
On recordings like “Koko” and the famous alto break on “A Night In Tunisia,” Bird launched us into the stratosphere like a rocket on fire. And on ballads like “Embraceable You” and “Meandering,” he took us plunging down deep into frozen arctic waters like a falling meteor from space. At times he defied nature and at other moments he altered it with a supernatural ease and dexterity.
Charlie “Bird” Parker died almost 20 years before I was born and before I go any further, I’d like to state that I don’t care how much junk he shot, or how much booze he drank. None of that is my business and Bird’s music is larger than all of that. I can only fixate on the sound and the unfettered energy that it gives me. Every accented phrase, crescendo, substitute chord, passing tone, and “altered” melody line or “head” follows me throughout every nuance of my life.
I first heard Bird’s music in grade school on a compilation cassette from Japan, featuring a mix of Bird’s Verve, Dial, and Savoy recordings. “Leap Frog” was the first track on the tape and the sound of his alto sax was like a laser beam. I saw thousands of colors not yet named by man, dancing in my head. I heard the blues from deep inside the dank, all-night bars in Kansas City with its patrons of prostitutes, pimps, and people trying hard to avoid the nightmares of all night, home bound isolation. Bird painted so many pictures, so fast. It’s hard to keep up with the imagery and sometimes wonderfully overwhelming. The boundless history of music is all there too, from Bartak, Stravinsky, and Shoenberg to Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, and Johnny Hodges.
Bird’s ghost is on the move too. Not in Kansas City and certainly not in Los Angeles. It’s in New York City. Bird owned the spirit of New York when he lived there like no other artist in history. I’ve felt his sinister duplicitous charm while walking through Alphabet City.
One time in a tepid state of depression, I sat in my Brooklyn apartment sipping chamomile tea and reading Ibsen’s The Wild Duck Rosmersholm, unable to pry myself out of my beat up old arm chair. Suddenly I heard “Yardbird Suite” in my head and I felt invigorated for the first time in what seemed like an eternity. I was able to get up and at least make myself a good dinner. I grabbed a copy of Bird’s Dial recordings and played “Yardbird Suite” over and over as I made a plate of spaghetti and a tossed salad for one. It may be the anniversary of Bird’s death, but all I can feel is the sheer vitality in that composition as well as on pieces like “Scrapple From The Apple,” “Donna Lee” and “Relaxin’ At Camarillo.”
After being baptized by Bird’s music I soon discovered Dizzy Gillespie, Monk, Bud Powell, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Billy Eckstine, Tadd Dameron, Kenny Dorham, Dexter Gordon, Phil Woods, Jackie McLean, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane to name just a few. For a while, I was dismissive of post-Parker jazz (I hate the word “be-bop”) because I felt that he and many of his disciples had taken the music as far as it could go, especially around the time of his death. I still often wonder if that is the case as I still hear Bird’s influence all around me on every instrument.
Well, Bye Bye Bird from Hollywood. I’m glad you made it home, far away from this place. Maybe we’ll meet up someday on the old Avenue B.
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