BOOKS AND ARTS OCTOBER 8, 1970
Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker
by George Robert Reisner
In the late 193o's and early 40's a group of young Negro jazzmen--notably Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Thelonius Monk, and Max Roach--created a strikingly new kind of music. Later called bop, it first sounded dissonant and meaningless to all but a handful of listeners. The rest scorned or ignored it. Bop musicians and their few fellow travelers reacted to their rejection by disdaining nonsympathizers as "squares" and closing ranks in an unofficial brotherhood. For its most avid supporters, the new music became virtually a religion, revealed and upheld with evangelical zeal. They adopted an aesthetic morality, which as far as possible made the music the be all and end all of existence and excluded many of the values of the unfriendly majority. They lived for "kicks," both musical and non-musical. Unconventional and sometimes bizarre forms of dress, language, humor, sexual behavior, and sometimes the use of dope went hand in hand with the electrifying new music.
The hero who emerged as a rallying point for the bop brotherhood was the late alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, known to initiates, both Negro and white, as "Bird." He had a charismatic personality. His impeccable rhythms, astoundingly fast execution, powerful dramatic sense, and seemingly endless reservoir of musical ideas combined to galvanize the sensibilities of the hipsters. He seemed years ahead of his contemporaries and his numerous imitators and fans have created a vivid image of him. This image is the subject of George Robert Reisner's book. The book is largely made up of recollections about Parker by his admirers, but it also contains a complete Parker discography, numerous illustrations, and a brief chronology.
Born in 1920, Parker grew up in Kansas City where jazz flourished during the Depression. His short life was full of afflictions and contradictions. He suffered from heart disease, liver trouble, and ulcers. In his last ten years he attempted suicide at least twice and spent time in mental institutions. At an early age he acquired the drug habit which haunted him until his death. He had an infectious, childlike personality which was hard to dislike, but for his close associates he was unpredictable and difficult. At one time he would be charming, at another suspicious, at still another cruel. Employers found him highly undependable. Some of them insisted on paying him by the set because he might arrive late or not at all, and had a tendency to wander away from the bandstand for long intervals. When one impressario hired a detective to chauffeur him about and keep track of him during a concert series, he escaped on the first night in the detective's car and failed to turn up for the rest of the concerts. He possessed an enormous appetite for all kinds of experience which he indulged. He ate great quantities of food, drank a lot, and had at least four wives in 15 years. He playfully broke inconvenient laws and involved himself endlessly in purposeless pranks. But at times he showed great intelligence, as when he said, "Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn. They tell you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art." He was dissatisfied with his work and the musical boundaries of his time and was constantly seeking something more expressive. Toward the end of his life he wanted to study with Edgar Varese and Hindemith, and to write a jazz ballet. In 1955 at the age of 34 he died of a heart attack in the Manhattan apartment of the Baroness de Koenigswarter.
As in the case of other legendary figures the image that comes down to us seems to reflect as much the psychological needs of its authors as actual circumstances. Reisner explains in his introductory essay that hipsters took Parker as the living justification of their philosophy. Many imitated his dress and his use of narcotics, as well as his musical style. His performances stirred many to play beyond their ordinary capabilities. Max Roach, the drummer, said, "Bird was kind of like the sun, giving aff the energy we drew from him. His cup was overflowing . . . and this inspired anyone who was on the bandstand." For his followers he seemed to be the embodiment of their aesthetic morality. As the name "Bird" suggests he appeared as a free spirit. His kicks were king-size. Admirers reported that he could not play or hear enough music, that he begged owners to keep clubs where he performed open beyond the normal closing hour. It is reported that he never refused a challenge whether it was a waterdrinking contest or an attempt to ride a horse into a barroom. And he seemed to perform superhuman feats. Howard McGhee, the trumpeter, tells that before a performance Parker could consume a quart of whiskey, a handful of benzedrine, smoke marijuana and still "stand up like a man" and play beautifully. Others related how he could fall asleep on the bandstand in the middle of a number. When his turn for a solo came, someone would yell "Bird" and he would immediately jump from his chair and play inspirationally. There seemed to be something otherworldly about him. The word musicians used most frequently in connection with him was "soul." After he had begun to decline physically one of them said, "Bird has disentegrated into pure sound," and after he died, his disciples scrawled "Bird lives" on subway walls.
Reisner's book suffers from poor organization. The author apparently reproduced the various interviews in toto and their order of presentation is alphabetical by the interviewed person's last name. As a result, comments on the same topic are widely separated, and there is a good deal of repetition and some extraneous material. More editing with attention to chronology and ordering of subjects and further editorial comment would have helped. What there is clears up some of the exaggeration and contradictions but many remain.
Yet the book is fascinating. Reisner has not only told us more about Parker and his image, he has provided a psychological portrait of a generation of jazz musicians. We have an idea of how they lived, what they thought, and--what most books on jazz cannot tell us--how they felt.
This piece originally ran October 8, 1962.