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Pat Wall

Jazz Genius

(December 1973)

From Militant, 14 December 1973.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Pat Wall reviews Bird Lives – The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker was a genius, Jazz musician extraordinary, he was the leading innovator of the most profound and radical development in Jazz since the 1920’s.

But this brilliant biography by Russell Ross, is more than a chronicle of the life, music and drug addiction of a great negro artist. Written by a white man, it nevertheless provides a searching insight into American negro society and the first tremors, particularly among the youth, which were to erupt into a negro revolt in the Sixties.

Born into a working class family, in the Kansas City area, Charlie, a bright, intelligent youngster, preferred listening to and playing Jazz to school classes. Jazz, to many negro youngsters offered excitement, a sense of purpose, a mode of expression and perhaps above all, a means of escaping the grinding poverty, and spiritual enslavement of the Depression and post-Depression life in the urban ghettos.

From an early age, Charlie roamed the streets and sneaked into the night clubs to listen to the “Kansas City Sound” and the leading Jazz performers. Kansas was an isolated, almost unknown oasis, where Jazz developed with a vitality entirely opposed to the sugary commercialism of the so-called “swing” era, the music of Paul Whiteman and the Benny Goodman Orchestra.

It was only with the breakthrough achieved by the Count Basie Band, that Kansas City music and many of the individual musicians were to exert and influence throughout America and the Jazz world. If the “Bepop” revolution needed a Charlie Parker, then a Charlie Parker could only have arisen in Kansas City.

It is a searing indictment of racialism that Jazz music, an innovative, creative, true art form is today largely unaccepted by the white establishment which control American society.

The majority of American Jazz is played in nightclubs, from the Honky Tonks and Speakeasies of the New Orleans and Chicago periods, to the Kansas City clubs of Charlie’s youth and later in New York.

These clubs, often gangster-owned, the environs of pimps, prostitutes and criminals, and with managements almost always indifferent to the music, are the theatre workshops of the Jazz musician, the night-shift worker artist.

It was almost inevitable, in this environment, that the young, impressionable, struggling musician should gravitate to the drug scene. If he showed a remarkable tolerance for several years, he was to end completely addicted to morphine and heroin, a fact which certainly contributed to his early death.

Musical Revolution

Charlie did not achieve musical greatness easily; the thirteen year old with his first, second-hand saxophone, a miracle of rubber bands and sticking plaster could graduate to a high school band. Acceptance among the leading performers, was a different matter.

Charlie’s first attempts to make his name ended in disaster, booed off the stage in Kansas City all-night jam sessions. Yet if he was rejected by this audience of musicians, he was to become above all the musician’s musician. It is perhaps in his very rejection that Charlie’s musical genius took root, unable to reproduce the rhythmic ideas in his head, he set out to teach himself music.

He learned to play in all twelve musical keys, and memorised all the scales, not knowing that the Jazz greats had in the main confined themselves to playing in four basic keys.

The conquest of ignorance leads to knowledge, and it was this “wasted self-tuition” which developed his fund of harmonic ideas and his control of the Alto Saxophone, enabling him to use much harder reeds than the normal Jazzmen, which laid the basis of the musical revolution which was to follow.

Charlie Parker began to be noticed, he became a professional musician, and in 1941 he arrived in New York. It was in “Minton’s Playhouse” that the “Bebop” revolution was to take shape. It was here that “Bird” (nicknamed Yardbird because of his liking for fried chicken) and a group of young musicians came together to change the face of Jazz.

In the great jam sessions at Minton’s the “new school” made its mark. Bird, Kenny Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, challenged the acknowledged names, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Benny Cardi, Lester Young, Lips Page, Roy Eldridge, Cootie Williams, Teddy Wilson, Art Tathum, Charlie Christian and many others.

Drummer Kenny Clarke recalls when he first heard Parker:

“Bird was playing stuff we had never even heard before; he was in figures I thought I had invented for drums. He was twice as fast as Lester Young and into harmony Lester hadn’t touched. Bird was running the same way we were, but he was way out ahead of us. I don’t think he was aware of the changes he had created, it was his way of playing Jazz, part of his own experience”.

While the new school won its spurs in the first competitive school, it was largely rejected by the critics and Jazz establishment. While Dizzy Gillespie and others learned to parry the blows of the critics, to await the inevitable acceptance and to proceed to fame and fortune, Bird never forgave this rejection.

It was this which partially explains his legendary behaviour, his appearance half-way through jam sessions, his playing with his back to the audience, his throwing his saxophone out of a hotel window and his enormous appetite for booze, sex and hard drugs.

“Bird Lives”

But Bird was also black. Russell Ross describes the indignities of Negro artists playing the Deep South, and how Charlie narrowly averted involuntary brain surgery while incarcerated in a state mental institution, an act which would have destroyed him as a creative artist.

If the new music was rejected by the old guard, it became the music of the younger, unchained, generation in the Northern Negro ghettos.

Bird was a revolutionary before his time; the revolt of the ghettos was to come later. Pianist Hampton Hawes was to recall:

“Bird was like a God. I never crowded him or got too close. He talked to us about things I was not to read until years later in books by Malcolm X and Cleaver. I heard all that in his music ... Bird felt deeply about the black-white split. He was the first Jazz musician I met who understood what was happening to his people. He could not come up with an answer so he stayed high. His only outlet was his music”.

When Parker died, his age on the death certificate, estimated by the coroner was fifty three; he was in fact on thirty four. Shortly after he died the words began to be scrawled on the walls of the Negro ghettos “Bird Lives”.

Yes, Bird Lives, in his rejection of commercialism, in his rejection of racialism and above all in the inspiration of his music.

I owe a debt to Charlie Parker, as a very young socialist I came into the movement during the New Orleans revival. Like most of my contemporaries, I rejected Bop as the music of weirdo intellectuals. It was Parker’s music, music which swung, music rooted in the Blues and the popular ballad, the framework of the great Jazz classics, but music which added a new dimension, that widened my musical horizons. Listen for yourself; many of his recordings are still available.

Russell Ross’ book is above all immensely readable, to me the most readable Jazz book since Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues. But the difference is really profound. Mezzrow, white and Jewish, courageously insisted in prison on being classified a Negro. Those of us involved in the Jazz revival were at best “White Negros”.

No socialist would think that way today, following the events of the past ten years. But it is precisely the movement of the Negro masses, and particularly the youth, which has changed our understanding and raised our consciousness.

Bird’s music was the music of a generation who were to begin the great negro revolt which was to shake American society to its foundations. The civil rights campaign, the Watts and other urban ghetto explosions, Black Power and a new militant consciousness.

If this revolt has in turn reached a blind alley, it will find new and higher roads in a fusion with the re-awakening American working class as a whole, in the struggle for a new society, a society which will provide the creative artist with the means and security to develop his or her talents to the full. A society which will see the full flowering of all art forms at a level undreamed of, even by a genius such as Charlie Parker.

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Last updated: 3 December 2015