Weekly Posting, September 11th, 2020

On September 9th, 1949, Down Beat published an article about Charlie Parker (Bird), by staff writers John S. Wilson and Michael Levin, beneath a headline that screamed No Bop Roots in Jazz: Parker. This extraordinary article is somewhat problematic. It’s clear Levin and Wilson are paraphrasing information that came directly from Bird’s mouth, yet much of it is at odds with the received knowledge found in biographies.

The writers state they conducted “a series of interviews that took two weeks”.  Under normal circumstances, it would take two weeks just to locate Bird. It’s likely, however, that Bird valued the opportunity to speak his mind and made himself uncharacteristically available. But it also appears that he couldn’t resist pulling the writers’ rather gullible legs. So the challenge becomes separating fact from put-on.

Bird begins, it would seem, with a wink to future scholars, by misstating the date of his own birth, which he gives as 1921. Admittedly, he was thoroughly unreliable about dates, consistently off by two or three years. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to believe this wasn’t intentional. He then convinces Levin and Wilson of the ultimate whopper: that in his youth he heard no jazz at all in Kansas City, and that his sole inspiration on saxophone was Rudy Vallee! If this hogwash has any basis in reality, it would only apply to his elementary school years. Bird then claims that his motivation for taking up saxophone was purely pragmatic. They write, “He was influenced only by the necessity of making a living and he chose music because it seemed glamorous, looked easy, and there was nothing else around.” When you break this down, it contains no truth at all.

They go on to report that he himself has no roots in traditional jazz. During the few years he worked with traditional jazzmen, he wandered like a lost soul. (Was Bird tugging at their heartstrings?) This is an attempt to explain why Bird didn’t sound like Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, etc. During the course of this, they reanimate that hoariest of Lester Young clichés, saying, No semblance of vibrato ever crept into Charlie’s style. They back this up with a quote from Bird: I never cared for vibrato, because they used to get a chin vibrato in Kansas City and I didn’t like it. I don’t think I’ll ever use vibrato. On some level, this qualifies a put-on. Bird uses vibrato more sparingly than Prez, but it’s generally there at the end of each phrase, and always there on notes of long duration, especially at ballad tempos.

By and large, though, the article is an earnest attempt to convey Bird’s thoughts on a wide range of topics, the sheer quantity of which supports the claim of multiple interviews. Despite the contradictions, this is a foundational document, the skeleton of future biographies. It touches on all the high points: baritone horn in elementary school, the loaned-out alto, early jam session humiliations, the car crash, the Cherokee breakthrough, joining McShann, Minton’s and Monroe’s, tenor in the Hines orchestra, teaming up with Dizzy, breakdown in LA, all the way up to 1949 and beyond, as Bird shares his vision for a synthesis of jazz and classical music, and states for the first time his intention to study composition in Paris.

It’s also the source of three famous Bird quotes:

1.) Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.

2.) They teach you there’s a boundary line to music, but, man, there’s no boundary line to art.

3.) It’s just music. It’s trying to play clean and looking for the pretty notes.

More noteworthy, however, is what isn’t a direct quote. This is the 1939 chili parlor story in which Bird has his great epiphany while jamming with guitarist Biddy Fleet. Somewhere down the line, this origin myth, originally paraphrased, acquired quotation marks, and thereafter read as follows: I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I’d been hearing.

These words have been puzzled over for generations, not least because they’re gibberish. In the process of paraphrasing, the meaning must have been lost, and all the quotation marks on earth can’t bring it back. Unfortunately, Bird offered very few specifics concerning this crucial turning point. This is virtually all we have, and it dangles understanding in front of us and then yanks it away. Nevertheless, it led to the dogma that Bird introduced 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths into the jazz vocabulary, which is misleading in both directions. Prez was exceedingly fond of 9ths and 13ths, and Bird’s melodic concept hinged primarily on major 7ths.

So what was Bird trying to convey to Levin and Wilson? It’s possible he was being intentionally vague, given that jazz musicians in the Golden Age were secretive. Louis Armstrong and King Oliver would drape handkerchiefs over their valves when performing their duets, so no one could deduce their methods by watching their fingers. (This was really just showmanship.) But there are many accounts of Bird freely sharing his knowledge with other musicians, and the article reflects an overall openness and sincerity. On the whole, he was probably making an honest effort to explain it.

One thing’s obvious: his epiphany had to be something simple. One writer believes it had to do with Biddy Fleet’s chord inversions and the melody lines he fashioned from the top notes. Too complicated. There’s another theory based on a different quote, involving the use of “relative major”. This, however, was unconnected to the chili parlor incident and lacks the stuff of epiphanies.

What’s my theory? Funny you should ask. I believe Bird, in a flash of intuition, realized he could superimpose a second chord on top of the one he was on, by moving up a fifth. The prime example would be on a V chord. In the case of G7, he realized he could jump up a fifth and superimpose a Dm9 on top, the notes of which, in relation to the root G, would spell out the 5th, 7th, 9th, 11th and 13th. This instantly allowed him to access the higher intervals he’d been hearing, without thinking of them as such. He never had to think past the 9th of the chord he was superimposing, and could continue using the same melodic ideas he’d developed based on the lower intervals. Thus the epiphany was purely conceptual and needed no preparation to implement. It was instantaneous. As Bird put it, I came alive. Except he didn’t. That turns out to be another paraphrase that acquired quotation marks.

As the article’s headline makes clear, Bird has much to say about the distinctions between “bebop” and “jazz”, which he considers to be two different genres, and he also must have vented about Dizzy at length, because the writers include an inordinate number of quotes about him, not all of them flattering. Between insisting that bop was separate from jazz and hurling accusations at Diz, Gillespie felt he had to respond in print, which adds another chapter to this saga that will be taken up in due course. There’s no boundary line to gossip.

With no outstanding musical anniversary associated with this date, I have chosen an unusual air check from the Bandbox, a short-lived club located near Birdland. It was broadcast on March 23rd, 1953, and includes a bit of relaxed banter between Bird and Leonard Feather at the outset. Bird is the featured guest with the Milt Buckner Trio, a rare setting indeed. Bird is playing his plastic alto, which he will soon bring to Massey Hall, and he is in peak form, not to be taken for granted at this point in his career. He simply romps through Groovin’ High in the best of spirits. It’s a gem. 

Groovin’ High, Bandbox, NYC, March 23rd, 1953

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