Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Friday, 11 November 2011

CHARLIE PARKER - BIRD AT THE ROOST: THE SAVOY YEARS

Apologies in advance to anyone who has stumbled upon this page in the hope of finding some cogent discussion on Bird and bop.
I haven't really got anything original to say about Bird's playing, nor about the radical musical innovations he pioneered.
All I can really say is that some sixty years later some of the music sounds as abrasive and hard to comprehend as it must have done to those listening at the time.
I bought this record when I was still at school. It is the first jazz record I ever owned. When I bought it I had no idea that I would find jazz a life-long interest. Nor, indeed that jazz music contained so much variety, interest and intelligence.
I've been trying to remember why I decided I needed a jazz record in my life. I must have been about 15 and I can vividly remember going into Soho with the intention of buying some jazz. As I was young and didn't know much about anything I ended up in the Virgin Megastore which as I write this, is currently a hole in the ground.
If I had known anything, I could have chosen from any number of great record shops, most of which are sadly now closed.
However, I've lost track of the number of times I wished I'd known then what I know now - and sometime wished I know now what I knew then!
So I flicked through the racks of jazz records in the Virgin Megastore. I might as well have been looking at records of ancient Egyptian funeral music for all I knew about the musicians and the type of music that they made.
I've asked myself why I wanted a jazz record. Unfortunately I can't really remember! At the time I was sure that there was a lot more to music than the chart stuff I had been listening to. I liked the Eurythmics well enough but I realised that there had to be more.
At the time I was a voracious reader of comics and many of them had musical references. I bought a copy of Howlin' Wolf's rocking chair album as I'd read about it in an otherwise unremarkable comic called Scout.
Looking back it might have been Hunt Emerson's fault. I had been reading his Comix stuff. If you can find some it you must buy it - totally off the wall, wild and crazy stuff, beautifully drawn and from the mind of a real original. One of his strips is called Max Zillion and is about a permanently put upon jazz saxophonist and his sidekick Alto who is, you've guessed it, an alto sax.
Maybe.
Charlie Parker is, of course, one of the most famous jazz musicians of all time. But why did I not come home with a Coltrane, Davis or Gillespie record?
Parker also stands for rebellion. Not only was he a musical maverick who changed the course of jazz but he also lived a wild, drug fuelled life. My 15 year old self would have given his eye teeth for a little sex and drugs!
In most ways Parker was wilder and more rebellious than any supposedly wild pop star. For a start he was a musical genius but also, for many at the time and later, he wrote the rule book on how to behave if you want to reject the system. He seemed to be playing by his own rules and not by those of the establishment. His life story makes that of someone like Keith Richards seem risible. Not only did Parker suffer at the hands of a racist system that denied he could be a musician of genius simply because he was black, a system that repeatedly locked him up and subjected him to horrific so-called treatments for his addiction, a system that tried to ensure that the majority of the money he made went to white club owners, record label owners or management, he tried to create his own musical world in which the ideas that he had, could flourish and be accepted.  He wasn't just fighting against something but fighting for something and that's what makes his life story (tragic and wasteful as it is) kind of inspiring.
How could I have known any of this what I was 15? Indeed did I have a clue about Parker, about the place of jazz in the history of American culture, about the story of resistance to cultural norms or about the horrors of drug addiction. No, of course not.
I got home and put the record on. It starts with the mellifluous tones of Symphony Sid saying something like 'If you haven't come down to Birdland you haven't lived'. I waited with bated breath for the musical anarchy I knew would follow. However, Bird's playing was so fast, so wild, so difficult and unlike anything I had ever hear before, I took the record off before the first side had finished. Putting it back in its sleeve I breathed a sigh of relief. "If THAT'S jazz, then maybe I don't like jazz," I told myself.
Its rather like trying to read the Wasteland and saying "If that's poetry I don't like poetry".
Every once in a while I would play it and be confirmed that it was too much for me.
But every time I played it some of his music would rub off on me. Something would stick in my mind and start to grow,  like a piece of coral under the skin, and eventually it had taken over and I was a fully fledged jazz fan.
Nowadays there is no need to buy records to find out about music. You can hear almost anything on-line before you buy it and there are countless sources suggesting music to you - if you like X you might like Y.
In that world I would never have found Parker. Sometime, as I've come to understand about Parker and his music, you need to take a chance and explore difference.

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