Jazz scholar Ted Gioia (author of The History of Jazz and other books) reminds us in the Weekly Standard that this month is the 60th anniversary of alto saxophonist Charlie Parker’s premature death: “…within the subculture of modern jazz, Parker was more than a star. He was a legend. Even before his death at age 34, 60 years ago this month, Parker had assumed the status of a demigod among those who followed the most progressive currents in jazz—as well as among hipsters, beatniks, and various practitioners of what passed for “alternative lifestyles” during the Eisenhower era. And even now, with 60 years of perspective since his untimely passing, we still struggle to separate the man from the myth.”
Sadly, Gioia further notes, the famed musician who changed the vocabulary of jazz playing is eclipsed by other jazz musicians: a Miles Davis, a Wayne Shorter, a Louis Armstrong, a Duke Ellington among jazz aficionados. But what Parker did for jazz equals in achievement what Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington did. By providing bebop with something more than breakneck virtuosity, but immense tone, feverish melody, and chordal complexity he revolutionized the jazz world single-handedly and created a new avant-garde. In the end, it was his frantic, edgy lifestyle of drugs (heroin) and aimless debauchery that bested him. Even if, as Gioia believes, Parker is less popular and less well-known, there is his astonishing work: “Ornithology” or “A Night In Tunisia”; even his stuff with strings, “I’ll Remember April” or “Embraceable You.” And there’s the excellent biography (the first of two treatments) by cultural critic Stanley Crouch, Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, that gives a full account of this troubled genius and why he matters.