Charlie "Yardbird" Parker enjoys a mixed regard, as much for his drug problems as his revolutionary music, but one thing this documentary makes clear is that, come Hell of high water, he was dedicated to music and his horn, nothing else came even close. The drugs, the eternal indebtedness, the wandering life, all went to ensure that he could make music first, everything else second. Consider this: one of Parker's burning passions was to study under Edgar Varese.
Bird now dwells securely in the museum of the finest players, along with Miles, Louis Armstrong, Monk, Duke Ellington, Coltrane, and Holiday, but his prowess was just as much worshipped by the few, especially by fellow players, in his own day. Always ahead of the curve, artists knew what he was doing was extraordinary, and the saxophonist quickly became the most studied musician of the time...though the American public at large paid scant attention overall. That didn't much change even upon the advent of a couple of European tours, where Parker was hailed as a living treasure by vastly more sophisticated audiences. Not so here: save for Leonard Feather and a small devoted cult, he was pretty much ignored.
Being black, a creative, sensitive, and gifted in a white society well known for its cruelties to those not favored by bleached skin took its toll, and, when Charlie discovered heroin following a car accident that left him with cracked ribs and a broken spine, a form of heaven come to Earth and began its well-known "magic", a sorcery that would spell his doom, even to the point of being barred from the NY club named for him, Birdland.
The story of Charlie Parker is one of the most tragic in American arts, but the man could, even in the throes of dependency, anger, and exasperation, play like both demon and angel. The survey here shows both sides, well remembered by past confreres and admirers as well as his two wives. As with the rest of the DVDs in this reissue series, the viewer is treated to snippets of songs, performances, and a wealth of photographs and such, gaining the resonating air of the time.
Bird's fall from whatever grace he was to enjoy in his day was fairly rapid, and he ended up playing tiny dives, passing away at the tender age of 34 in the apartment living room of a genuine European patroness of jazz. Even in death, he was tormented, his dead body was removed from a "proper" white funeral home, carted off to Kansas city, put in a cheap coffin with a cross (Bird was irreligious), and subjected to what Chan, his second wife, aptly called a travesty. Of the four reissue DVDs presented in this series, his is by far the saddest.
For the rest of the series, see the reviews for Billy Holiday (here), Thelonius Monk (here), and the overview The Story of Jazz (here). More are on the way next year: Coltrane, Basie, Armstrong, and Sarah Vaughn.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2009, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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