Commentary Magazine

Blues for Mister Charlie

After Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker ranks as the most influential jazz musician of the 20th century. He was also a hard-drinking heroin addict whose habits directly led to his death in 1955 at the untimely age of 34. In a profession whose members have long been known for their erratic behavior, Parker’s irresponsibility stood out, so much so that it became impossible for him to find steady work despite being universally regarded by his contemporaries as a genius. On various occasions he has been described as a con man, a sociopath, even an idiot savant, and while none of these terms is accurate, they all point to one aspect or another of his famously difficult personality.

Parker was neither the first nor the last great jazzman to destroy himself with drugs or drink. But the gulf between his disciplined musical mind and his near total lack of personal self-control was so wide that many of his colleagues found it horrifying to contemplate. According to the drummer Max Roach, who played in Parker’s quintet in the 1940s, a group of his fellow musicians took him aside and warned him to change his ways before it was too late:

We were telling him how much he meant to us, how much he meant to black people, how much he meant to black music. And for him to throw away his f—ing life like that was ridiculous.

Yet he continued to do so, and when he died of lobar pneumonia a decade later, the attending physician concluded after examining Parker’s corpse that he was 53, not 34.

Because of all this, it is hard to write about Parker’s musical achievements without also considering his squalid private life. But there has been no factually sound full-length biography, and while Parker’s playing has been carefully parsed by critics and scholars, very little light has been shed on the causes of his self-devastating behavior.

Two new books about Parker fail—perhaps inevitably—to close this gap, but both of them are valuable, albeit in different ways. The essayist Stanley Crouch’s Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker (HarperCollins, 384 pages), the first installment of a two-volume account based on interviews with Parker’s family, friends, and associates, tracks him through 1940, the year in which he made his first recordings. Meanwhile, Chuck Haddix, a Kansas City–based scholar, has brought out a brief life called Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker (University of Illinois, 224 pages) that makes extensive use of primary-source material, much of it hitherto unknown.

Crouch’s book is less a biography than a floridly written piece of old-fashioned storytelling. Judging by his source notes, he has done no archival research, preferring to work from secondary sources and his own interviews. Moreover, he does not scruple to include deep-purple novelistic passages that purport to reveal his subject’s inner thoughts (“He could feel his every breath, almost the flow of his blood, the indifferent presence of his nervous system”). But Kansas City Lightning also contains useful insights into Parker’s character, and the interviews on which it is based will make it an essential source for future jazz scholars and biographers.

Bird, by contrast, is more straightforwardly conventional in approach and far more reliable, academically speaking, than Kansas City Lightning. Extensively researched and fully annotated, it sets forth the known facts of Parker’s brief life in a way that is unusually thorough for so concise a book, and if Haddix’s prose is workmanlike to a fault, it is never less than clear and readable.

But Crouch and Haddix are not trained musicians, and so they have nothing to say about Parker’s music beyond the level of generalized assertion.1 Nor do they answer the question that must necessarily occur to anyone with more than a casual interest in Charlie Parker: What made him behave in a way that not only shortened his life but also impaired his ability to make the art on which his reputation rests?

Born in Kansas City in 1920, Parker was the only legitimate son of an alcoholic evangelist-turned-Pullman-worker who was absent for most of his childhood and youth and played no part in his upbringing. Addie, his mother, was an emotionally distant woman who spoiled him as if to compensate for her lack of personal warmth. As a result, her son, though bright and well-spoken, became an indifferent student who took no sustained interest in anything, academic or otherwise, until he discovered jazz and resolved at once to become a professional musician.

Unlike most virtuosos, Parker was not a child prodigy, and he did not start studying his instrument in earnest until he was publicly humiliated by Jo Jones, Count Basie’s drummer, at a 1936 jam session for which he was inadequately prepared. After that he practiced obsessively, by his own account for “11 to 15 hours a day,” and his natural gifts soon became manifest. Before long he was working with Buster Smith, one of the city’s top saxophonists, and in 1940 he joined Jay McShann’s big band, cutting his first commercial recordings the following year.

