Today is Charlie Parker’s birthday. He would have been 97 if he hadn’t died when he was 34 in a body that the doctors surmised was 65. He was one of the fiery shooting stars that shot across the firmament— a mere flash, but with a heat and light and intensity that would echo through the ages, leaving “the vivid air signed with his honor.” * And, by the way, if you don’t know who Charlie Parker is, shame on the schools you went to and the culture that brought you up. But it’s never too late to find out.
“Bird lives” said the graffiti when Parker died in 1955, his body ravaged by drugs and alcohol and hard-living, but his bright spirit captured in the recordings that assured his immortality and brought yesterday into today. In fact, in my car listening to “Just Friends” played with strings, recorded a year before my birth and still holding up as I follow the intricate pathways of his genius winding their way through the chords of the song. And though I revere certain things about the past, most notably the gifts it has brought to the future that is now, I’m not nostalgic for “the good old days.” But I do appreciate that in 1950, the popular music of the day was still being written by gifted poets and tunesmiths like Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and the like, sung by both popular singers like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Jo Stafford and jazz vocalists like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, were familiar to virtually all Americans with a radio or record player and were also played and interpreted at the highest level by jazz musicians like Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie and our man, Charlie Parker.
And a jazz musician with strings was the ultimate meeting of Europe and Africa, with the improvised soulful African-timbred and rhythmic ideas in the lead while the string provided the cushioned background and the feeling of a Viennese pastry shop. In the movies of that time, the black folks always had to play the servants, the backdrop to the white folks' drama. But here, they are the masters of the recording studio, with the white folks in awe of the intelligence, technical command of the instrument, imaginative flow of musical ideas springing from the horn of Charlie Parker like a god birthed from Zeus's head. As concertmaster Gene Orloff said,
“It was the most phenomenal thing I ever saw or heard…”
And so on August 29th (remember that date!), yesterday comes some 77 years to us here today, Bird lives on and the world is refreshed. Give a listen.
• From a poem by Stephen Spender.