Looking for the Pretty Notes

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There appears to be no limit to our interest in the private lives of unhappy artists. As I write, a compelling best seller details the swift rise and interminable disintegration of Truman Capote, and a cockeyed one makes more of Picasso’s misogyny than of his painting; two new books chronicle the sour, sad life of Dorothy Parker; and in another, friends and enemies bicker over every one of Ernest Hemingway’s battle scars.

Although our interest in drunks and neurotics and egomaniacs like these was at least initially piqued by their work, biographers customarily slight their art in the interest of their eccentricities. Complacent envy helps fuel our fascination with artistic gossip; just think, we smile as we turn the page, how much better we would have done if we’d been given such gifts. So does the secret hope that in the course of reading about the supremely talented we will somehow discover the trick that separates them from us.

There is no trick, of course—genius defies analysis and is nontransferable—and the danger is that in such books the art gets lost among the aberrations that lesser talents like to imitate.

The alto saxophone player Charlie Parker, for example, is still remembered as much for his gargantuan appetites and the relentless pace with which he wrecked himself as for having forever altered American music, influencing every performer who came after him, no matter what instrument he or she played. It was once fashionable to blame all of Parker’s troubles on racial prejudice and the indifference he met from a public made uneasy by innovation. But that is too simple. As the jazz critic and historian Gary Giddins points out, “Racist and philistine societies are alike; every artist is unique,” and it is Giddins’s special achievement that the reader finishes his elegant biographical essay Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (Beech Tree Books, New York) with a fresh appreciation of Parker’s demanding music as well as a greater understanding of the troubled individual who made it.

 

Charles Parker, Jr., was born in 1920 in Kansas City, Kansas, and raised just across the Kaw River in Kansas City, Missouri. His father was a tap dancer turned Pullman chef who drank too much and deserted his wife and son before the boy was eleven. His mother spoiled her only child while demanding much of him.

Abandoned by his father, smothered by his mother, “Charlie was always old,” the first of his wives recalled. As a child he had few friends, kept his own counsel. Then, at thirteen, he found an emotional outlet in music, and his mother bought him his first saxophone. Barely an adolescent, he began to haunt the bars and bordellos that flourished just a few blocks from his home under the benevolent eye of Boss Tom Pendergast, steeping himself in the pulsing, blues-laced Kansas City jazz of which Count Basic became the most celebrated exponent. (It is a nice question whether history will ultimately give more credit to Pendergast for having helped produce Harry Truman or Charlie Parker.) No matter how esoteric and intricate Parker’s playing became, he never lost his link with that joyous music. Jay McShann, the bandleader who gave him his first important job, remembers that Parker always “loved to see people patting their foot, loved to see the people moving.” He got the nickname Bird, short for Yardbird, while still a growing boy in McShann’s band, when he insisted that the car in which he was riding pull over after hitting a stray chicken—a yardbird—so that he could have it fried up by his landlady.

He also married at sixteen and began to drink heavily and to use drugs—marijuana at first, then the Benzedrine inhalers dissolved in cups of black coffee that allowed him to play without sleep, night after night. At seventeen he was permanently hooked on heroin.

At twenty-one he stormed into New York, where his mesmerizing technique, enthusiasm for complex and frantic tempos, fondness for dissonance, and ability to create fresh melodies out of the chord structure of familiar tunes baffled older musicians. But to musicians of his own generation, already experimenting tentatively along the same lines, he seemed something like a prophet, pointing the way the music should go. Soon, one remembered, “There was everybody else and there was Charlie.”

Parker abhorred the word bebop applied by others to what he played. “It’s just music,” he said. “It’s trying to play clean and looking for the pretty notes.” Nothing musical was alien to him. He memorized the work of avantgarde composers, but a friend also remembered leaving him transfixed in a Manhattan snowstorm late one night, unable to tear himself away from the thump and blare of a Salvation Army band.

But when he was not playing, Parker once said, he was “always on a panic.” He borrowed money constantly, left a succession of wives and mistresses, nodded off on the bandstand, quarreled with colleagues, failed to turn up for work, or refused to play, once crying, “They just came out . . . to see the world’s most famous junkie.” He was barred from Birdland, the New York nightclub named in his honor.