Parker’s Theme: An Overture

By Lary WallaceDecember 27, 2013

Parker’s Theme: An Overture

Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker by Stanley Crouch

TO GET THAT QUIVER he wanted, he’d take the reed of his saxophone and make it just the right kind of fine, applying sandpaper, fire, and knife. “He was trying everything he could think of to push his pitches through the horn quicker,” writes Stanley Crouch in Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, “to make them as blunt as snapping fingers when the inspiration demanded.” To get the right sound, he’d even risk brass poisoning, taking his Brilhart mouthpiece and filing it down to the way he thought it should be, the way that would eliminate vibrato and make his clean sound even cleaner. The older guys would warn him about the saxophonist who’d gotten sick that way. But Charlie Parker knew what he was doing, and before long other players were giving him their horns and asking him to do theirs, too.

In later years — those after Crouch’s first-of-two-parts biography concludes — players everywhere would try to follow Parker’s lead, and not just sax players, either. His was the kind of genius that transcended instrument — that in fact transcended music itself. A beatnik icon, hero to the hipsters, it’s impossible to say just how many ruined their lives in trying to mimic Parker’s drug habit (horrific even by the standards of mid-century jazz musicians), or their art in trying to mimic his transcendent musical liberation. What many failed to realize is that not only does genius pick its spots, but genius, fully realized, comes at a cost. It was a cost Parker had paid in the form of dogged devotion to the possibilities of his craft — the kind of devotion that finds its own ways, after the old ways are all used up; the kind that does whatever’s necessary to realize itself, even if it means inventing new kinds of sacrifice.

This is the story Crouch tells in Kansas City Lightning, and I’m not sure there’s a person better qualified to tell it — Crouch’s devotion to jazz is so genuine and long-standing, his understanding of it so deep, his writing on it so nuanced, his sense of drama and psychological evolution so finely tuned. He’s been observing Charlie Parker his whole life, and has been working up this biography for 30 years.

From the beginning, Parker’s mission — at least in broad outline — was clear: he wanted to improvise within the structure of a band. But such improvisation was not easy. The challenge, writes Crouch, was one of:

how to create a consistent stream of musical phrases that had life of their own — phrases that were marked by fluidity and emotional power, and that were made even stronger by the surrounding environment in which they were placed. The real player invented his own line, his own melody, and orchestrated it within the ensemble so that he was in effect playing every instrument. Only a few did that. But Parker wanted to be one of the few.

Starting out in Tom Pendergast’s corrupt Kansas City, he benefitted from being in a town allowed to stay up all night. This is how, according to the manager for the Jay McShann Orchestra, the Kansas City players “got better than just about anybody in the country. That’s where that Kansas City swing came from.”

Parker got his first big break in the Jay McShann Orchestra, where his urge to improvise within a combo’s context one night got him ridiculed and humiliated. That was a big break, too, albeit of a less obvious kind, because it steeled Parker’s resolve to practice even harder, to become even better. He quit the band and went to the Ozarks, playing resorts and woodshedding, and soaking up the recordings of players like Lester Young and Roy Eldridge. When still in Kansas City, he’d seen Young play live, and “as the mystery of Young’s style began to reveal itself to Charlie Parker, he began to conceive a new set of goals for himself,” writes Crouch. “Not only would he have to get command of harmony and tempo, he would also have to reach for the level of fluid expertise Young exhibited night after night, jam session after jam session.”

Eldridge’s influence on Parker is not commonly discussed, certainly not to the extent that Young’s and Smith’s are, but it’s worth quoting Crouch’s words on this influence not only for what they tell us about Parker and what he strove to achieve, but for what they tell us about Crouch’s sublime skills as a jazz writer:

Eldridge offered some of the same pleasures as Lester Young: He was uncanny, devoted to an individuality that forced him to invent his own way. You never knew what kind of a phrase he would play or how long he might keep it going. The trumpeter embodied the audacity of jazz music, the combination of moxie and technical command that gave him freedom in every direction — in his range, his conception, his coloring of notes, and his rhythm. All of those elements Charlie Parker would eventually work into his own style, steadily achieving greater and greater comprehension of the details every jazz intellectual has to master, then feel, in order to attain greatness.

All that’s fine, but as Parker himself would famously say later, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn.” And in these years, Parker was living it plenty. To read about Parker’s life is to enter a grim world where babies are miscarried and flushed down the toilet, injuries from an auto accident cause morphine and then heroin dependency, and our anti-hero holds a gun to his own wife’s head. All this in just the first volume; the next will have to tell an even grimmer story, the one of how he steals from and cheats everyone he can, even  his own friends; how he neglects his talents, letting them go to waste; and how he died, overdosed on drugs.

It will be a sad story, but it will be a triumphant one too, for what it will tell about the possibilities of artistic expression. That’s the part Crouch is setting up here, ending his narrative after Parker has just moved to New York City and made his first recordings there. But before Parker can get to New York, he has to go to Chicago and pay some dues there. To get to Chicago, he had to leave his wife and hop the rails. On his way, we see him “sitting around a pot of hobo stew, eating with men of different colors, and hearing their different tales from an America that was in its last years of Depression.” One of these men is Buster Smith, who taught Parker both how to ride the rails that got him to Chicago and New York, which makes sense because Buster Smith is the one who also taught him much of what he needed to know once he got there — how to achieve just the right tone through fingering and mouthwork and the precise shading of individual pitches.

By the time he got to New York, Parker seemed to have become even more ambitious. Chicago had done something to him, and New York did what it seemed to do to everyone, infusing him with a fresh ambition. Parker was ready to accept New York’s challenge, to meet it on its own terms while also answering to his very own claim. This would take the form of what became bop, the music that was more than a music because its freeform methodology allowing chord progressions to serve as the basis for brand-new melodies — encouraged ingenuity, improvisation, and increased velocity. It was a virtuoso’s sound and a virtuoso’s style, and Parker would be its avatar.

“The thing that I loved about Bird,” says Biddy Fleet, using the nickname Parker had already acquired, “is this: he wasn’t one of those who's got to write something down, go home, study on it, and the next time we meet, we’ll try it out. Anything that anyone did that Bird liked, when he found out what it was, he’d do it right away. Instantly. Only once on everything. Nearly everything that I did that he was interested in, I’d show him once — he had it.”

Fleet bore witness to just how revolutionary this kind of mnemonic talent could be when paired with a genius for innovation. Fleet was playing with Parker when he first started experimenting with “Cherokee,” discovering bop and codifying its language at the same time, putting the sound and the style into its place as prototype. Although Crouch ends his narrative before Parker’s innovations with that song, he does give us a sneak peak by having Fleet tell us of the way “Cherokee” “was purposely shunned by most of the musicians because of the bridge,” and of how, “You can use those hard tunes to get rid of the guys who can only play the blues all night. They can’t mess with that stuff, and then you can keep right along working on what you want to get deeper into.”

Parker would get deeper into it. He would team up with Dizzy Gillespie on the trumpet and together they would found a sound that became an entire ethos. He would create a culture, Parker would, a way of life and a way of playing that was, like all such things that become as big as bop did, both ridiculed and emulated. It’s a great story, but the story of how Charlie Parker created a sound and a style all his own is nothing without the story of how he first earned the right.


Lary Wallace is an eccentric-at-large and a feature writer for Prestige magazine.

LARB Contributor

Lary Wallace is an eccentric-at-large and the features editor of Bangkok Post: The Magazine.


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