It was not until 1945 that he began to record regularly. By then he was a fully formed artist who had already forged a radically original musical style known by the onomatopoeic title of “bebop,” a neologism that mimics the two-note rhythmic motives heard in such early bop compositions as “Salt Peanuts” (1944). A year later Parker played George Gershwin’s “Oh, Lady Be Good!” at a Los Angeles concert, accompanied by a group of jazz veterans that included Lester Young, Basie’s legendary tenor-saxophone soloist, on whom the younger man had initially modeled his playing. According to John Lewis, who later became the pianist of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Parker’s slashing solo “made old men out of everyone onstage that night.”2

Parker’s style was at once a departure from and an extension of the familiar language of swing-era jazz. To hear him perform alongside such revered older jazzmen as Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, and Ben Webster on a recording like Funky Blues (1952) is to understand how completely at ease he was with jazz tradition. What set him apart was not his virtuosity, which was astonishing but by no means without precedent, or his chromatically enriched harmonic vocabulary, which was foreshadowed by the earlier innovations of Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, and Art Tatum (from whose piano playing he also borrowed the high-velocity “double-time” passages heard in his solos). It was, rather, Parker’s jagged, off-center rhythms that became bebop’s defining feature. “The beat in a bop band,” he explained, “is with the music, against it, behind it.” To this end, the drummers who played with him abandoned the smoothly flowing four-to-the-bar bass-drum patterns of the swing era and shifted their timekeeping to the cymbals.

Parker was not the only jazz musician who started working in this advanced rhythmic vein in the early 40s. The trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie was doing much the same thing, and the two men were startled by the similarity of their playing when they met in 1940. The recordings they made together five years later show that their approaches were fully compatible, and that they were jointly responsible for the initial development of bebop.

Even so, there was a fundamental difference in their styles. Gillespie, whose brilliant but emotionally detached playing had no blues feeling whatsoever, admitted that he and most of the other early boppers found the blues to be “unsophisticated” and insufficiently challenging. Not so Parker, who “personified the blues idiom,” Gillespie said. “When he played the blues, he was a real blueser.” Moreover, he frequently incorporated blues-based riffs into his solos on standards (including “Oh, Lady Be Good!”). And though the whirling virtuosity of up-tempo flagwavers like “Koko” (1945) and Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts” became bebop’s trademark, it was the twin poles of “Embraceable You” (1947) and “Parker’s Mood” (1948), the first near abstract yet passionately lyrical ballad, the second a slower-than-slow blues, that defined the full range of his own creativity. These recordings, and others like them, were so overt in their emotionalism that many listeners who found Parker’s angular rhythms and hard-edged tone to be off-putting could still appreciate the deep feeling with which his solos were charged.

Many—but not all. Some believed that Parker’s music was not jazz in any normal sense of the word. The French critic Hugues Panassié went so far as to call him “an extremely gifted musician [who] gradually gave up jazz in favor of bop.” But others begged to differ, in particular the younger musicians for whom he was a giant who could do no wrong. The pianist Hampton Hawes spoke for them all when he described the experience of hearing Parker play for the first time: “I was molded on the spot, like a piece of clay stamped out.”

Unfortunately, Parker’s musical style was not the only thing that they sought to emulate. Dozens of them also concluded that his addiction to heroin was the secret of his genius, and so wrecked their lives as he had his.

Parker started using narcotics as a teenager, around the same time he began playing jazz. After an epic binge caused him to be temporarily committed to a mental hospital in California in 1946, the jazz press started publishing articles about his substance abuse, turning him into (in his own wry phrase) “the world’s most famous junkie.” By 1950 he could no longer be counted on to show up for performances, or to be sober on the bandstand when he did. He joked about his unreliability: “My watch don’t work that well. I don’t show up to all my gigs.” But club owners, concert promoters, and managers eventually realized that he could not be trusted, and refused to book him.

Parker told a journalist that he was a “victim of circumstance…high school kids don’t know any better.” Few of his fellow jazzmen, however, accepted this excuse for his behavior, least of all those who had themselves fought and won battles with the demon of drug addiction. Miles Davis, who played in Parker’s quintet throughout the 40s, saw him as a monster of uncontrolled self-indulgence, calling him “one of the slimiest and greediest motherf—ers who ever lived in this world.” Sonny Rollins was more sympathetic: “He was…a very sick man who was dying from self-abuse and felt guilty about the example he had set for others.” But no one, not even Rollins, pretended that his plight was anyone’s fault but his own.

