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There’s no shortage of commentary proclaiming the significance of the meteoric genius Charlie Parker. Born 100 years ago this year, on August 29, in Kansas City, Missouri — dead less than 35 years later, a victim of prodigious appetites and addictions — he galvanized the creation of bebop and, along with Dizzy Gillespie, nurtured it to maturity. Three-quarters of a century after bop appeared, that process arguably remains the most significant event in jazz since the music took shape at all.
Bop transformed jazz from mere entertainment to true art form. It moved the music from big bands to small combos. It bolstered the black intelligentsia. It set the stage for everything that followed. At once liberating and threatening, bop was a musical tsunami that swept over the larger culture as well, seeping into radio ads, movie and TV soundtracks, literature, dance, painting. Its undercurrents are so familiar, you may have trouble comprehending what made it so revolutionary in the first place.
So try blocking out the historical antecedents, such as the swing music Parker loved as a kid and then eclipsed; tune out the drugs and the legendry; ignore the enormity of his discoveries, and home in on the notes themselves. Let yourself drink in the speed, the tone, the fire of his imagination; the accuracy, the audacity, the authority of his concept; his limitless command of the new syntax and the mercurial poetry he created with it. Audiophiles, accustomed to high-definition fidelity, may diss the primitive recording techniques. (A preponderance of Bird tracks aren’t even stereo.) Listeners who groove to rock or hip-hop may find bebop song forms antiquated; symphony lovers might think the omnipresent sax-trumpet pairings are too unyielding. Forget all that. Once you leave this baggage on the platform and just take the ride, you cannot miss the exuberance, humor, passion — the sheer life-force — contained in Parker’s explosive flights.
His music brims with other emotions, of course, and it points in multiple directions. The more you know about Bird and his world, the more it expands. Once you learn his own history, you can appreciate his connections to not only jazz’s past but also to all of Western music — and the fact that bop was as much evolution as revolution. Explore his discography and he becomes Proteus, instantly adapting to his surroundings — quartet, Latin jazz orchestra, sumptuous strings — while leaving no doubt as to who’s behind the mask. Hearing him on jam sessions or with pickup rhythm sections reveals the fact that he could lift any band to the next level.
But maybe not to his level. Chris Potter, perhaps the most lionized saxophonist of his generation, recently said, “It’s still always amazing how much more in the future he sounds than the rest of the band. His playing would have sounded great in the year 1500, and it’s going to sound great in the year 2500.”
Important milestones, especially centennials, inevitably raise a question repeated often enough to become a cliché. “Is [name the artist or genre] still relevant all these years later? Does this music still matter?” So, a hundred years after his birth and 65 years after his death, we wonder: Does Charlie Parker and the singularly stirring music he made still matter?
To those who find pleasure in marveling at the sublime creative and spiritual heights to which a select few human beings can rise, he matters. To those many artists who, because of Parker’s music, have been inspired to reach for those same lofty heights in their own work, he matters. To those who love bebop and the entire sonic forest that grew from seeds that Parker planted, he matters, as he does to anyone who finds the world a better place for the enduring presence of soulful, beautiful music.
As Chris Potter suggests, Parker’s music will always matter, and it is through that music that, indeed, Bird lives. - Neil Tesser