Looking for the Pretty Notes


He was never satisfied with his own work and was put off by the mythology that already threatened to engulf him before he was twenty-five. The acolytes who followed him from bandstand to bandstand, lugging wire recorders, which they turned on whenever he stepped forward to solo and clicked off the moment he finished, embarrassed him, and he was apalled by the worshipful musicians who emulated even his addiction in the hope that by sharing his habit, they could somehow share his genius too. He was helpless to stop them, though in his lucid moments he tried. “He kept drugs away from me,” a younger saxophone player remembered, “but after we’d spent a lot of time together, he injected himself in my presence and said, ‘This is something that i have to do. It’s terrible, but I’m stuck with it.’ It was terrifying to watch my hero do that. He made it as revolting as possible, as though it were a lecture on what not to do.”

In California, where he found himself playing in 1946 to audiences still more bewildered by his music than they had first been in New York, Parker’s descent accelerated. He turned up for one recording session without having made his connection, and on “Lover Man,” recorded that day, Giddins writes, an uncharacteristically tremulous Parker played “as though the shore were always one stroke beyond his grasp.” (Although Parker himself said the recording should have been “stomped into the ground,” record producers released it anyway.) That night he twice wandered into the lobby of his hotel naked, then fell asleep while smoking, setting his bed ablaze. He was hospitalized, remained clean for a while, then resumed his steady self-destruction.

By 1950 Parker was being hailed abroad as an important artist but was still largely ignored by the American press in favor of his great collaborator John Birks (“Dizzy”) Gillespie. a born showman as well as a trumpet player of astonishingly inventive virtuosity.

In 1952 the two innovators appeared together on a television variety show called “Stage Entrance.” The kinescope made that evening is all that we have of Parker in action, and the Downbeat awards ceremony that precedes it provides an excruciating example of the kind of condescension often displayed toward jazz even by those who believe themselves its boosters. The critic Leonard Feather delivers a stiff little speech about brotherhood, then hands the host, the Broadway gossip columnist Earl Wilson, wooden plaques to present to Parker and Gillespie. Wilson greets the musicians, offers up the plaques—making fun of Gillespie’s nickname as he does so —and then asks, “You boys have anything to say?”

Parker was appalled by musicians who emulated his addiction in the hope that by sharing his habit they could share his genius too.

For once Gillespie is speechless. Parker, his face without expression, his voice low and icily polite, replies, “They say music speaks louder than words, so we’d rather voice our opinion that way.”

During that voicing—a version of the bop anthem “Hot House”—Parker’s face remains impassive, his fierce eyes and the movement of his big fingers on the keys the only outward signs of the effort required to yield such brilliant, jagged cascades of sound.

When Parker died in New York on March 12, 1955, he was just thirty-four years old. The official cause was pneumonia, but he had simply worn himself out; the coroner estimated his age at between fifty-five and sixty.

When he got the news on a California bandstand, the alto saxophone player Frank Morgan remembers, he announced it to the audience, then took an extra-long break: “We proceeded to celebrate Bird’s death by doing the thing that had killed him . . . [used] some junk. I think it would have been better if we’d realized that ... it was the time to stop.”

You hear [Parker’s music] perhaps unexpectedly,” Giddins writes, “when you walk into a friend’s house, or on the car radio, or worked into a film score, and you are struck by the relentless energy, the uncorrupted humanity of his music. It is never without direction. This most restive, capricious of men is unequivocal in his art.”

It is Parker’s unequivocal art, not his equivocal life, that finally matters, and as if to ensure that we keep that fact in mind, Giddins has produced along with his book a videocassette adaptation of it (Sony Video Software), filled with interviews and the still astonishing sound of Parker’s saxophone. This is the first of what will be a series of similar multimedia packages called “Masters of American Music.” The next is to be devoted to Louis Armstrong, the only other instrumentalist to have altered the way all subsequent musicians played, and if it is anywhere near as good as the first one, I can hardly wait to read and see and hear it.