Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
— T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”
Nothing happens in Paradise. We the Fallen, doomed from our first breath, see time as the enemy, something to race against, something to kill. Man, having two parts, one that will fall away, the other endless, invents ways of approaching the timeless—a place, fashioned with his hands, at which the self might last as long as the soul—an act both of self-preservation and self-annihilation, the dialectics of the artist. Struggling upstream toward home, we spawn as our bodies fall apart.
Most art objects that have a life in time (a poem, a novel, a symphony) inhabit a world of their own, self-referential, the time movement pieced together by the artist and no longer connected to him physically. The act of creation isn’t evident in the finished work; it doesn’t make any difference, say, how long it took to write “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” not in our understanding of the work itself. In jazz, we are present at the creation.
The artifact, in jazz, is a physical act, drawing its character not only from the shape of its melodies or the interaction of its forms, but from the way the notes are played. What you hear is shaped not only by the musician’s mind but by his body; reflex, physical dexterity, even body build, are determining factors no only in the delivery of the artifact but in its creation.
So we collect pictures of musicians, the hunch of a shoulder or an ironically raised eyebrow reminding us of the attitude behind the sound. We make sentimental visits to places associated with the music, hoping for clues to the creation, hoping to get just a step closer to the mystery by knowing what the musicians saw, how they must have felt when they climbed the stairs—clues to understanding the play of physical influences upon them, the sense input that got fed into the same machinery out of which those sweet notes sang.
No Twentieth Century musician except Duke Ellington has inspired as much interest and speculation as Charlie Parker. Yet how different were the kinds of attention accorded them. Duke was a Great Presence, ever behind a mask, impenetrable. Bird seemed to wear a different mask with everybody, and his constantly changing shape may have been his only protection, for he was an immensely vulnerable man. Bird was the greatest soloist in jazz history, and therein lies the secret of the difference. Duke created his own musical cosmos, in his composition and by surrounding himself with a band; Bird found a new way of playing off the one we have, musically and socially. He was a little more human, a little less god-like.
Cultural symbol and great artist; man in and out of time. Let us try to understand the inner dialogue.
One would be rich if one had a dollar for every tune from the 1920s and ’30s that had the word “jump” in the title, or “bounce” or “stomp” or “hop.” Swing music was named for a repeated rhythmic movement between two extremes. Musical time is usually expressed in physical terms. Musicians play “lines.” A line starts here and ends there. It implies movement through time.
Jazz’s rhythmic evolution before Bird was the process of musicians making their lines longer, less earthbound, more flexible, meaning less insistent on the beat, less overt, more oblique. In swing, when the band was booming, most players accentuated the beat, particularly the accents on the second and fourth beat of each measure—the fumes ignite as you plug into the chug of what’s happening around you, getting swept up in the logic of excitement which demands that it build to a climax.
Most of the highly regarded swing players had big tones, and used vibrato. Vibrato is an expressive device, a tool to convey a romantic moment. But in excess…imagine the throb and sob of the Guy Lombardo reed section. It is sentimental, and what is sentimentality but an excessive tendency to dwell on the emotions of the past at the expense of the moment? The antidote would lie in finding a way to stay in the present, which is to say keep it changing second by second, note to note. If a large sound tended to emphasize the note, a smaller one would tend to emphasize the line.
The most often-noted early criticism of Lester Young’s playing was that his tone was too small, too much like an alto, as he skied along his lines of evenly accented eighth notes. Young’s great achievement is to be found in the series of recordings he made with the Count Basie orchestra with the rhythm section of Basie, guitarist Freddie Green, bassist Walter Page and drummer Jo Jones, certainly the most buoyant, subtle rhythm section of its time.
The story has been often told of an adolescent Bird holed up in the Ozarks on a summer gig, memorizing the Lester Young solos from his Count Basie records. What Bird must have been listening for was Young’s grace and relaxation, the ease with which Young could glide down a scale, maybe holding one note for two beats with no vibrato, then picking up the line of eighth notes again. Relaxation was the key to a line that touched the present only long enough to deliver it into the next line of thought.
Bird found a place where lines and ideas evolved through time, and what made this more true of Bird than anyone before him was the combination of his rhythmic sense with his mastery of harmony. Lines move. But a line that moves over a static harmonic background is like a bird taking off and fluttering in the air then alighting back in the same place. The basis of the harmonic world that Bird inherited was the tonic/dominant function, the relation of the dominant seventh chord that is built on the fifth note of a scale to the chord built on the first note of the scale. The nature of the chord progressions associated with that system suggests voyage and return; you leave the prevailing harmonic gravity, go through changes, and eventually make your way home.
This movement was the harmonic basis of the blues and the American popular music from which jazz musicians drew their material. The American romantic song, no matter the harmonic territory it covered, always ended up home. Every twelve bars, or thirty-two, or sixty-four, after having told a little story the plot of which was the way-onto-way of the harmonic pulls and rests, the little cyclical unit ended in resolution, then began again.
The nature of a line over that kind of background was, had to be, forward movement. Bird expanded the vocabulary of passing tones and substitute chord changes so that one could keep the time moving forward even over a harmonic background that seemed to provide little movement. And, over this. Bird put lines that were totally relaxed, that would skate and counterskate and dazzle with their balance and perfect asymmetry. Not to have to emphasize the constant chug-chug of a passion machine but to be able to stand outside the movement, comment on it even as your fingers are shaping it is intelligence itself. So Bird took from his influences and boiled off the excess, anything—vestiges of wasted notes, notes for effect—that might separate him from the present, the place that kept him in one piece as he shaped time for himself.
