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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.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. When I wrote A Hard Day’s Write I discovered that the Beatles’ ‘Doctor Robert’ referred to a notorious ‘speed doctor’ Dr. Robert Freymann of New York who had a special affinity for musicians, Charlie Parker being one of his clients. It was he who in the end signed Bird’s death certificate. I love the way you bring together such apparently disconnected pieces of information and to weave such a seamless garment of a piece.

    May 8, 2013
  2. Another fascinating Moment. I’d not heard of either Julie Macdonald or William Dickson, but I’d seen that piece before and never forgotten it. It has real presence. I maintain a dogged prejudice against the Eastwood movie, never having seen it. The whol;e concept seemed flawed from the start. I do marvel at the impossibility of getting the music anywhere near right in these movies, and shudder at the prospect of a Miles bio.

    May 8, 2013
  3. Evan Parker #

    I went to see “Bird” in New York with Aki Takase. At the end she just said, “Changes too modern”
    I think Forrest Whittaker and Diane Venora are great and the fact that most of the film takes place at night is brave. The flying cymbal/symbol is piss poor. Everythingl you say is on the money.

    May 8, 2013
    • Thanks, Evan. One thing I couldn’t help noticing was that the bass sound was far too rich throughout the film. Double basses didn’t sound that way until Ron Carter.

      May 8, 2013
  4. Richard I think you’re being quite hard on Jamie Cullum who is a genuine musician with proper ears, and a presenter with integrity (the BBC needs that right) rather than just part of the sleb-factory.

    As a listener to his show on my way in the car to my weekly play in a big band, I find he and the production team use the platform of the weekly show imaginatively, to broaden the listening diet away from standard playlists.

    May 8, 2013
    • Sorry, Sebastian, but I associate JC all too easily with the Michael Parkinson school of jazz, for which I have no enthusiasm at all. Now you might say that’s better than no jazz at all, and you might very well be right, but I think the BBC can and should do better. Of course I’m admirer of what the corporation does with Jez Nelson, Allyn Shipton and Fiona Talkington.

      May 8, 2013
  5. Mick Steels #

    Interesting point about the cult of the ‘celebrity’ presenter on the BBC, one could say because his show is on Radio 2 its target audience is larger than Radio 3. Even so I would imagine he got the gig because of his showbiz affiliations/public profile rather than because, as he admits, he is a moderate pianist. His interviews always display a naivety which cannot be masked by his encouraging enthusiasm for the music, maybe he should just stick to playing records, like Humph used to do.
    I was never a Clayton fan, but Fox was always good value usually found on Radio 3 if I remember correctly, where critical analysis can be given greater depth.

    May 8, 2013
  6. I agree with Sebastian Scotney of London News that you are being hard on Jamie Cullum who has a genuine love and knowledge of jazz. I miss Charles Fox very much, but Jamie brings a lot of new listeners to the music; today that is much needed. On the more important topic of the film, the thing that worried me most was that Forrest Whitaker, while portraying Parker with sympathy, always when ‘playing’ moved vigorously in a way that I don’t think Parker did on the evidence of the limited amount of footage we have of his playing.

    May 8, 2013
  7. Richard Leigh #

    I remember coming out of the Eastwood film thoroughly depressed: the film was terrible, and there will probably never be another. I suppose most biopics about artists are bad; but having grown up to the sound of Parker I was rather possessive. The refusal of various musicians to collaborate must have been an obstacle – they must have foreseen the result.
    As for Cullum: he’s clearly very enthusiastic, and means well. But I remember Charles Fox as an expert, which Cullum isn’t. It’s quite possible that, if there WERE an expert available, he’d refuse to speak to Eastwood about the travesty. And as for the tampering with the music: surely the music is the reason for the film’s existence?

    May 12, 2013
  8. Ted Panken #

    Quick point. I haven’t seen “Bird” for a long time, but I believe that “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” refers to the appropriation of “Now Is The Time” into the R&B hit “The Hucklebuck.” So the scene may be ludicrous, but is perhaps less “demeaning” than you might think. My personal low point was, if I remember correctly, the conceit that Red Rodney was the subject of Bird’s final thoughts.

    May 13, 2013
    • Thanks for that. That’s an interesting observation re “Now’s the Time” / “The Hucklebuck”, but the film makes Parker do something that I’m pretty certain he didn’t do, in order to provide the film with a dramatic scene. There must have been a subtler way to get the point across. Re Red Rodney: I quite agree. It’s one of the areas in which the film is compromised by its primary sources.

      May 13, 2013
  9. Alan Hill #

    Hi Richard. I’ve just caught up with this Bird piece.

    I can understand your reservations about removing the contributions of the musicians who actually played with Bird on the tracks featured in the film. But isn’t it the case that all the tracks Eastwood used were recorded “live”? And isn’t it also the case that with rare exceptions (Birdland with Dizzy and Bud Powell on March 31, 1951, not used in the film), the vast majority of live Bird recordings, many of them Benedetti-esque bootlegs, have Bird way front in the mix and the other musicans just a noise in the background?

    I can quite clearly remember driving around Sydney one night in 1988 and a track from the CD (Lester Leaps In?) came on. A modern, clearly recorded rhythm section led in and then came an alto sax, down in the mix, sounding just like Bird. A few phrases later it dawned on me that it was Bird, with re-recorded rhythm section.

    Interfering with the truth, but all in a good cause, I reckon.

    The film has its moments, some good, some dire. I saw it at an 11am screening in the cinema and the usher was baffled that no one left before the credits had finished rolling . . . who’s going to walk out on Parker’s Mood?

    I have it on DVD but haven’t seen it for years. It’s pretty dark and downbeat, and I’ve read that musicians who knew Bird insist that even in his last year he was fun to be around at least some of the time,

    thebluemoment is wonderful. Thank you.

    June 28, 2013
    • Thank you, Mr Hill. We should remember that Bird died while laughing at a juggler on a TV show…

      June 28, 2013
  10. The central thrust of this post seems to me to be beyond argument. Wouldn’t it be great if just for once – you could call it an experiment – Hollywood could make a properly authentic film about something?

    I found myself here while trying to find ways of getting hold of Charles Fox magnificent Radio 3 series on Bird. I digitized my 30-odd years of jazz (etc) documentaries last year then a fortnight later lost all my data, never to be recovered. Anyone out there with the tapes (don’t suppose you have them Richard?)?

    March 8, 2014
    • Alas, no. I’d give a lot just to hear Charles Fox again. His profound erudition and beautiful, unaffected delivery made him the sort of broadcaster the BBC no longer bothers to develop.

      March 8, 2014
      • humperdinkysaurus #

        Again I cannot disagree. I personally regret that Russell Davies no longer does anything like that and that the whole golden era of authoritative Radio 3 jazz documentaries has passed.

        It happens that I kept some of the tapes I had digitized, pending me transcribing the track info. This means I will be able to re-do one Charles Fox series – the lovely one on Jelly Roll Morton. If you would like a copy of the resulting mp3s, email me your address and I’d be happy to let you have them when I’m done.

        March 9, 2014
  11. Julie Macdonald is my wife’s grandmother, so we may be in the minority of those who know about The Bird’s likeness in sculpture. What a very unusual story!

    August 17, 2014

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