Saxophonist Charlie Parker with trumpeter Miles Davis to his left at the Three Deuces in New York in August of 1947, with bassist Tommy Potter and drummer Max Roach behind them (photograph by William P. Gottlieb from the collection of his photos at the Library of Congress, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
This past Saturday, August 29, 2020, marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Charlie (“Bird”) Parker. I had expected that this occasion would draw more attention, but the only acknowledgement I managed to find was an article in The New York Times by Alan Scherstuhl entitled “Charlie Parker at 100: What to Read, Watch and Dig,” which was filed at 8 a.m. on August 26. It turned out that opportunities for watching were rather limited, since there was only one filmed account of Parker in performance. This took place on a television show hosted by pianist Dick Hyman on the occasion when Parker was presented with the 1951 Down Beat award for best alto saxophonist. He was joined by Dizzy Gillespie receiving an award for best trumpeter of all time. Hyman, Parker, and Gillespie then teamed up with Sandy Block on bass and Charlie Smith on drums for a performance of Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House.” (As Scherstuhl noted, there was another film on which the musicians mimed performance of a prerecorded track.)
Both of these brief films appear in Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker, an episode in the American Masters series produced by the New York PBS affiliate WNET. This was first aired on August 17, 1989 and will remain on an American Masters Web page until April 30, 2023. The title of the episode is taken from the title of a book about Parker by Gary Giddins, who partnered with Kendrick Simmons to produce the documentary.
Sadly, this film is evidence of how much efforts to present documentaries about making jazz have improved over the last 30 years. To be fair, Giddins and Simmons were working with relatively little historical content. As a result, the overall impression was one of too many talking heads reflecting on too little music. Since I have a more-than-modest collection of CDs of Parker performances, I suspect I would be better off reading Giddens’ book, reinforcing my impressions by listening to appropriate tracks.
To be fair, music from the golden age of bebop does not hold up very well to casual listening (or viewing by Public Television audiences). Parker was a master of inventing contrafacts. This involves taking the underlying chord progression of a familiar tune and weaving an entirely different melodic line over that progression. The technique is illustrated in the Celebrating Bird film by “Ko-Ko,” which is a contrafact of “Cherokee;” and it is virtually impossible to hear any signs of “Cherokee” against Parker’s eccentric rhythms and fragmented motifs.
The fact is that developing an “ear” for Parker’s tunes and improvisations is very much in the same league as developing an “ear” for the solo piano compositions of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Rather than consult a documentary or even the book that provides the source for that documentary, the curious listener would do better to spend time listening to selected tracks over and over. (For those wondering if I take my own advice, it was through this technique that I became familiar enough with “Ko-Ko” to appreciate the many ways in which Parker could improvise over it.) Such an approach to appreciation would be the best alternative to going to the clubs were Parker played and listening again and again to selections such as “Ko-Ko” and “Hot House.” After enough exposure “Bird” will fly again in the mind of such a determined listener.