More even than this, Bird’s approach meant a new vocabulary for the whole group. His rhythmic approach pointed a new way for drummers; there were new places and motivations for accenting. Bird didn’t introduce a new set of accents, but found a new way of stringing lines across the traditional manner of accenting. What might have been a simple four-note riff for a swing player would find shape as the accented notes in a long line of Bird’s. Drummers, understanding the basis of the accenting, could improvise what was, in effect, a counterpoint to Bird’s lines. His understanding of the assumptions behind the rhythmic impulses allowed him to keep his equilibrium while totally subverting the assumptions. Often he would start a phrase based on a standard rhythmic pattern, but at a different place in the measure than one would expect, and it would seem he was at a different place in the measure Than he was; this is what Max Roach called turning the time around. The real implication of his approach was a constantly evolving group counterpoint, something that Charles Mingus understood better than anyone.
Bird’s career was a fifteen-year party from which everyone took home different door prizes. Orchestrators learned new things about harmony and counterpoint. Saxophonists would dare to conceive of new horizons of technique. Some soloists would develop Bird’s conception of melody even further. Sonny Rollins and Lee Konitz are perhaps the two best examples of this, fascinating because they show how much latitude exists within the vocabulary for the expression of very different humors. Blue Mitchell and Junior Cook and Lou Donaldson and innumerable others would get hip to the relaxation and the way of running changes and the blues feeling that ran through all of Parker’s work and develop that. Miles Davis bloomed under Bird’s wing. But nobody ever caught all of it, not the harmonic knowledge combined with the closeness to the roots combined with the absolute relaxation and virtuosity and passion and humor and directness and obliqueness. Bird took tonic/dominant harmony and linear motion just about as far as it could go. The time would come when John Coltrane, having beaten his head against the wall of endless permutations of chord changes would burst (fueled by insights from Kind of Blue) into a music with no reference to past and future, where everything happened in one chord, or no chord, a burning present.
Bird was a prism, perched at the center of jazz; into him went the light of a tendency, it got drawn through the needle’s eye and then exploded in a rainbow of possibilities. Bird was balanced on the edge between a romantic era and a cynical era; the years since have not been kind to believers (of any color). Bird came at a breaking point in history, seeing the truth behind the sham, but close enough to the dying dream to play with all the fire of one who can almost bring himself to keep believing. Imagine the size of the conflicting forces within him.
How in the name of Heaven can he escape
That defiling and disfigured shape
The mirror of malicious eyes
Casts upon his eyes until at last
He thinks that shape must be his shape?
— William Butler Yeats, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul”
I suspect that the only time Bird felt in one piece was when he was playing. The agony of jazz is that its artists can never be pure artists in the old sense; they are never separate from what they produce. We are forced to infer things about the musician from what he plays.
Art in the past couple hundred years has been regarded as a province of the contemplative life, but jazz reaches out to action; it is the place where action and contemplation meet. Perhaps the point of the most perfect union is a Charlie Parker solo. Norman Mailer once referred to Muhammad Ali as the first psychologist of the body—a neat formulation but the title belonged to Bird first.
A musician’s playing always reflects him as a person, because the music’s qualities are the qualities of a person as he is in the moment, not in reflection. There can be no “Gee, I wish I had…” The reflection and the groundwork is what has gone before the fact, so that the forcefulness and allusiveness and humor and time-sense and degree of relaxation and intensity mirror what he is like in the world of action. Small wonder, then, that an improvising genius, an innovator of Parker’s stature, might have enough energy and intelligence and contradicting elements in his personality to fuel legends for years to come.
Jazz musicians are public figures by definition; they are performers. Public figures are observed by people who will interpret their actions, both artistic and social, in many different ways, over which the figure has little control. You still see through your own eyes and feel with your heart, but to others, who can’t know you personally, you are something you might never know. So you always have to gauge peoples’ reaction to you on the basis of what they seem to know of your image. In many ways, this is the story of any Twentieth Century artist, for one knows one’s audience less and less, one can count on fewer shared assumptions. Bird was so Protean, he had so many conflicting parts, that people were always trying to reduce him in their minds to something less than what he was, either by seeing him as some primitive black witch doctor with magic powers, or as a modern Liszt—some image where the mind could get its leg over and be comfortable. This is the great blasphemy of Ross Russell’s book about Bird: All Russell could see was Bird the con-man, the egomaniac, the near psychopath who was driven to be the greatest at any cost. What of the love and irony in his playing? What of his kindness to beginners? What of his sensitivity?
Bird was indeed a confidence man in many ways—he had a different mask for everyone—but those masks, like the disguises of Melville’s confidence man, were mostly a reflection of what people wanted to see in him. It was amazing he lasted as long as he did.
An artist makes exemplary objects that show the world as he would like to see it, or as he is forced to see it. You can hear it all in his music if you listen, really listen—the con man and the preacher, father and stud, smell of fried chicken and hospital corridor, jump alto and cool Lester, white hiss and bath of heroin and crash of bottle on the head, bodies stacked at Treblinka, friends dead and crazy, bird whistles in the park, drunk in Brooklyn, subway roar and Ozark nights and nutmeg and Mozart and rainy nights on Broadway with nowhere to go, now was always the time, for tomorrow…oh, tomorrow might never come.
By Tom Piazza
[Originally published in Jazz Magazine, Spring 1979]