Today is the last day of Bird’s centennial year, and this posting is one day early, in case you want to ring in the new year with Bird’s 1949 New Year’s Morning broadcast from the Royal Roost in New York City. What better way to give Bird a final toast on his hundredth birthday?
Thanks again to everyone who has enjoyed these fifty-two postings in Charlie Parker’s honor. This one, number fifty-three, is a something of a Postscript.
There was a simple algorithm to Charlie Parker’s life: he did whatever he felt like doing at any given moment, regardless of the consequences. Doing whatever you want, whenever you want is the most basic form of freedom, and makes it possible to live entirely in the moment once you’ve disabled your concept of the future, which is where consequences reside. Bird needed to do this to achieve his goals as an improviser and he succeeded. The future didn’t exist for him. The story of his life is the story of the freedom he chose and the consequences brought down upon him.
Bird lived and thrived in the realm of seconds and milliseconds. Hours were like days, and tomorrow was always weeks away. We don’t know whether Bird entered this realm by conscious effort or was somehow born into it. All young children live in the moment, and much has been written about Bird’s doting mother. Did she indulge him to such an extent that she nurtured his capacity for it, instead of demanding he outgrow it? Or did he train himself to reach this state on his own?
Bird’s drug use coincided with his first serious efforts at saxophone playing, and probably began with marijuana, the king of in-the-moment drugs (still legal in his youth). That may have pointed the way to other states of consciousness more conducive to musical development. The appeal of narcotics, especially for those beset with troubles, is that they produce a sense of well being right now. During Bird’s mid-teens, it’s likely that amphetamines fueled his marathon practicing and narcotics kept distractions at bay. He used both drugs in conjunction throughout his late teens and twenties, enlisting amphetamines to counteract the dream-inducing narcotics. Later, unfortunately, alcohol also helped him live in the moment, though imperfectly and at a ruinous cost. For most jazz writers, the rampant destruction caused by this legal and more socially acceptable drug takes a backseat to his heroin addiction, which seduces them with its aura of depravity. Virtually everything Bird did contributed to his death at age thirty-four, but alcohol takes the cake.
Signs of living in the moment were evident from the outset of Bird’s career. He was never anything less than totally unreliable. He was chronically late to gigs or absent altogether. Clocks and watches, by which the whole world ran, held little meaning for Bird. Inspiration and intuition were his timepieces. This behavior never changed, despite the consequences, which increased in magnitude as his career advanced.
Bird fully accepted these consequences. He never played the victim, despite being victimized by racism, day in and day out. The number one consequence, of course, was constantly getting fired by bandleaders, who lived and died by the clock. Bird coped with this by becoming the best saxophone player anyone had ever heard. Whenever he was fired, he would be quickly hired by someone else, or sometimes, after things cooled off, rehired.
Another of Bird’s coping mechanisms was sheer charm. Most people found it impossible to stay mad at him, and he could be warm and engaging, which made him an accomplished con man. This helped him cope with the number two consequence of living in the moment: lack of funds. Any amount of money in Bird’s possession would be gone in a matter of hours. Yes, it often went toward drugs, but that doesn’t account for all of it. Bird’s attitude toward money is one of life’s great mysteries. Maybe it comes down to this: if the future doesn’t exist for you, not spending your money is just foolish.
For a long time, Bird’s unreliability was accepted as a given by those who loved his music. One story has him exiting the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village at 8 PM, the exact moment when he was due onstage in Philadelphia. He eventually made it there and found his fans patiently waiting for him. As Bird’s fame escalated, though, the stakes got higher and higher, and the powers-that-be more and more intolerant. But he was no more or no less unreliable than he had been as a teenager in Kansas City, when he discovered that living in the moment opened the door to unimagined beauty.
When biographers write about chaos, disorder, and confusion, it often boils down to Bird’s unreliability. That’s it. Just being late for gigs or missing them altogether. Those who live in the moment and accept the consequences are often considered lunatics or, by the powerful, threats to order. Bird’s unreliability–his freedom–so enraged authority figures that they tried to punish him by any means at their disposal, be it club owners, the musician’s union, law enforcement, or the justice system. Bird was certainly prepared for this, but he probably didn’t expect it to include punishing his entire family. After all, what had he ever done to harm anyone, other than himself?
All Bird ever did was create beauty of the highest order, moment upon moment upon moment. This was his life’s work, and he was willing to make the sacrifices necessary to accomplish it. So he claimed his freedom to live in the moment, and made no effort to hide it or apologize for it. Some might even say he died for it. Furthermore, in a society that moved African Americans from one form of bondage to another, few other freedoms were available to him. But the freedom he claimed is at the root of the music he left behind. This music is his inexhaustible gift to the world, freely given with little expected in return, methodically fashioned by doing whatever he felt like, regardless.
I will give Thelonious Monk the last word:
Jazz is freedom. You think about that.
Today’s musical offering is the set of music recorded on New Year’s morning, 1949. Bird was on the bandstand at the Royal Roost and Boris Rose was at home with his radio and disc cutter. Kenny Dorham was now playing trumpet in Bird’s working quintet, having recently replaced Miles. Regulars Al Haig (piano) and Tommy Potter (bass) were on hand, but Max Roach was absent, replaced for the night by Joe Harris, Dizzy’s drummer.
Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid clearly begins just after the clock strikes midnight, and you can hear Bird quoting Auld Lang Syne underneath Sid’s chatter. The audience is feeling no pain, and if you want to hear Bird with his inspiration level set at “maximum” and his blood-alcohol level set at “noticeably impaired”, here’s your chance. We can give Bird a pass for drinking on New Year’s Eve, but the Royal Roost broadcasts from this period document him at every stage of inebriation.
Be that as it may, I decided to skip over their first number, Bebop, a supersonic showcase for Bird’s reckless driving, to leave room for the only ballad (sort of) he ever recorded on these broadcasts: East of the Sun and West of the Moon. The end of his solo is more unguarded and wistful than anything he ever recorded in the studio. Slow Boat to China, somewhat off the beaten track, was a favorite of Bird’s at the Roost, whereas Groovin’ High and Ornithology are among the foremost warhorses of his repertoire. They have been captured in live performance countless times but are always worth hearing, especially in ’49. Bird was at his peak at the Roost, and there is no playing by rote to be found here. We sincerely hope you do enjoy it..