Charlie Parker was born on August 29, 1920. A lot has been written in acknowledgment of his centenary**, about how he changed the way players of all instruments approached the business of playing jazz and about how his improvisations still sound newly minted. I’ve been thinking about those things, too, but also about what he might have left undone.
His final session in a recording studio, on December 10, 1954, three months before his death, saw him record two standards, “Love for Sale” and “I Love Paris”, at Fine Sounds in New York City for Norman Granz’s Verve label. Five takes of one, two takes of the other. Something caused the three-hour session, which would normally have produced five or six masters, to be truncated. Later the best takes of the two tunes formed part of an album called Charlie Parker Plays Cole Porter, the fifth volume of a posthumous series titled The Genius of Charlie Parker. His solos were adequate, but the deployment of the quintet format — alto, piano, guitar, bass and drums — offered him nothing new, no fresh stimulus. The Latin vamp behind the theme statement of “I Love Paris” is tired and lugubrious.
And that, mostly, was the story of his last few years. The increasingly tragic chaos of his personal life and the imperatives that came with it militated not just against artistic rigour and discipline but against any sustained attempt at further artistic development.
In musical terms, what had Bird needed for two or three years before his death was some kind of new challenge. Instead he was corralled by his own supreme mastery of the idiom he had helped invent. The rare attempts to venture beyond the head-solos-head format of small-group bebop, in the dates with strings or the sessions with Gil Evans and the Dave Lambert Singers, saw the compass set for the land of easy listening. Although on the recordings with strings and woodwind — arranged by Jimmy Carroll and Joe Lipman, a pair of journeymen — Parker occasionally produced some celestial playing (and, as it happens, I’m very fond of them), the context was not inherently stimulating.
Yet we know that in the late 1940s Parker had spent time at 14 West 55th Street, Gil Evans’s basement apartment, where George Russell, John Lewis and Gerry Mulligan were among those who met to discuss the future of music and how they might shape it. We know he listened to Bartók and Stravinsky, and that Edgard Varèse had offered to give him lessons in composition. We know he was interested in what Lennie Tristano was up to. He had an omnivorous intellect and was not hidebound by his own genre.
In February 1954 there was a hint, in a very unlikely setting, of how things might have been different. According to Ross Russell in Bird Lives!, it was when Stan Getz went missing after the first date of a 10-city national tour titled the Festival of Modern American Jazz that the Billy Shaw Agency paid Parker a good fee to fly out to San Francisco and take the place of the absent star. Ken Vail’s Bird’s Diary tells a different story, which has Parker playing on every concert from the start of the tour.
The line-up featured Kenton’s 18-piece orchestra — with Stu Williamson among the trumpets, Frank Rosolino on trombone, Charlie Mariano and Bill Perkins in the reed section, Don Bagley on bass and Stan Levey on drums — and a selection of star guests: Erroll Garner (with his trio), Dizzy Gillespie, June Christy, Lee Konitz and Candido Camero. The tour started in Wichita Falls, Texas, and made its way in an anti-clockwise direction around America, its stops including the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the Brooklyn Paramount and Toronto’s Massey Hall before ending up at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.
On February 25 the 18th concert of the tour took place at the Civic Auditorium in Portland, Oregon. Someone made a recording of Bird with the Kenton band, playing “Night and Day”, “My Funny Valentine” and “Cherokee”, all subsequently available on a variety of bootleg LPs and CDs (e.g. The Jazz Factory’s Charlie Parker: Live with the Big Bands, which has better sound than these YouTube clips). These days I find I play them as much as any of Bird’s better known recordings.
From the photograph of him in front of the band, he looks to be in good physical shape. His tone is firm but warm and pliable, his phrasing unquenchably inventive as he sails over the contours of the standards, lifted by the excellent rhythm section. The arrangements are standard big-band stuff, which makes you wonder how Bird would have handled some of the more adventurous material in the Kenton repertoire, by composer/arrangers such as Bill Russo or Bob Graettinger.
It seems to me that if Parker lacked anything in musical terms, it was someone to play Gil Evans to his Miles Davis: someone to envision the kind of setting that would have spurred him on towards new dimensions. Maybe that man could even have been Gil Evans himself, doing for Bird what he did for Miles with the arrangements for Birth of the Cool and Miles Ahead. Their one session together, in 1953, turned out to be the most curious item in his entire discography: mushy choir-and-woodwind arrangements of “In the Still of the Night”, “Old Folks” and “If I Love Again” written to order in a misconceived stab at broadening Bird’s audience (although, once again, they spark some defiantly brilliant alto work, like Basquiat graffiti on a suburban white picket fence).
Imagine if Parker and Evans had been able to work together towards the end of the ’50s, with a good budget and plenty of time to plan and prepare a serious project. Imagine if a healthy Parker, in his mid-forties, had engaged with a coming generation. Imagine a Blue Note date in 1964 under Andrew Hill’s leadership, with Lee Morgan, Richard Davis, Bobby Hutcherson, Grachan Moncur III, Sam Rivers, Tony Williams and Bird tackling Hill’s tunes. Imagine him actually taking a course of study with Varèse, and finding his own compositional voice for a large ensemble, synthesising everything he knew. Imagine Eric Dolphy arranging Bird’s tunes — for Bird.
These are idle thoughts, obviously. He did more than enough. But still… Happy 100th birthday, anyway, Mr Parker.
* The stone bust of Charlie Parker was made by the sculptor Julie Macdonald, a friend with whom Bird stayed in Los Angeles at the end of the Festival of Modern American Jazz tour. The photograph was taken by its present owner, William Dickson, and is used by his permission. I told the story of the sculpture here in the Guardian a few years ago. The photo of Parker as an infant is from To Bird with Love by Francis Paudras and Chan Parker, published by Editions Wislov in 1981.