Just about anyone who is a jazz musician is considered a legend. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Benny Goodman, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins—the list seems arbitrary, when really it is exclusive. These gifted, troubled musical artists must have an extra chromosome or be mysteriously attuned to some sort of musical ESP. More than talents in other musical fields, jazz performers live by their music.
For Charles Christopher Parker, Jr., born in Kansas City, Kansas eighty-nine years ago this August 29, his saxophone playing physically embodied such an intellectual idea. His career was brief: eighteen or so years, from the age of sixteen (he began playing at eleven, though neither parent was musical) until his early, ravaged death at thirty-four in 1955.
His Kansas City connection is over-praised by many people—Parker did not wish to be buried here, though he is, at the Lincoln Cemetery on Truman Road, in Kansas City, Missouri—but even if he only did his training here, jamming in all-nighters and trying to fit in with Jay McShann’s Kansas City Orchestra for five years, Kansas City was key. As with so many Midwesterners, from Marlon Brando (born in Omaha) to Walt Disney (also born here), Middle America served Parker as a conduit for the eventual playing out of fantasies (and tragedies) that larger cities have cultivated. Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Toronto: Parker’s itinerant musician’s life took on a life of its own: the past was a shadow he dared not let catch up with him.
Before his crash-and-burn story took its notorious descent into heroin addiction, sadomasochistic drinking, and the madman antics that both burnished his legend among other musicians and music listeners and banished him from numerous gigs given his wild unpredictability, Parker’s time here represented something special even if he did not recognize it at the time or acknowledge it later. Growing up in this restless city of the Twenties and Thirties (his parents moved across the state line when he was a child and his father left the family around the time Parker began to learn the alto sax: coincidence or something more?), in an era of musical improvisation, excitement and danger, Parker’s life was shaped by the musical family he found.
Biographies report that he was a lazy student (and eventual dropout from Lincoln High), yet an exceptional learner on the saxophone. In Carl Woideck’s “Charlie Parker: His Music and Life,” he is quoted as remembering “I put quite a bit of study into the horn, that’s true. In fact, the neighbors threatened to ask my mother to move once, you know.” His long hours of practice paid off; while he was a troubled and troublesome kid, bumming money from friends and (in Jay McShann’s firsthand account) “very aggressive and wise,” his musical talent was evident to the professional musicians who crowded the downtown hotspots like the High Hat and the Reno Club. Kansas City back then was a laboratory for various styles: Count Basie’s smooth ensemble beat, Bennie Moten’s boogie-woogie piano-playing, and Lester Young’s thrilling, wailing sax. Local histories emphasize the complete freedom of Depression era Kansas City; with Pendergast’s party machine running seven days a week, bars and clubs were wide awake to whatever came their way, musically and culturally (for example, marijuana was legal until 1937). For the virtuoso Parker it meant getting high on one drug or another—at least, the saxophone was a worthy addiction.
In Kansas City, Parker fell in love twice: first with music and then with a fellow high school student (who would become the first of his four wives), Rebecca Ruffin. Well, it was love thrice over, if one counts his drug addiction, which began when he was fifteen. How much it affected him is one of the many myths and unanswered questions that continue to mark him. Hard drugs were becoming big business internationally in Charlie Parker’s adolescence. The infamous gangster Arnold Rothstein (Fitzgerald fictionalized him as Meyer Wolfsheim in “The Great Gatsby”) was one of many to export narcotics to St. Louis, New York, and Kansas City. The heroin cut through him like a lightning bolt. It gathered the strength he needed to practice hour after hour and stay up late at nightclubs; but it also kept him at war with himself—he must have gone to as many pawnshops to hock his saxophone for drug money as he did nightclubs to play. Possibly, those early years were in his mind when he turned away from Kansas City at the end of his life.
Certain creative artists make their art look easy. Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Noël Coward, all toss off their gifts. Their artistry comes in the illusion of ease; art, after all, is deception. Duke Ellington at his grandest transforms jazz harmonies into classical complexity without mussing his tuxedo. Parker’s transformational bebop style—like Glenn Gould’s classical-pianist reveries—is entirely personal. He never makes it easy on the audience or on his peers. Gould’s eccentric manner at the piano rocking back and forth and humming loudly while playing Bach was prefigured by Parker’s furious, swaying style (Louis Armstrong referred to Parker and Gillespie’s bebop as “jujitsu music”). Onstage, in tight-knit groups, Parker apparently fell under the sway of the music (and whatever else). He showed great concentration when his nightly addiction did not cause him to zone out or fall asleep standing up at the bandstand. The songs “KoKo” and “Salt Peanuts” and “Cherokee” move like a car going from zero to sixty in twenty seconds. It was unheard of at the time when jazz had its standard swing tempo, as controversial as the youthful Bob Dylan’s zigzag brand of songwriting when straight folk music was in ascendance.
From such humble beginnings on Olive Street Charlie Parker achieved worldwide success as far off as Scandinavia. That his greatest musical successes came at the expense of his greatest personal failures reads like the American artist’s M.O. We see it today with—well, fill in the blank. The anecdotes, of being fired from Birdland, the New York club started in ’34 in his honor; or of his upsetting Bud Powell at Birdland so that the pianist walked out as Parker called his name repeatedly until the place emptied out (Parker died weeks later), recall other nervy artists such as Lenny Bruce, unmanned by their own brilliance.
Yet if Parker’s self-destructive life recalls anyone’s it is the nineteenth-century French poet Rimbaud, whose particulars are different but similar enough: Rimbaud wrote his legendary verse in a few years as a teen, ceasing at twenty-one, and after making a name for himself like the first rock star he left Europe completely for Abyssinia to ply his hand in the slave trade; he too died early, at thirty-seven, of complications of an abused life. Like comets centuries apart, Rimbaud and Parker swept through their respective galaxies; perhaps it was too much to expect them to return home. Comets often break up quickly, but they put on a spectacular show.