The essence of Bird
It’s 25 years since I made the decision to avoid Clint Eastwood’s Charlie Parker biopic. I’d been sent the Bird album, and the discovery that the director had found it necessary to tamper with Parker’s original recordings in order to provide his film with a technically adequate soundtrack made me angry. It seemed outrageous. How could anyone find it acceptable to strip away the piano playing of John Lewis, the bass playing of Tommy Potter and the drumming of Max Roach and replace them with other musicians playing along to the sound of Parker’s alto saxophone in a modern recording studio? Eastwood may have been motivated by a genuine desire to pay homage to a genius of modern music, but what he and the film’s musical director, Lennie Niehaus, committed was an offence against the idea that these recordings — like any jazz recordings by an ensemble, come to that — are works of collective endeavour to which each individual part makes an essential contribution. Even if the “replacement” musicians included such irreproachable bebop-era veterans as Barry Harris and Ray Brown, it was like taking the Mona Lisa and photoshopping in the Las Vegas skyline as a background instead of the Tuscan hills of the original, just because the modern digital image was sharper. Doing it for the benefit of the film was one thing; releasing the result of this tampering as the soundtrack album compounded the offence.
Earlier this week I heard Eastwood talking about the film with the singer Jamie Cullum, who is presenting a Radio 2 series called Jazz at the Movies. Cullum is one of those “celebrities” nowadays preferred by the BBC as the presenters of radio programmes on jazz, in the decidedly un-Reithian conviction that their mere presence will attract a bigger audience. Such great broadcasters as Charles Fox and Peter Clayton, men who loved jazz, knew a great deal about it, and also knew how to communicate their authority and enthusiasm, must be turning in their graves.
Needless to say, Cullum got nothing interesting out of Eastwood, least of all on the subject of the substitution of the rhythm sections on the soundtrack of Bird. (You can hear their conversation here.) It was all too easy to imagine Fox gently and politely posing a question about the seemliness of the exercise. But, finally, it persuaded me set my old prejudice aside and watch a DVD of the film.
Like practically all biopics, it is effectively a cartoon, a simplification and an exaggeration of the real story, but not without its merits. Forest Whitaker is a wonderful actor and gives an affecting and finely nuanced performance in a demanding role, although his voice and presence (if not his physical bulk) seem a bit lightweight for Parker, who had a rich baritone speaking voice. The excellent Diane Venora plays Chan Parker, Bird’s last (common-law) wife, whose participation in the making of the film might prompt one to question the degree of objectivity with which she is portrayed. The late scene in which Parker enters a New York theatre and discovers an old rival playing rock and roll to an ecstatic audience of teenagers is a ludicrous and demeaning invention.
I was interested in the character of Audrey (played by Anna Levine), an artist with whom Parker has an affair during his visits to Los Angeles in the 1950s. She is clearly based on Julie Macdonald, who befriended the saxophonist and was with him when he received the news in March 1954 that his infant daughter Pree had died in New York, provoking a collapse that prefaced his final decline and ultimate demise 12 months later.
During his stays with Macdonald, they discussed art and classical music and probably much else; whatever else their relationship may have been about, this was also a meeting of minds. She produced at least two remarkable sculptures based on his likeness: one, a full-length study in lignum vitae, a dark hardwood, was last heard of in the ownership of Robert Reisner, who had promoted Parker in New York clubs; the other, pictured at the top of this piece, was carved from a piece of pale, lightly striated Pasadena sandstone and weighs 275lb. She sold it in 1961 to a California collector, apparently to raise the cash to buy a Ferrari, and it is currently in the possession of William Dickson, a retired Edinburgh architect who is now a photographer and a collector of post-war jazz artefacts and memorabilia. Three years ago I wrote a feature about the piece in the Guardian, having gone up to Scotland to see it, and it is through Dickson’s kind permission that his photograph is reproduced here. Bizarrely, given its great importance and direct relationship with such a historic figure, it has never been on public exhibition.
Macdonald took her inspiration from Egyptian heads of the 15th dynasty, which she and Parker had looked at together, and Yoruba carvings of the 14th to the 16th century. In my view she evokes more of her subject’s complex and profound essence than the director of Bird, for all his unquestionably good intentions, could capture in two and a half hours of celluloid. And I’m afraid I still can’t forgive Eastwood for erasing the sound of those great musicians with whom Parker created his masterpieces.