Crouch describes Parker as “a melancholy and suspicious man…the saxophone was all he really had: it provided him with the one constantly honest relationship in his life.” In addition, he seems to have felt that he had reached a creative dead end, telling the avant-garde jazz pianist Lennie Tristano in 1949 that “he had said as much as he could in this particular idiom [bebop]….He was tired of playing the same ideas.” In addition to jazz, Parker was familiar with and interested in modern classical music, in particular the works of Bartók, Hindemith, and Stravinsky, and it was his dream to write jazz compositions that built on their innovations. But he lacked the musical training to do anything but play small-group bebop and found himself increasingly frustrated by its inescapable limitations.

He was also frustrated by the fact that his music was respected but not popular. By 1949 black listeners were abandoning jazz in droves, preferring the blunter, more accessible sounds of rhythm-and-blues performers like Louis Jordan. Parker responded by recording string-accompanied versions of romantic ballads such as “Just Friends.” But these sides, though they sold reasonably well, failed to establish him as anything other than what he was, a serious artist whose music was too complex to please the average pop-music fan.

Whatever the ultimate reason—or reasons—Parker’s personality disintegrated toward the end of his life. Not only did he attempt suicide in 1954, but he believed that regardless of whether he succeeded, his imminent demise was inescapable. When he visited Chicago shortly before his death, he refused to put on an overcoat to ward off the chill. “I don’t want to see another winter—pneumonia’s next for me,” he told a friend. And so it was.

By then, the once radical music that Parker and Gillespie were playing in the mid-40s was well on the way to being absorbed into the mainstream of jazz. At the same time, though, the overall audience for jazz continued to shrink, especially as R&B gave way to rock-and-roll and jazz came to be seen as a form of high art suitable for only the cognoscenti.

Within the smaller world of jazz, Parker’s stature was unquestioned, and still is. Indeed, he has come to be seen as more significant than Gillespie, who survived him by nearly four decades. To be sure, Gillespie lived long enough to attain the status of an elder musical statesman. But while he continued to make worthy music to the end of his life, the trumpeter never again reached the heights of creativity to which he had aspired in his youth. By dying young, Parker was spared that fate. His recordings remain in print and continue to be taught and discussed.

But Parker’s music is not popular now, any more than it was in his lifetime. This stands to reason, since unlike such earlier jazzmen as Louis Armstrong, who saw themselves as entertainers first and foremost, he seems never to have sought mass popularity. In any case, his music was far too intense for that. Max Harrison, one of his most perceptive critics, has suggested that “his improvisations can be unnerving in their nakedness of expression. Deep in his temperament ran a vein of rage.” For all the beauty and joy that can also be heard in his playing, his interior turmoil is never far from the surface of his solos, and its presence is too disquieting to make for casual listening.

Perhaps he knew it. In 1949 Parker predicted: “In 50 or 75 years, the contributions of present-day jazz will be taken as seriously as classical music. You wait and see.” It is not hard to hear in that statement an echo of Gustav Mahler’s oft quoted assurance that “my time will come.” And like Mahler, another emotionally troubled musical modernist whose work was so unsettlingly personal as to antagonize his contemporaries, Charlie Parker was right. Popular he is not, and never will be—but no one now doubts his greatness.


1 The best short discussion of Parker’s musical style can be found in Brian Priestley’s Chasin’ the Bird: The Life and Legacy of Charlie Parker (2005).

2 This performance was recorded and has been reissued on Confirmation: The Best of the Verve Years (Polygram, two CDs), which also contains the version of “Funky Blues” discussed below. The best single-disc Parker anthology is Ken Burns Jazz Collection: Charlie Parker (Polygram), which contains all of the other recordings mentioned in this essay.

About the Author

Terry Teachout, Commentary’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, is the author of Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, out next month from Gotham Books. He worked as a jazz bassist in Kansas City from 1977 to 1983.

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