I am currently (re)reading “Bird Lives” by Ross Russell. First published in 1973, this book is considered by many as one of the gold standard jazz biographies. In this case, the biography is of Charlie Parker who died just months shy of his 35th birthday. He was a genius of the first order; an incomparable artist. He was loved for his art, but also loved by many close friends and family. He was also utterly self-destructive. Unable to control his inner demons – the ones that drove him to every possible excess: food, alcohol, drugs, sex – to barely start a list, his life was cut short by poor health. He simply burned through the life he was given, at breakneck speed.
Since his art was mostly improvised, we are lucky that his unique and astonishing body of work was recorded. (Can you imagine if we were able to listen to Beethoven, for example, improvising on a melodic idea given to him by a party goer or a rival?) There are notated versions of many of Bird’s compositions and many transcribed (notated) improvised solos. These creations were mostly short (in clock time) and brilliant. Thousands of saxophonists have studied these solos, learned to play them, sing them, and commit them to memory. He developed his own ‘vocabulary’ and used his prodigious technical command of the saxophone to it’s fullest degree.
His music, commonly referred to as Bebop, is now “out-of-date” in some ways. The music, the technique of the saxophone, and the artistic approaches to playing jazz have all evolved over the many years since his death. And yet, his influence is still strongly felt, particularly among alto saxophonists, but certainly by all jazz musicians.
I was 7 years old when he died. I find it kind of amazing to think he and I were on the planet at the same time, and I wish I had been old enough and in the right place to have heard him live. The famous Massey Hall concert of May 15, 1953 happened in Toronto less than 20 miles from where I grew up, and while I suppose a five year old might have been allowed in, that event wasn’t on my parents’ radar, nor of course, mine. Still it is marvellous that we have that wonderful well-documented concert to study and enjoy forever thanks to Charles Mingus’ recording the event with a tape recorder he set up to archive the event. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1995. Suggested further reading on this: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jazz_at_Massey_Hall&oldid=982145870.
This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Bird’s birth. Yet another artist whose life was too short, and difficult in so many ways. His legacy is rich beyond all imagination. If you haven’t read the Ross Russell book, I highly recommend it. It tells the story of Bird’s life, but it also relates, vividly, the history of jazz in Kansas City in the 30s and 40s and a window into the world Charlie Parker inhabited so briefly.