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How Charlie Parker Defined the Sound and Substance of Bebop Jazz

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In the abstract, bop is the harmonic and rhythmic complexification of jazz, based on the substitution of a new and more elaborate framework of chords for the ones originally anchoring pop songs. Organizationally, it’s the shift away from big bands (with their emphasis on compositions, arrangements, and unison playing) and toward individual soloists playing in small groups centered on extended improvisations. Aesthetically, it’s musicians’ self-aware transformation of jazz into an exemplary element of artistic modernism. And in tone, it’s a virtual sonic documentary of the world as the musicians experienced it at the time of its flowering—a musical representation of anguish, irony, derision, and idealistic yearning.
Bebop (the term wasn’t the musicians’ own; Clarke said, “We called ourselves modern”) arose on the brink of the Second World War, and came to fruition while the war was being waged. It’s one of the triumvirate of modernisms that was born from a generation of noncombatants, of 4-Fs. Like Jackson Pollock and Orson Welles, Parker, Monk, and Gillespie were deemed ineligible for service; what Welles did for film direction and Pollock did for painting, Parker, in particular, did for jazz, by representing the unrepresentable. Parker’s art is one of sonic images that give form to ideas that were hiding in plain sight or off the map of American mainstream culture; his tone embodies the very urgency of these representations. The abstractions of his art expressed the violence, the horror, the existential danger of wartime; furthermore, his art also gave voice to the blare of total mobilization in pursuit of victory in the war—and the injustices and indignities borne by Black Americans at home, which mocked the ideals of that national effort.
People could and did dance to Parker’s music, but it was essentially concert music; it wouldn’t have served to back a floor show (as many big bands did, despite the epochal inventiveness of their music). With its intricate harmonies, Parker—nicknamed Bird, which was in turn short for Yardbird—turned soloing into a jittery and skittering rope dance of chord changes that made his melodic inventiveness, his depth of feeling, his supersonic virtuosity, and his mercurial imagination all the more astounding. Parker’s music had an effect akin to that of Welles’s deep-focus complexities in “Citizen Kane,” uniting the foreground and the background, rendering the complex musical framework conspicuous. Like Abstract Expressionism, it rendered the surfaces of music turbulent and cosmically intricate.
Among the local horrors of racism at the time was the drafting of Black men to fight in the war—in segregated outfits—when, at home, their rights were denied. A leading Harlem nightspot, the Savoy Ballroom, was closed because of racist paranoia and policies. A white police officer’s shooting of a Black soldier named Robert Bandy resulted in a riot, in Harlem, in August, 1943. When the war ended and Black servicemen returned home, the agonizing contradiction between that outcome and the ongoing racism and segregation (as cited in Leo Hurwitz’s documentary “Strange Victory,” from 1948), poverty and police violence, which was amped up by the spread of heroin through Harlem, and the psychological dislocations and unaddressed traumas of postwar life. (As James Baldwin wrote, in “The New Lost Generation,” about the postwar years, “If one gave a party, it was virtually certain that someone, quite possibly oneself, would have a crying jag or have to be restrained from murder or suicide.”)
Parker was born and raised in Kansas City, where he began his career as a teen-ager. From his earliest successes to the end of his life, he was a consummate, authoritative, bone-shivering blues artist, even as his musical passions ran toward Bartók, Stravinsky, and other European modernists. To those accustomed to swing, let alone New Orleans styles, Parker’s music sounds hectic, disjointed, and scribble-scrabulous, but it quickly became a vital inspiration to a younger generation of musicians. (Miles Davis was still a teen-ager when he first performed and recorded with Parker, in 1945). Parker’s music is jumpy, crowded, energized to the breaking point, recklessly exposed—and, although he was joined by other musicians of similar inspiration (such as the pianist Bud Powell), Parker was the most self-revealing, the most vulnerable of them all. The sense of thrilling and terrifying existential adventure in his playing is reflected in the consuming furies of his life—and in the glorious yet burdensome mythology that turned him into a legend even while he lived and performed.
The stories (both true and false) that accreted around Parker included those of the heroin addict (seemingly, since adolescence) who nodded out on the bandstand only to wake up in a flash and take wondrous solos; the unreliable friend who borrowed money casually and pawned borrowed saxophones; the figure of immense appetites, who drank whiskey by the quart, was seen taking eight double shots before going onstage, and consumed Benzedrine pills by the literal handful. Even as his addictions deepened, his fame rose, culminating in the opening, in 1949, of the New York jazz club Birdland. (He had no financial stake in it; it borrowed his name and fame without paying him for it, though he played there often—until he was banned, on the grounds of his erratic behavior.) The fans and revellers who surrounded Parker included unofficial musical amanuenses, who followed him from gig to gig, recording his every note. As a result, Parker’s studio recordings, treasures though they are, take second place to the flood of bootlegs that preserve his musical legacy at its most inspired and uninhibited. (There’s a playlist below.)
The first batch of records under Parker’s leadership is from 1945. By 1949, he was reportedly seeking a new musical pathway out of the style that he already exemplified, and that was already widely emulated by the best of younger musicians (many of whom, of course, would enter musical history in their own right). The early nineteen-fifties sped by—with the loss of Parker’s cabaret card (thus rendering him ineligible to perform in New York night clubs) and the death of his infant daughter, Pree. He suffered from depression, attempted suicide, and was again hospitalized. His alcoholism worsened, his health deteriorated, and he had premonitions of his death—even as he was forging advances on his style, with ever wider harmonic extremes, ever more fragmentary phrases, ever more daring effacements of the regularly pulsating beat.
When Parker died, in 1955, at the age of thirty-four, jazz was undergoing another revolution—with Davis at its forefront and other musicians, such as John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor, emerging. Above all, American society was on the verge of historic progress, owing to the devotion and the sacrifice of Black people demanding civil rights and an end to segregation. Parker didn’t live to see either transformation. Parker’s drive toward perpetual revolution in ideas and styles, and in personal bearing, foreshadowed the history of jazz to come. And his martyrdom to an art of self-revelation, demonstration, defiance, and revolt foreshadowed the tragic heroism of a generation of civil-rights leaders to come.
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